Archive for the ‘Systems thinking’ category

Opportunity Overload

August 26, 2008

Information overload has been with us since the dawn of electronic media. According to McLuhan’s theories (and Robert Logan’s recent enhancements to media theory), when we humans overextend a communications channel, we create a new one.  We create one commensurate with the increased volume and complexity of content that our culture generates. When we overwhelmed the capacity of radio and television (and print), the Internet emerged to expand our ability to communicate, globally.

So each new media “channel” expands our scope and matches the developing complexity of communication. As we adapt and learn the new media channel, our cognitive capacity – trained as it was from prior media eras – experience cognitive infoload.

As the online experience consumes more of our attention and with it our time, all of us notice the acceleration of overload. And with very little guidance from research, we are left with a range of practical time-management options from the Pickle Jar to scheduling your email. But none of these address the fact of information overload, which threatens to significantly diminish the value of the web and email. As demonstrated by the situation of too many choices.

Jared Spool once posted (and podcasted) an interview with Barry Schwartz where they discuss his book and the line of research into “choice overload,” which starts off with the Iyengar and Leeper Jam Study:

“… that showed when you present 30 flavors of jam at a gourmet food store, you get more interest but less purchasing than when you only show six flavors of jam. All of a sudden, it became an issue, or at least a possibility, that adding options could actually decrease the likelihood that people would actually choose any of them. More and more, because of that study, people have actually tried to study it in the wild, in the field, by getting companies to vary the variety that they offer and tracking both purchasing and also satisfaction. So that’s starting to happen, but there are not very many papers that are actually published on that. This whole line of work is only about five years old.”

There may be a common phenomenon underlying choice and information overload. Neither of these surfeits of stuff are problematic unless we’re interested, unless there’s an opportunity. Since information is neutral until deemed interesting, information overload is not problematic until we admit ever-larger boundaries of interest and attention. When we overwhelm short term memory and task attention, we’re forced to stop and change the focus of attention. The same with choice – I don’t care whether there are 5 jams or 30 unless I really want jam. Otherwise, like the overload of celebrity stories in the public media, the overload is easy to ignore.

Once we evaluate email and user experience with the concept of opportunity overload, the angle of insight shifts from technology itself to the idea of value. While 90% or more of all my email I could ignore, I also have extraordinary opportunities presented by way of this communication channel. Not only most of my consulting projects, but collaborations, new tools, great ideas to work with, answers to questions I did not think to pose. Its opportunity “push,” with the Web as opportunity “pull,” a nightmare of opportunity overwhelm if you let it.

As a research issue this interests me as it entails hermeneutics (individually and not externally interpreted) and economics (as in the cost/value of opportunity). We attend to the extent we are emotionally engaged with the perceived value of the opportunity represented by a choice (a product or a message in an email). But attention is only the intial draw. There are significant cognitive requirements demanded in processing the value (what is this worth to me? How cool is that?) and choice (Which one do I want, or is it worth my time to evaluate further?).

To finally make a decision may require additional learning (which one really is better? do I know enough to choose this opportunity? What are the costs in time and lost business/opportunity?). It may require communication (who should I ask about this? Wouldn’t Nick want to know about this?) Next thing we know, the day is gone!

So nobody except Miles the Marketer seems to be onto opportunity overload. (And Miles means to make you money, and I don’t, so go there if you want marketing opportunities!)

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Valuing tech vs. valuing learning

August 19, 2008

When will the computer finally recede into the ubiquitous background as promised by Don Norman a decade ago? Instead, educational reform is grasping at technology as the innovation, bringing technology front and center, as you have pointed out here. But how do we expect students even younger than yours Sam, such as inner city high school students, to switch to an online pedagogy and self-educate with discipline?

It is the individual that chooses to self-educate – the tech are tools, not the stuff of learning itself. I’m not as sanguine about the role of interactive tech per se in the classroom, even though two heavy hitters in innovation (Clay Christensen) and organizational learning (John Seely Brown, blogged here) have recently weighed in with tech-oriented reform promises.

Christensen says “For virtual learning to have this transformative impact, however, it must be implemented in the correct way. The theory of disruptive innovation shows us a way forward.”

A disruptive innovation transforms an industry not by competing against the existing paradigm and serving existing customers, but by targeting those who have no other option and are not being served — people we call non-consumers.

Little by little, disruptive innovations predictably improve. At some point, they become good enough to handle more complicated problems — and then they take over and supplant the old way of doing things.

The key is that instead of simply cramming computers in the back of classrooms as a tool of instruction as we have done in the past, we need to allow computer-based learning to take root in places where the alternative to computer-based learning is no learning at all. Only then will computer-based learning have a true impact in transforming education.

There are a few problems with Clay’s innovation theory as applied to education. I am a big fan of Innovator’s Dilemma, and have written up RPV as serious business theory in “real” articles, not blogs. But my issue with disruptive innovation in education – is that the problem is NOT with students, or school systems as such. It is socio-economic, cultural, and systemic – a complex system, not a market of users or consumers. Disrutpive innovation owes something to the concept of early adopters predicting the trend. But in education, the early adopters are the self-educators who workaround the system. We can pick up and use anything, but that doesn’t mean other students should use the tech tools I did to self-educate. Example: Long before the Internets, after exhausting the simple lessons in 5th grade, I would ask to leave the class and sit in the hallway and read the Britannicas.

And which students get to fail while the system tries to “go disruptive” and falls even further behind in the tyranny of state school district measures? A couple of years worth of classes before they get it right? Christensen’s innovation theory says large incumbent firms are literally unable to innovate in this way. But has he ever seen charter schools in real “urban” districts? These attempts at innovation lead to outsourcing (like to Sylvan), which does no good, and leaves “no learning behind” for others to bring forward as an innovation.

Take a look at Dayton, Ohio. Patricia started one of the Gates schools (she’s not teaching there or anywhere in a system anymore). The program was primarily problem-based, no issue with that. But self-motivated, self-direct learning kids excel at this already, regardless of technology.  The charter schools in Dayton are (not to put too fine a point on it) total failures. The Gates program? Mixed – the self-motivated always do well, the others make teachers do twice the work they normally do, which is already a lot more than you can imagine.  “It won’t change until society values education” Patricia says “It’s so much government cheese.”

JSB advocates Slow Learning at Strategy 08

August 2, 2008

Not that he calls it that, but I do. Think “Slow Food of Learning.” Here’s the segue. At his recent presentation at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy conference, John Seely Brown frames new ways of envisioning institutional architectures. As a longtime advocate of rethinking the contemporary organization, he asks how we might deploy emerging adaptations of social network technology to fundamentally change how we learn in organizations and educational systems. He’s talking Big Picture redesign of fundamental assumptions and concepts in and of organization and how we learn together.

JSB builds the platform for the network learning model. Social co-construction of knowledge, enabled by social computing, is already changing the infrastructures of organizations. Informal education networks have already been moving toward a new model. About mid-way through his presentation (see video) he advocates moving institutional education toward this model.

One basis for the shift is that traditional institutional warrants of authority are less meaningful in a world where value is being created by people in ad hoc community networks of interest. Both institutional and organizational learning will shift due to these trends. That students will workaround their institutions, find interest groups around their interests, and learn the necessary skills to satisfy the requirements for projects that nurture their projects, their learning needs, and far-reaching dreams.

This could happen. Probably not in America. (Maybe in India?  For a real scare, see the Globe and Mail’s recent article: If the schools don’t cut it, build your own.) “Why not” in America? That’s another cultural story too long to tell here, but it suffices to note that we have nurtured a couple of generations to want what the learning gives you, not the learning itself. People actually want “the degree” as an instrumental (explicit) warrant, purely “in order to.”

Patricia Kambitsch describes a program called Slow Learning, invented about 4 years ago after her experiences with co-creating the Dayton Early College Academy (a Gates Foundation project) in inner-city Dayton. What she realized was that students remain locked into the institutional warrants by mandate, and that after a decade of conventional learning, students can start to play a new game, but they face very real obstacles. Learning-to-learn requires more than new institutional architectures. It requires personal commitment beyond that supportable by culture and neighborhood. It means a (we think) permanent change of consciousness, and cultural support.

We identified a different target audience than students – mid-career adults – who often believe they need to earn another conventional degree when they decide to change career paths. Slow Learning was born from the frustration of watching our highly educated friends chase the “institutional warrant.” Especially for creative careers, when, in mid-career, it doesn’t actually MATTER whether you have a warrant. You just need to be part of the network of practitioners that learning happens in. Your warrant is that you are already known to othe practitioners, which is what you get after the degree anyway. (See some 2007 posts, such as at College is a Great Place to Learn – So What?)

So JSB is describing a theory of institutional workaround and personal learning paths that sounds a lot like community learning models, or even the Union Institute (which requires learning internships in a tutorial framework).  But to cut to the simple, here’s what Kambitsch says:

Is it possible that we could network with experts and practitioners in authentic settings other than school? Unless my goal is to establish a career as a lifelong academic, wouldn’t I be more fully engaged, raising deeper questions, building more authentic relationships with a broader network by learning outside of school? Is it possible that these experts would take me more seriously if I approach them directly as in individual interested in learning rather than hire them indirectly through an institution like school?

Sure, there’s a role for online communities and Internet-accessible courseware. But these are just enablers. Where JSB and we part ways is that community learning is largely situated and place-based. (That’s why there was a Bauhaus and a “Frankfurt School”). You cannot place yourself in a (creative or intellectual) community solely by Facebook networking. I believe real F2F engagement with your mentors is central to social learning.

Organizational learning also requires the commitment of personal presence, I believe. Virtual presence only goes so far. We are still human beings, blessed with a wide range of sensing, thinking, intuitive, and sensemaking systems and organs. Virtual life excludes most of these, thereby excluding the types of learning necessary to shift self-reflection away from the habitus of abstracting (online, reading, and typing).  To create new roles for ourselves, we literally must “act” those roles. That’s where our beginners’s mind unlocks new ways of knowing we would never find by engaging in any types of online learning activity.

Patricia is not a JSB, she mostly publishes memoirs and satire, and convenes participatory arts and writing events. I am the more abstract one in the team, and have a paper at this year’s Participatory Design conference that deepens some of John’s other ideas about socializing organizational learning practices. These ideas are not institutionally warranted, yet. But perhaps, instead, we might co-create a Learning Lab with interested parties who also see this as a possible vision.

Learning – A disruptive innovation of self

June 20, 2008

You’d think we would have learned by now. Over the last 50 years we have seen our best thinkers decry the state of institutional education in the Western world (yes, we usually hear this framed as a US “National” issue, but really, the socially conformist view of education is Western if not global.) There are as many perspectives on the educational-industrial complex as there are commentators. One that comes to mind is George Carlin’s famous and distinctly non-funny observations about “our” educational system (blogged very neatly here at On Education and eLearning.) I respect Carlin’s insights on culture and social issues because comedy is a way of telling truth that cannot be censored, and that people actually get. And since George died just last week, I’d like to honor his contributions to critical thinking – he awakened perhaps millions of people in the disruptive innovation and oral tradition of comedic truth-telling.

Deeply literate (and less popular), critics of our educational systems – who have promoted a better way – include Ivan Illich, Rollo May, Neil Postman, Paolo Freire, William Irwin Thompson, Jean Houston. To some extent the host of 20th century’s greatest thinkers from Einstein to Feynman have weighed in on the sorry state of learning. My wife Patricia and I advocate Slow Learning, informed by these thinkers. Slow Learning encourages individuals to envision their desired future learning destination and then follow a real world learning plan, working with those already in the communities where you hope to later thrive.

We must allow ourselves to understand that we are truly on our own, the system is not there for us. Learning is a choice we must take into our own lives, and sustain it continually. Russ Ackoff says so.

Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg on Change This: “Education should be a lifelong enterprise, a process enhanced by an environment that supports to the greatest extent possible the attempt of people to “find themselves” throughout their lives”For too long, we have educated people for a world that no longer exists, extinguishing their creativity and instilling values antithetical to those of a free, 21st century democracy. The principal objective of education as currently provided is to ensure the maintenance and preservation of the status quo—to produce members of society who will not want to challenge any fundamental aspects of the way things are. Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching, there is an ounce of learning by those who are taught. Being taught is, to a very large extent, boring and much of its content is seen as irrelevant. It is the teacher, not the student, who learns most in a traditional classroom.

Ackoff can be credited for first defining the hierarchy of knowing (1989) in the somewhat Kabbalistic series of: Data – Information – Knowledge – Understanding – Wisdom. His 2008 book Turning Learning Right Side Up asks a series of transforming questions:

Must schools be the way they are? Do classrooms make sense anymore? What should we teach? What should individuals contribute to their own education? What if students did the teaching and teachers did the learning? Is it possible to eliminate old-fashioned distinctions between subjects and between the arts and sciences? What would the ideal lifelong education look like: at the K-12 level, at universities and colleges, in the workplace, and beyond? How do you educate for a world that doesn’t yet exist?

These are powerful questions, indeed. I have oberved the programs of institutional education fall further and further into mediocrity, and see university education driven by economic instrumentalism. The only choice we can make in the here and now, for our own learning paths, is to make our own choices. Educate yourself and your children.

Real innovators fail, more.

April 29, 2008

I follow the Freakonomics blog in the New York Times online – one of the few that i do follow anymore. (Blogs have become so abundant worldwide that any opinion or commentary is cheap and available. In such an infoloaded ecology, only the relevant, compelling, and well-written rise above the noise. Relevancy and context rule.)

So I’m fascinated by the shifting trends in economics leading to ecological thinkers such as Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner opening up the discourse into areas that would be risk the “credibility” of more mainstream economists. Freakonomics recently held a Quorum of several collaborating authors (Ashish Arora, John Seely Brown, Seth Godin, Bill Hildebolt, Daphne Kwon, and Mark Turrell) to dialogue on Measuring Innovation.  Several of these are truly worth the read, but you’ll have to scroll – a lot. Freakonomics does not break out sections into new posts. (An innovation I would propose is arbitrary links you can add to perma-link to a section in a public medium. ) So, go to Kwon and Hildebolt:

While we track traditional industry metrics such as number of reviews, breadth of catalog, and quality of information, we’ve added new metrics that help define the goals of consumer word-of-mouth. Defining these new benchmarks helps us select new risk-taking projects that can speed us along our path to success.

How can our experience measuring innovation in the moment (rather than just looking backwards) be generalized for other entrepreneurs and managers?

We’re going to go on record and say that it is all about looking for and then celebrating the unique “failure metrics” in your business:

They list 3 measures of organizational failure, which correspond to an innovative culture. These are all small-scale failures, not the cover-up, highly-leveraged kind that bring down the product line. Consider:

1) The rate of failure. More small failures are better.

2) Failing along the right path. Embracing failure, however, brings you dangerously close to failure’s more deadly cousin, flailing.

3) The source of failures. Another measure we use to determine if our company is embracing failures is whether new strategic ideas are coming from all levels of the company.

And of course, the comments are always telling, worth a final scroll down for a scan.

We Tried To Warn You

March 23, 2008

In Boxes  and Arrows, March 19

There are many kinds of failure in large, complex organizations – breakdowns occur at every level of interaction, from interpersonal communication to enterprise finance. Some of these failures are everyday and even helpful, allowing us to safely and iteratively learn and improve communications and practices. Other failures – what I call large-scale – result from accumulated bad decisions, organizational defensiveness, and embedded organizational values that prevent people from confronting these issues in real time as they occur.

So while it may be difficult to acknowledge your own personal responsibility for an everyday screw-up, it’s impossible to get in front of the train of massive organizational failure once its gained momentum and the whole company is riding it straight over the cliff. There is no accountability for these types of failures, and usually no learning either. Leaders do not often reveal their “integrity moment” for these breakdowns. Similar failures could happen again to the same firm.

I believe we all have a role to play in detecting, anticipating, and confronting the decisions that lead to breakdowns that threaten the organization’s very existence. In fact, the user experience function works closer to the real world of the customer than any other organizational role. We have a unique responsibility to detect and assess the potential for product and strategic failure. We must try to stop the train, even if we are many steps removed from the larger decision making process at the root of these failures.

Socializing Business Decisions

January 6, 2008

What are the most effective ways to coordinate organizational transformation? Theories and experiences differ widely. Nearly all schools of strategic transformation assume a top-down decisionmaking style that wreaks “transformation” like a plague of new process changes across the organization. When the dust settles, it’s often the case that it was just another re-org, and now the very notion of transformation is relegated to a management fad. You cannot do “transformation” twice in the same organization.

Complexity scientists and strategic thinkers both speak of the  dynamics of emergence in change processes. Emergent strategies are powerful for smaller firms, that can prepare for contingencies with strategic options that can be selected over time. Emergent strategy leverages a bias toward environmental scanning and opportunism in the marketplace. Not bad, but not transformative. In the same way, transformation that’s emergent seems a misnomer, the very notion of transformative change implies bold design.

How else can true organizational transformation occur? How about laterally, through locally designed interventions guided by strategy, and energized by the socialization of agreement?

Socialization is a type of organizational routine applicable to any business practice where there’s a need to develop a model routine or new set of skills before rolling it out enterprise-wide. Rather like a real-world scale simulation of the social interaction, tacit rules, and division of roles for a new knowledge practice, a new process, or even simulating the impact of major decisions such a new product or business strategies. Richard Anderson recently cited U of Toronto’s Dean Roger Martin from Connecting, which led me to a 2005 article I wish I had seen 2 years ago: Why Decisions Need Design (which Dean Martin extended in an IIT interview in 2006, Designing Decisions.) He poses some interesting questions, which may not have been answered anywhere since:

These are all manifestations of badly designed decisions. What’s the root cause? The fundamentally flawed design of the decision factory.

Typical decision design demonstrates few of the features of great design, which starts with deep user understanding. The designer dives well below the surface to fathom exactly how someone will use the artifact to be designed. The designer goes beyond understanding the user’s physical and functional needs to determine the user’s deeper emotional and psychological needs.

Do decisions even have “users” who need to be deeply understood? Indeed they do: Anyone whose subsequent decisions and actions are shaped and constrained by a given decision is a “user.” So if corporation decides that all divisions will cut costs by 10%, or deploy Six Sigma, or adopt a shared-services model for info tech, many divisional managers will be users of these decisions.

Socialization provides a testbed for social prototyping, allowing new routines to be simulated before they become operational. If they succeed in the dynamic prototype of a product team, we can circulate that successful practice laterally to other projects, teams, or cross-functional groups. Its a decentralized way to accomplish the goals of institutionalizing, without the high-profile risks and communication management necessary in the top-down approach.

Socialization provides a way for organizations to adopt and diffuse reliable, resilient capacities for new knowledge-based practices, such as the high-knowledge value skills of User Experience. I thought the familiarity of “socializing,” which the literature references as an HR onboarding process, would inspire its adoption in large product companies, where new management approaches may be perceived as threatening established orders or as fads. Socialization is based on research and practical consulting, and it passed both tests – making it a stronger Some of these ideas were published in a recent business research volume (Jones, 2007, Socializing a Knowledge Strategy), and an upcoming Boxes and Arrows article, We Tried to Warn You, based on last year’s IA Summit panel on Learning from Failure.

From Socializing a Knowledge Strategy, just published in Abou Zeid: Knowledge Management and Business Strategies: Theoretical Frameworks and Empirical Research:

Socialization presents a meaningful alternative to formal management and institutionalization of user experience and IA practices, to either establish or improve a core competency. Socialization developed from two different directions and drivers, and its satisfaction of both shows its reliability. One driver was for organizations to rapidly create a new business function or process requiring unique, often rare knowledge-based skills that require significant development time and investment. Socialization allows organizations to leverage their current capacities by supporting a bottom-up formation of skills and practices optimally suited for the organizational setting. We have found that when externally developed processes are “imported” into established organizations, they are often likely to fail. However, functionally similar practices can be organically co-designed and accelerated within the course of state-of-the-art consulting support within the context of a significant project.

All that is to say, those closest to the practices should develop and own the practice, sharing its value both laterally andks.jpg

vertically. Minimal, but loyal, executive support is necessary to legitimate the practices as they interfere with established practices and traditions, thus allowing the new process to take hold and become sustainable over time.

If you’re interested in the theoretical foundations, see support from Ciborra, Orlikowski, Christensen, Raynor, Boland, Zack, and Penrose,