Trying out the Ask500People polling / survey / crowdsmarts (collective intelligence is too clean a term for this) service, I thought I’d throw out a complicated question, but ask for a simple answer.
In light of the collapse of American — and now global - financial markets [which are melting faster than the polar ice caps, if anyone’s interested in what may prove to be a telling environmental parallel with dire implications for our collective future], I’m wondering “Is American culture healthy?“
Here’s the responses so far — join in!
There’s a lot of buzz about cloud computing in the technology world these days, but I think something much more interesting is the emergence of cultural clouds as the newest kind of public commons. By cultural clouds, I’m talking about the new layer of the human cultural stack we’re busy laying down as a by product of all our social and creative activities in the inofverse.
To be clear, I’m not referring to the IT infrastructure layer wherein cloud computing is defined as the “style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided ‘as a service’ across the Internet to multiple external customers.” [Thanks Gartner, via BusinessWeek]
These new cultural clouds appear in the ever growing collections of crowdsourced collectively or socially accumulated judgements, cultural products, knowledge, history, relationships, etc., encoded in the form of managed digital information. This quick illustration shows some of the pools of activity and judgement that that make up these cloud commons; including wikis, public media, reputation statements, reading recommendations, social networks, wish lists, music listening histories, shared photos, films and videos, citation networks, geotagging and memory maps, comments and public discourse, hashtags and tags for photos, URLs, and songs, link streams, subscription and feed lists, blogrolls, etc. These are social, cultural, and conversational resources, not mineral deposits or physical topographies.
New Cultural Clouds / Commons
The commons is an old construct that embraces natural resources — think land, air, water, the electromagnetic spectrum — and the more recent public domain of cultural materials not governed by copyright law.
Venerable institutions of custom and law, such as seasonal access to pasturage, the right of passage across borders for nomadic peoples, and common law, define and regulate the recognized forms of commons.
But socially collected, digital, reified human cultural products and judgements are a new *type* of commons. I think they’re a new type of resource, brought forth largely by the cognitive surplus we enjoy. And as profound technological permeation and ubiquitous computing bring on the age of everyware, the cloud commons will grow (and fragment / specialize / multiply?).
Who and what will govern the new cloud commons? How will we define and manage these resources?
By form and makeup, the cloud commons is ephemeral and distributed. But as digital information, it is eminently tangible and actionable. Our basic social structures and mechanisms — science, the law, economics, art, agriculture, religion, technology — will recognize the emergence of cloud commons, and respond accordingly. APML (Attention Profiling Markup Language), from the APML Working Group, is an example. The DataPortability project — “a group created to promote the idea that individuals have control over their data by determining how they can use it and who can use it. This includes access to data that is under the control of another entity.” — is another. [Advocating for the right to free movement of data is a digital analog of the ancient idea of right of way.] OpenID, OpenSocial, OAuth, OPML, and the rapidly evolving Creative Commons licensing system are other examples of responses to the appearance of cloud commons.
What does the future hold? As recognition of cloud-based commons grows, expect to see all the patterns of activity typical of new frontiers and zones of instability: wildcatting, pioneering, piracy, squatting, privateering, enclosure, slums and shanty towns (informal settlements in the parlance of architecuter and urban planning) extractive industries, sovereign claims, colonization, speculation, etc.
With history as a guide, I’m especially wary of enclosure movements, and extractive industries. Both practices can rapidly diminish the present value of a commons or commons-based resource. Worse, enclosure and extractive practices act as negative feedback mechanisms, decreasing current estimations of a commons or commons-based resource’s future value, making the tragedy of the commons a likely outcome scenario.
The U.S. radio spectrum, as enclosed by the FCC
Is this framing of recently formed clouds of information and activity data as a new kind of commons accurate? Useful?
More on the idea of cultural clouds as the new commons forthcoming.
The culture, structure, and workings of an organization often pose greater challenges for User Experience practitioners than any technical or design questions at hand. If you’d like to know more about the factors behind these situations, be sure to check out We Tried To Warn You: The Organizational Architecture of Failure, by Peter Jones, just published by Boxes and Arrows.
Peter is an independent consultant with deep expertise in research, product design, and strategy. His talk for the panel on failure at the 2007 IA Summit was insightful and in-depth, and this two-part series offers quite a bit more very useful material on the roots and warning signs of organizational failure (by comparison, consider the very brief post I put up on the same subject a few years ago.)
Peter’s is the second written feature to come out of the failure panel (my missive on the parallels between entrepreneurial and societal failure was the first). I’m looking forward to part two of We Tried To Warn You, as well as additional features from the remaining two panelists, Christian Crumlish and Lorelei Brown!
Here’s a snippet, to whet your appetite:
How do we even know when an organization fails? What are the differences between a major product failure (involving function or adoption) and a business failure that threatens the organization? An organizational-level failure is a recognizable event, one which typically follows a series of antecedent events or decisions that led to the large-scale breakdown. My working definition: When significant initiatives critical to business strategy fail to meet their highest-priority stated goals.”
In a world that’s moving so fast it’s hard to keep track of when you are, let alone where, there’s a need for experiences that move at more relaxed paces. This basic need for deliberately moderated and human-speed experiences better tuned to the way that people make and understand meaning is the origin of the Slow Food movement.
Naturally, there’s room for a virtual analog of slow food. I’m calling this kind of mediated experience that flows at a kinder, gentler pace “slow media”. Dawdlr, “a global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: what are you doing, you know, more generally?” is a good example.
Assembled one postcard at a time, Dawdlr exemplifies the collective form of Slow Media, one you can contribute to by creating some content using a standard interface and then submitting it for publication, as long as it carried the proper postage. The paper blog — now updated and known as papercast — might be a precursor.
What are some other examples of Slow Media? Back in January of 2007, AdBusters asked, “Isn’t it time to slow down?” during their national slowdown week.
Slow food has a website, annual gatherings, publications, a manifesto, even a mascot / icon — the snail of course. What’s next for slow media? Maybe a slow wiki, made up of image-mapped screen shots of chalkboards with writing?
In The next frontiers for Design and User Experience Jess McMullin offers:
I believe that the opportunity for design and user experience to increase our influence is not about finding better methods for working with users, but in better methods for working with business. Not that new methods for generating insight, prototyping, and defining solutions aren’t useful. But that’s not where the real barriers are in my practice. The real barriers are about building consensus, buy-in, bridging competing viewpoints, and actually executing. In that environment, we need to cultivate business fluency, and use our design toolkit to work with stakeholders, not just customers.
This a solid assessment of the obstacles design and user experience face, and sound advice on how to increase the influence our discipline commands. Thinking pragmatically, the business has power and money, making it essential for design to “cultivate business fluency”.
It’s important to build on this sound advice, and understand that to be well-positioned for the long term, design and user experience must recognize that new economic and cultural production models — commons-based, open source, networked / collaborative, and likely others yet to be seen — blur the formerly sharp distinctions between businesses and users / customers, and consequently open new roles and channels of influence for design.
This blurring is most visible in sectors of the economy such as software and media, but is also happening in other sectors as well, and even for services traditionally seen as the responsibility of the producer. The balance of power is changing. Though far from outright demolition, the old high ramparts dividing production processes from consumption are showing some wear.
This blurring (convergence might be a better (albeit overused…) word) means business also has clear and increasing incentive to cultivate design fluency. User experience, and other disciplines oriented toward understanding and working with — even working for — users and customers are essential for survival and success in these new economic and cultural production models.
One outcome of this convergence of methods, frames, and approaches might be, as Janko Roettgers suggests, using a combination of business and design perspectives to prototype a business, instead of just the products and experiences that are traditionally seen as the touch points or interfaces connecting businesses with customers.
To close the loop, design and user experience should indeed cultivate business fluency, but also keep in mind that those things which make design different from business — such as core approaches, frames, and methods — will remain critical to insuring the value of user experience in the future. Good examples of these differences, as Peter Morville recently suggested, are the holistic perspectives and techniques that help design and user experience imagine and describe the future.
What could be more influential than defining the future?
Finally, what does this future look like? Open design may be an early example of a new model and approach to economic and cultural production, one that was both conceived with the aid of, and also structured to rely upon, design and user experience perspectives.
Good design is the result of an unusual mix of two very different ways of thinking that must work together to a common end; reductive approaches (to define a problem) and holistic approaches (to solve — or redefine — the problem by considering every aspect). The combination is a powerful synthesis which relies on a balance between competing forces.
Designers have understood the importance of this balance — and thus the indispensable role of holistic thinking in design methods — for a long time. But as a consequence of the long-standing dominance of industrial production processes and logics, which eliminated or severely restricted opportunities for most people to design any part of the fabric of their everyday lives, holistic approaches and thinking have had minimal visibility in the modern cultural landscape.
That seems to be changing, and I suspect few would dispute the rise in visibility and importance of design within the cultural landscape. Some might say we are in the midst of a renaissance of design (that comparison breaks down under a critical lens, in the end demonstrating more the positive aspirations of design advocates than anything else).
Looking at the culture as a whole, the rise of design is one aspect of a larger and much more important cultural shift: the rise of holistic thinking. This shift towards holistic views is changing the things we talk about and think about, and hold central as the elements of our basic frame of reference — in short, the way we conceive of the world.
The concepts in the list below are good examples of the rise of holistic thinking across disciplines and fields. Seemingly willy-nilly (which is exactly the point!), all these ideas rely on, include, or enhance holistic viewpoints at some level:
- collective intelligence
- the Internet
- systems thinking
- design thinking
- cross-cultural communication
- climate change
- internationalization / localization
- social media
- the mashup
- collaborative production models
- the green movement
- open source
- urbanism and urban planning
- the creative class
- architecture of participation
- the knowledge economy
It’s no accident that this list is also an index of many of the major ideas and concerns of our day. What does it mean? Well, it’s good for design at the moment. And maybe there’s a book in it for someone with the time to synthesize an idea and work up a solid treatment…
For regular readers wondering about the recent quiet here, a notice that Boxes and Arrows will shortly publish an article I’ve been working on for a while in the background, titled, “It Seemed Like the Thing To Do At the Time: The Power of State of Mind”. This is the written version of my panel presentation Lessons From Failure: Or How IAs Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombs from the 2007 IA Summit in Las Vegas.
I’ve written about organizations and failure — Signs of Crisis and Decline In Organizations — in this blog before (a while ago, but still a popular posting), and wanted to consider the subject on a larger level. With the rapid spread of social software / social media and the rise of complex social dynamics in on-line environments, exploring failure at the level of an entire society is timely.
In The Fishbowl
Failed or failing societies are an excellent fishbowl for observers seeking patterns related to social media, for two reasons. First, the high intensity of failure situations reveals much of what is ordinarily hidden in social structures and patterns: Impending collapse leads people to dispense with carefully maintained social constructions.
One source of this heightened intensity is the greatly increased stakes of societal failure (vs. most other kinds), which often means sudden and dramatic disruptions to basic living and economic patterns, the decline of cities and urban concentrations, and dramatic population decrease. Another source is the very broad scope of the aftereffects; because a failing society involves an entire culture, the affects are comprehensive, touching everyone and everything.
Secondly, societies often command substantial qualitative and quantitative resources that can help them manage crisis or challenges, thereby averting failure. Smaller, less sophisticated entities lack the resource base of a complex social organism, and consequently cannot put up as much of a fight.
Examples of resources available at the level of a society include:
- Leaders and planners dedicated to focusing on the future
- Large amounts of accumulated knowledge and experience
- Sophisticated structures for decision making and control
- Mechanisms for maintaining order during crises
- Collective resilience from surviving previous challenges
- Substantial stores of resources such as food and materials, money, land
- Tools, methods, and organizations providing economies of scale, such as banking and commerce networks
- Systems for mobilizing labor for special purposes
- Connections to other societies that could provide assistance (or potential rescue)
Despite these mitigating resources, the historical and archeological records overflow with examples of failed societies. Once we read those records, the question of how these societies defined themselves seems to bear directly on quite a few of the outcomes.
I discuss three societies in the article: Easter Island, Tikopia, and my own small startup company. We have insight into the fate of Easter Island society thanks to a rich archeological record that has been extensively studied, and descriptions of the Rapa Nui society in written records kept by European explorers visiting since 1722. Tikopia of course is still a functioning culture. My startup was a tiny affair that serves as a useful foil because it shows all the mistakes societies make in a compressed span of time, and on a scale that’s easy to examine. The Norse colonies in North America and Greenland are another good example, though space constraints didn’t allow discussion of their failed society in the article.
Read the article to see what happens to all three!
Semi Random Assortment of Quotations
In the meantime, enjoy this sampling of quotations about failure, knowledge, and self, from some well-known — and mostly successful! — people.
“Technological change is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.” — ALBERT EINSTEIN
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — CHARLES DARWIN
“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” — EPICTETUS
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — THOMAS EDISON
“It is on our failures that we base a new and different and better success.” — HAVELOCK ELLIS
“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it.” — ANAIS NIN
“We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.” — RABINDRANATH TAGORE
“Whoever longs to rescue quickly both himself and others should practice the supreme mystery: exchange of self and other.” — SHANTIDEVA
“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” — JOHN DEWEY
A few months ago I came across a presentation titled Organizations in Crisis and Decline, by Randall Dunham. After giving examples of organizations in crisis and decline that include Kmart, General Motors, United Airlines, and Michael Jackson. (interesting example of an enterprise…), Dunham goes on to summarize typical symptoms of crisis, the strategic consequences of decline, and 10 behaviors of unhealthy organizations.
I came across this while doing some research on how the structures and cultures of organizations influence modes of thinking, resilience, and decision making, so this is related to some of my postings on enterprise software. It might be a while before I have the chance to write up all the ideas, so I’ll share Dunham’s material now.
Why is this of note to IAs? Quite a few Information architects (practitioners, not just those with the title…) are actively looking for effective tools and modes of understanding to help frame and manage enterprise problems.
Understanding the signs of decline and crisis in organizations can help information architects and other change agents understand the environmental context of a situation in the critical early stages of setting expectations and roles, and before it’s “too late”, when everyone at the management table has strong opinions they must defend. In other words, before making a leap is into an active project, a planning and budgeting cycle, a strategic vision session, etc.
I see (at least) two very important aspects of a situation that Dunham’s warning signs could help identify; how healthy an organization is, and what latitude for activity and change is available. Building on this, these criteria can help identify situations to avoid or be wary of. Of course, organizations in crisis and decline can present opportunities as well as risks, but sometimes the ship is going down no matter how much you try to patch the holes…
For those without powerpoint, I’m going to present some of the material here as text, with acknowledgment that I’m borrowing directly from Dunham, who himself credits this source: Mische, M.A. (2001). Ten warning signs of strategic Decline. In Strategic Renewal: Becoming a High-Performance Organization (pp. 25–30). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Typical Symptoms of Crisis/Decline
- Lower earnings & revenues
- Increased employee turnover
- Reduced market presence
- Decrease in customer satisfaction & interest
- Increasing costs & high structural costs
Strategic Consequences of Crisis/Decline
- Lower market value
- Inconsistent strategies
- Misalignment of internal strategies & external goals
- Diminished capacity to attract top talent
- Increased vulnerability
10 Behaviors that Signal Decline
- The organization exhibits a lack of understanding the environmental and economic realities confronting it, or is in denial
- The management of the organization is arrogant with regard to its view of the world & assessment of its internal competencies. Ex: Icarus Paradox
- The organization has lost perspective with respect to customers, products, suppliers, and competitors
- Management and employees have an insular focus or preoccupation with internal processes, internal measurements, and politics
- The organization has lost its sense of urgency and lacks an attitude of self-determination
- The organization is relying on historical and poorly conceptualized or inappropriate business strategies and traditional management methods to address new & different challenges
- The organization has the propensity to repeat mistakes and fails to learn from past experiences
- The organization has low or slow innovation practices and is late to market with new products/services
- The organization has a tendency to recycle marginally performing managers
- The organization relies exclusively on internal talent as a source of leadership
Key Factors that Contribute to Decline
- Age of the organization: Older, more established firms may rely on legacy practices
- Size of the organization: Large firms with many vertical levels can have trouble adapting
- Financial success and past performance: Past success can lead to desire to follow same path in hopes of future success
- Ownership and equity structure: Is there accountability at all times to outside agents?
- Environmental influences: External shocks
- Ability to learn and discern patterns: Lack of learning organization culture
- Certainty/uncertainty: Effectiveness of change management
- Leadership: Young & inexperienced without desire to learn
Success Can Drive Crisis
- The same processes that lead to success in an organization can also lead to failure
- This is because success promotes rigidity, resistance to change, and habitual response
- Biggest problem — people learn the ‘right’ way to solve a problem and do that over and over again, even if that way will no longer solve the problem
It’s true these are quite general. Naturally, the art is in knowing how to apply them as criteria, or interperet what you found. As a quick test of accuracy, I’ve used the behaviors and warning signs to retrospectively review several of the organizations I’ve seen from the inside. When those organizations showed several of the behaviors and warning signs at an aggregate level (not necessarily my group, but the whole enterprise) then the strategic consequence dunham mentioned were visible at the same time.
From a practical perspective, a rating scale or some indicators of relative degree would be very useful. In order to gauge whether to stay or go, you need to understand the intensity of the decline or crisis and what action you can take: for example, do you have time to go back to the cabin to save your handwritten screenplay before the ship sinks?
I just read Dan Brown’s posting Web 2.0, reframing Web 1.0 on metaphors for the new Web.
I had three thoughts when I read this (nicely done) piece for the first time:
- Web itself is or implies a metaphor — I’d start with this when considering any of the potential metaphors of Web 2.0
- I think many metaphors will be necessary to give us some set of (barely) adequate linguistic tools for sharing our thinking about something as emergent, complex, and interconnected with daily life as Web 2.0
- How about: WEB AS ENVIRONMENT (“the circumstances, objects, or conditions by which one is surrounded”)
WEB AS ENVIRONMENT => Setting for (virtual) life => enabler of goals / needs / patterns [thus bringing the social aspect into focus]