It’s not about the technology

There is a well-meaning saying being uttered in meeting rooms and conference calls throughout the world. But it is misguided. This is a post about why the idea of “It’s not about the technology,” is a dangerous one. For the sake of my fingers we can call it INATT.

It is usually muttered in large groups when considering the implementation or the implications of technology and there usually follows a ripple of appreciative agreement. Sage wisdom has been imparted.

Technology and culture are one

But in reality, it really is about the technology, and how we consider technology as separate from us, so INATT is a symptom about how we think about world and our place in it as we pass through time. Technology is seen as an alien independent factor of change, like the weather or the tides. We feel powerless as it washes over us. It is not. It is the creation of humankind, moreover the creation of one part of humanity being thrust over the rest. It is, in other words, political.

The reason that we need to break away from INATT, particularly within organisations, is the underlying idea that we just need to organise our thoughts on what we really want or need and that the technology choice will be made any easier.  Quasi-religious incantations follow INATT, after it has set the overall mood of wisdom. Closely related is the sentiment that “We just need to work out what we want to achieve.” or perhaps, “Let’s focus on the business outcome”

These are fine questions, but why must there be a wall between the objective and the method? Now I’m going to ask you to concentrate for this bit: Technology is a branch of politics and culture, and like those things it affects what it means to be human which in turn affects society. Human values are created by technology, because it forces us to create values. What was not considered important before is made important. So we debate it.

Forks and IVF

Before forks we ate with a knife and our hands. The existence of forks prompted, one assumes, a degree of debate about whether hands was polite or not [I checked in Wikipedia, yes it did and forks were seen as ungodly!]. We now do not regard forks as technology, it has passed over into the invisible. Before the advent of IVF and the freezing of human eggs, there was little debate: you could have children or not. We are still grappling with the impact of these technologies. In what circumstances is it not OK to proceed to pregnancy against the will of the other party, or if one of the parents has subsequently died. We didn’t have the values to deal with these sorts of quandaries before, and now the ethics committee, politicians and the popular press are working its way through it with our mewlings as civilisation’s focus group. Ancient philosophy didn’t have to grapple with human nature when it was this complex.

Blackberries and dads that aren’t really there

Before the advent of Blackberries we didn’t worry maybe so much about work life balance. You were working at the office or not with all of the familial fall out that would ensue if you were “working late” or “too hard”. When Blackberries and other forms of easily accessible email arrived, company by company, there arose a crisis of human values amongst the participants about availability and presence in a mindful sense. Dad is in the room, but is Dad in the Dad, no he is in next week’s sales figures.

The smartphone continues to confound our values. A new crisis occurs and is debated seemingly weekly. It has yet to pass into the invisible. AirBnB, Uber, Tinder, Snapchat, Revenge porn, Google, Facebook and the NSA. These are all value crises we are working through at this very minute. What is fun? What is love? What is privacy? Do we want to maintain our disrupted industries? Is it better to suck value out and hope for the best and be thankful? How does one conduct oneself without becoming a victim or a douche?

These crises of values arrive in the wake of the technology. They are in the main perceived as the wash of change. It makes some technology uncomfortable and newsworthy, in a way that other technology is not.

Technology is the driver and the solution

So we are in the workshop. The attendees and the consultants are dressed in their ceremonial robes and the incantation of INATT begins. At that moment, all thinking about that value-crisis stops, because the group can now only think about what will happen in the future in terms of the values of today. All nuance is lost, that they are building the future will tools that could be BOTH technological and cultural. The only reason that they are sitting there is because of the technology. It is the driver and the solution. It has constructed every modern business phenomenon in recent memory.

And of course “it” doesn’t exist: there is no “technology”. There are a series of different technologies. Some become invisible and are disregarded because they are humdrum. Then there are the variety of tools which are in various states of landing, and individually creating values-crises. Even more than this, the efficacy of a new technology is defined by the size of the value-crisis it creates. Is it disruptive? Is it going to change fundamentally how you are going to work? If not, why bother? In fact we need to perhaps face the fact, particularly in the deployment of some tools such as Enterprise Social Networks that the reason that adoption (whatever that means) is struggling is that they have not created a value crisis at all. The difference between no email and email was huge. The difference between the desk phone and the mobile phone was huge. The difference between using a computer to communicate with a group of people in two slightly different ways? Potentially compared to the previous examples it is not big enough to cause the bloody cultural revolution some seek.

Using value-crises for fun and profit

But by ignoring the value-crisis that we are attempting to create or mitigate or putting down to an unintended consequence or by-product is, on reflection, insane. Let’s consider an alternative world where our role is see technology as intimately bound to us as time and culture. New technology will be coming down the pipe. Imagine the hype cycle graph with technologies tumbling down it like rocks towards you. You need to choose the ones to ignore and choose the ones to engage with. For each technology there will be an advantage to someone, that is after all what it is for. But of course all your competitors have access to this as well, so time is short. It is our role to see which technologies are inevitable and will need perhaps to mitigate the coming value-crisis. Others we will see and we will intend to create a value crisis, and use it to change the organisation for the better.

Gamify yourself

Tl;dr: As an industry we have got gamification wrong. We need to allow people to set and monitor their own targets as part of their normal jobs. On the way we will cover my personal weaknesses, Transactional Analysis, Theory X and Y, Gamification, Duolingo, Beeminder, Akrasia, Weight Loss, Organisational Metaphor and Plato’s Cave. Hang in there.

No one has ever told me what to do.

I have always waited for the sensei to arrive in a karate kid fashion. Someone who recognises my potential but kicks my arse to make it happen. Some have come close. My biology teacher at school (but not my chemistry teacher). My first editor when I was a technical author, daubing my passive prose, still warm from university, with red pen until it dripped. The occasional boss. Most successfully, of course, my wife. There was no one to guide me at university except me, leaving a degree squandered (but probably for the best). But usually I am left to drift, protected by a bristling aura of aggro that I am not aware of most of the time. A force-field of me. Sometimes it flicks back at me and I am suddenly aware of feeling defensive or self-piteous.

Usually however I am left to make my own bed, to make it well, or in moments of downward, soil it with my abject laziness. Stephen Pressfield (of the War of Art) calls it “The Resistance”. Resistance wants to break you and leave you mediocre. I have tried it all. I am now forty and overweight. I like to think big thoughts and I wring my hands at all of the thoughts unwritten. I don’t want you, dear reader, to think I consider myself a failure. I am good at what I do, a good husband, father and son. When I need to ship, I ship. When something is a passion, I am consumed. If it is a duty, I am there, present and correct.

But when it is learning a language, getting my thoughts out through my fingers, or hitting the sodding treadmill? I fold.

Extrinsic forces for personal change (known as nagging) result in a change in relationship between the nagger and naggee. In transactional analysis terms it can force people from Adult to Adult, to Adult to Child. Depending on your inner Child this can result in different responses. My inner Child is a knocky 14 old with enough bluster and misguided argumentative reasoning to make-it-your-fault. Other inner Children may sink back into the comforting blanket of early childhood. Mummy and Daddy will tell me what to do. I can carry on playing. Passivity is an unattractive trait for modern business.


I have always then looked at the Enterprise Gamification movement with derision. The thought that you could take adults and give them badges or what-not and they would start dancing around like twats at a school disco seemed a really-bad-idea. The main reason being that it is an industrial strength way to fuck with people’s incentives. Taking an activity that someone is supposed to do out of duty (such as asking my 6 year old boy to pick up the lego that he has played with) and then laying systems of gaming around it messes with the incentive. “Rufus I’ll give you a pound if you pick up your Lego,” will almost certainly result in a clear rug. It however raises the stakes about why the poor boy would ever now do for free for what he used to do out of duty.

The Seinfeld trick

I have however just taken a swift spiritual and conceptual kick to the head with the advent of some tools that are getting it right. The first is Duolingo, a language learning application on which I am scraping together some competency in Italian. It has the usual gamification bells and whistles – everything is a quiz, you need to pass the quiz to get points. The lessons are arranged in levels, you  wish to progress through the levels. You are asked to choose a target number of points to do every day — in my case 50 points. There is game currency called Lingots that are earned and can be spend. But the main driver, for me anyway, is that of “the day streak”. It tells you how many days you have hit your targets for. This is a simple application of the productivity hack known as the Seinfeld trick – attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld who writes a red cross on a wall planner every day that he writes. The red crosses join up into a chain and he tries to keep the chains as long as possible – don’t break the chain.


The second mind blowing change has been my adoption of a tool that I have been aware of for a while but hadn’t tried. It is called Beeminder and it will change you. Beeminder takes the Sienfeld trick and extends it in delightful ways. The interface, based on a graph, is unabashedly geek chic, but the idea is pure genus. The basic idea is that of “Akrasia” — a concept first postulated ancient Greece. If we know in our conscious mind why a course of action is a good one, why do we act against our own best interest. If one was to make a plan to run three times per week for the outcome to become fitter and healthier, why wouldn’t you? Well, you are tired, it is raining and dark. Maybe not tonight. Therefore short terms interests trump long term goals. Beeminder takes the concept of Akrasia and tracks the goal against a graph – it makes the small goal (running tonight) part of the bigger goal (running, say 500 miles by the end of the year.) Just a graph yeah. Well no. For the full Beeminder effect, you effectively bet with your own money (with your well intentioned reflective self does) that you won’t quit (with your fallible slob of a visceral self). If you “derail”, Beeminder keeps your money. I am currently tracking eight goals with a $5 punt on my weight loss. For me the five bucks is remarkably unimportant compared to keeping each of those eight plates spinning, because… well just because. I have successfully told myself what to do.

The wifi scale

Which brings us to number three:

The third is really set of tools. I bought a wifi connected scale from Withings. It squeals to the Internet when you stand on it, and through the miracle of OAuth can let other services know. One is Beeminder, the other is the rather abysmally named MyFitnessPal. Withings also acts as an ersatz step counter in your pocket so can let MyFitnessPal know if I have an active or lazy day. Into MFP goes the estimated list of what I have shoved in my gob, and together with the likely extra energy expenditure it works out when I should stop eating.

This all works. It works very well indeed.

Theory X and Theory Y

These tools have entirely changed my thoughts about gamification. [I prefer the term persuasive technology, a term coined by BJ Fogg from Stanford] But for the enterprise believe virtually everyone is getting it profoundly and wonderfully wrong. Theory X and theory Y were theories of personal motivation defined by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. In theory X employees were work shy and lazy and it was management’s role to whip them into shape. In theory Y we assume that employees are quite capable and keen to get on an do good things and management are there to help.

Gamification in the enterprise is all far too Theory X for my liking. It is an attempt at manipulating others for the ends of the management. Within enterprises gamification techniques risk forcing employers and employees into an Adult-Child relationship. But:

In the enterprise we need to deploy tools that allow employees to define, surface and monitor their own intrinsic goals.

Let’s consider Theory Y. People want to get on, they want to work, they want to do the right thing and at any given reflective moment they would tell you about how they want to do better work. In the moment and the hurly-burly of the day things get pushed out of the way and excuses proliferate.

This is the same as jogging, getting to the gym, learning a language and losing a bit of weight: Akrasia.

Imagine a Beeminder service for the enterprise. For now, let’s ignore the monetary aspect and let’s just play for fun and for honour. It is theirs to use, and can indeed even be entirely private. It is recommended that employees consider their own goals, and consider ways that those goals can be measured. Systems and services have APIs that allow data to be logged that represents their goals. Tickets Completed, Pages Tagged, Check-ins completed, Bugs squashed, Clients helped, Sales made. These streams of data are people’s personal KPIs and they can be shared with their managers at review time, but maybe not.

Throw the money thing back in and you are maybe messing up the incentives again and people would feel it is a big old losing machine. Do you want to go on the losing machine? No thanks mate. Make it a winning machine then? Bet some of your salary that you can hit the target? Well, you’ll cheat won’t you. No, I think this needs to be you versus the mountain. The game is doing what you are paid to, but in a better and more rewarding way by revealing all this feedback to the reflective mind. This is commitment processing software.

Organisation as machine and the temptations of Theory X

The temptation is there, and you are thinking it. You’re thinking that the organisation is like a big machine, and this is lovely data that you can used push people with and make them more efficient. The stick, the carrot and the bastard boss. I can squeeze more out of you. I can use this to put pressure on you.

No. Stop. Draw back. There is more of one way of conceptualising an organisation and the machine is tired, turgid, entirely fictional and holding us back in the last century. There are eight metaphors for the organisation. Yes eight (as defined in Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization but very well explained by Venkat Rao):

  • Organisation as machine
  • Organisation as organism
  • Organisation as brain
  • Organisation as culture
  • Organisation as political system
  • Organisation as psychic prison
  • Organisation as system of change and flux
  • Organisation as instrument of domination

Morgan talks about what makes metaphors so important – they maximise the image in our minds about what is common and make the characteristics that are not shared disappear. “That man is a lion” is a metaphor that brings us imagery of heroism, strength and bravery, we don’t think of the whiskers, the fur and the cute ears. A mechanistic view of organisations seemingly proposed by most adherents of gamification, ignores all the aspects of organisations and people that are NOT machine like. Akrasia, is exactly one of these non-machine characteristics. We are not agents with fixed parameters with programming. Rather we have different whims and fickle desires depending on the time of day and the stress we are under. We are a both little bit X and a little bit Y.

Think about the organisation in terms of organism, brain, culture and, most interestingly in terms of change and flux. Imagine allowing individuals to create and pull their own games from what they are supposed to be doing for a job. Back to the idea of Transactional Analysis, Morgan even talks about patriarchal systems in “Organisation as psychic prison” (the prison being equated to Plato’s cave, with the prisoners mistaking the shadows of the outside world for reality itself):

“Critics of patriarchy suggest that in contrast with matriarchal values which emphasise unconditional love, optimism, trust, compassion, and a capacity for intuition, creativity and happiness, the psychic structure of the male-dominated family tends to create a feeling of impotence accompanied by a fear of, and dependence on, authority.”

But, if we regard gamification as a tool of an Adult to foster his or her own self, fully aware that our wills are both strong and weak in different moments? Well, imagine the possibilities! They come to work. You chose them to work here. They are normal healthy people. They are already playing the game of life, don’t fling badges and levels at them in lieu of meaning and purpose, because they AREN’T behaving like machines enough.

This is a world of discretionary effort where people are self motivated and upon succeeding, level themselves up. If you treat people as children, there they remain – it is comforting for many to wait with beak open for mummy to return to the nest to stuff our gobs full of worms. Treat them as adults, even if that takes games then they can step into the light of self actualisation. Finally a grown-up, but never a machine.

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.

Flexible workers are all sofa-sitting, brat-minding slackers, apparently. PICTURES

So there was a discussion on DWG’s internal Yammer board about the rise of flexible working on the Guardian: Banks and financial firms dominate list of most flexible employers. This was all good news inside DWG/IBF as a) many of the companies listed were members or former members, b) We love flexible working and the digital workplace and c) Many of us have chosen the freelancing lifestyle so that we can work flexibly to ease the care of our families. Others of course just do it for the money, the chicks or to be able to live in remote areas.

Front and centre of the Guardian article was a stock photo that is becoming a sort of race memory. I have seen its type many times before:

Between lazy journalism, incredibly lazy photo-editing and hackneyed stock photography, we have the narrative told again. Whatever the realities of flexible working, the photo always attempts to mash children, parenthood and work into a single image. Above we have a toddler playing with a desk phone while we assume Dad is in the background wearing a tie. If he’s working from home, why the hell is he in a tie. If he’s got work to-do after hours why isn’t he getting it done quickly and effectively upstairs in the study in an ergonomically approved chair so he can then be truly present for his family. If both Mum and Dad are working from home why the hell isn’t the child in child-care.
Of course we know that having a kid around the shop when you are trying to work is pretty much a non-starter. My wife who shares our home-office 1.5 days per week was even asked explicitly by her employer what our childcare arrangements would be. This is the reality of doing this well. We know that, the Guardian journo know that too. But the picture plays on some weird ghost of a thought.

Let’s review the evidence and look at some other examples.

Here we are again, with twins this time. A sippy-cup is in the foreground. I’ve tried having our kids on my knee at the computer. Guess what? They try and bash the keyboard and are generally irritating and kill productivity and professionalism. They kill it dead:

But don’t they grow fast? Here’s another example from the Graun and the cutie-pie is now talking back. This wouldn’t work in our house because number one son would be issuing a lecture on the relative merits of Star Wars characters in Lego form. Incessantly. For hours. When I work around and abouts the place in noisy locations I usually wear headphones, but I think he would take umbrage if I tried it at home. Remember this article is about benefits packages, not how to avoid discussions about Star Wars Lego:

It’s not just the mums of course, let’s hear it for the dads. This article is about employers being reluctant to offer working from home. Well so would I if I thought you had a three month old either asleep or puking on your shoulder:

Another one with the baby present, but this time Dad’s got it covered. He clearly got in early with the Medised. The Telegraph gets in on the act:

Is teleworking driving us crazy? Well you shouldn’t be allowed a laptop computer if you put it, yourself in a suit, a baby and a bowl of cereal together. The BBC fares a little better in general but their Thinkstock licence is used to egregious effect here:

Again I wonder why employers worry about ergonomics and employees working in inappropriate situations when they allow working from home:

OK, finally no children present, but there are toys in the background, we are suddenly in the garden and posture is shot to shit again:

The photographer here wasn’t able procure a child model for the shoot so picked up some toys at the pound shop. This is more realistic, but if my life is anything to go by, the background would be far more untidy than this (and about 35% Lego):

Let’s get out of the domestic environment entirely, and lets go to the beach. No, actually lets talk about the legal right to have access to flexible working. But here’s a picture of mum and toddler at the beach. SLACKERS!

Finally in the parenthood section featuring a Motorola brick from 1995, we see Mum has in fact taken the kids and the laptop to the beach. Hang on, those kids are probably in the workforce now.

So if you have got this far, and you are not yet a parent let’s look at some stock that has been used when just talking about working from home, because you know maybe, it isn’t just a practice used to ease parenthood. Here’s a Guardian Olympic story. I could hold this pose and smile for about 58 seconds before the bad-back/ hot knee/ rictus grin combo became fatal:

And if you have decided that children are not for you and pets will satisfy that need for companionship and love, without the need for childcare, or university fees, here’s an example for the dog lovers. Note that she’s in the KITCHEN in a rubbish chair, surrounded by dishcloths. Presumably she won’t be able to start the day until 9:15 because of a heavy washing-up workload and she’ll need to walk the dog three times:

So what have we learned about flexible working and journalism. These are the visions of people who don’t share the actual lifestyle that flexible working is trying to maintain. The photographers are trying to earn a crust and they can earn it by slamming a few concepts together with some strobes and a wide-angle lens. They get used by lazy picture editors who are trying to make stories more engaging.

These fictions get me riled because they play on the childish fears of managers and co-workers who believe that flexible working and working from home are somehow threatening. In general what is going on in these pictures is the opposite of what the articles were about – the media appears to be broadly behind flexible working and the digital workplace. In reality working with a baby on one’s knee just doesn’t happen to any degree that I’m aware of. Children are at school, nursery or with a child-minder. We have the opportunity to radically change our relationship with work using technology and dramatically improve our quality of life by reducing commuting time. That is the time that goes to our children (or dogs) instead. Not every article I came across in 30 minutes looking followed this pictorial formula, but none had a picture of a rubbish meeting, or a bored commuter.

That though is only the first step towards organisations not really needing to give a fig about where we are, and leaving the choice to us: because we are adults, and adults that they trust to run and maintain their businesses. It is so easy for large corporates to fence in flexible working as just-a-parent thing, and these pictures subtly and implicitly perpetuate this tired narrative.