Tag: social_systems

Boxes and Arrows: It Seemed Like The Thing To Do At The Time

June 27th, 2007 — 10:05am

The Lessons From Fail­ure Series (curated by Chris­t­ian Crum­lish) kicked off today at Boxes and Arrows, lead­ing with my med­i­ta­tion on being an entre­pre­neur and what it means to face fail­ure as a mem­ber of a rigidly defined soci­ety, titled It Seemed Like The Thing To Do At The Time. Stay tuned for three fur­ther install­ments from tal­ented fel­low pan­elists.
Also, look for part two of my series on design­ing healthy user expe­ri­ences for por­tals using the IA Build­ing Blocks in early July. Part one — The Chal­lenge of Dash­boards and Por­tals — describ­ing the struc­tural and usabil­ity weak­nesses of flat archi­tec­tures, was pub­lished in Decem­ber.
Many thanks to the hard work­ing vol­un­teers at B+A for cre­at­ing a forum for these ideas and the com­mu­nity around them!

Comment » | Building Blocks, Ideas, User Experience (UX)

Why Failed Societies Are Relevant to Social Media

June 18th, 2007 — 10:08am

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

2 comments » | architecture, Ideas, The Media Environment

PEW Report Shows 28% Of Internet Users Have Tagged

February 1st, 2007 — 2:30pm

The Pew Inter­net & Amer­i­can Life Project just released a report on tag­ging that finds
28% of inter­net users have tagged or cat­e­go­rized con­tent online such as pho­tos, news sto­ries or
blog posts. On a typ­i­cal day online, 7% of inter­net users say they tag or cat­e­go­rize online con­tent.

The authors note “This is the first time the Project has asked about tag­ging, so it is not clear exactly how fast the trend is grow­ing.“
Wow — I’d say it’s grow­ing extremely quickly. Though I am on record as a believer in the bright future of tag clouds, I admit I’m sur­prised by these results. The fact that 7% of inter­net users tag daily is what’s most sig­nif­i­cant: it’s an indi­ca­tion of very rapid adop­tion for the prac­tice of tag­ging in many dif­fer­ent con­texts and many dif­fer­ent kinds of audi­ences, given it’s brief his­tory.
I’d guess this adop­tion rate com­pares to the rates of adop­tion for other new network-dependent or emer­gent archi­tec­tures like P2P music shar­ing or on-line music buy­ing.
You’re cor­rect if you’re think­ing there is a dif­fer­ence between tag­ging and tag clouds. And if you’ve read the report and the accom­pa­ny­ing inter­view with Dr. Wein­berger, you’ve likely real­ized that nei­ther Dr. Weinberger’s inter­view nor the report specif­i­cally addresses tag cloud usage. But remem­ber the First Prin­ci­ple of Tag Clouds: “Where there’s tags, there’s a tag cloud.” By def­i­n­i­tion, any item with an asso­ci­ated col­lec­tion of tags has a tag cloud, regard­less of whether that tag cloud is directly vis­i­ble and action­able in the user expe­ri­ence. So that 7% of inter­net users who tag daily are by default cre­at­ing and work­ing with tag clouds daily.
It might be time for tag clouds to look into get­ting some sun­glasses.

Comment » | Tag Clouds

Who Should Own How We Work? Collaboration, the New Enterprise Application

May 14th, 2006 — 11:55pm

Col­lab­o­ra­tion is the lat­est ral­ly­ing cry of soft­ware ven­dors hop­ing to embed new gen­er­a­tions of enter­prise class tools and user expe­ri­ences into the fab­ric of the mod­ern work­place. Microsoft, IBM, and other firms expect that con­trol or lead­er­ship in the mar­ket for col­lab­o­ra­tion, whether by own­ing the archi­tec­ture, sys­tems, or other solu­tion com­po­nents, will be lucra­tive. A recent Rad­i­cati Group study (qual­ity uncon­firmed…) of the mar­ket size for enter­prise col­lab­o­ra­tion offered an esti­mate of $1.6 bil­lion now, grow­ing 10% annu­ally to $2.3 bil­lion in 2010.
Beyond the sub­stan­tial money to be made cre­at­ing, sell­ing, installing, and ser­vic­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion solu­tions lies the strate­gic advan­tage of mar­ket def­i­n­i­tion. The vendor(s) that own(s) the col­lab­o­ra­tion space expect(s) to become an inte­gral to the knowl­edge economy’s sup­port­ing envi­ron­ment in the same way that Ford and Gen­eral Motors became essen­tial to the sub­ur­ban­ized con­sumer archi­tec­tures of the post WWII era by serv­ing simul­ta­ne­ously as employ­ers, man­u­fac­tur­ers, cul­tural mar­keters, cap­i­tal reser­voirs, and auto­mo­bile sell­ers. Col­lab­o­ra­tion ven­dors know that achiev­ing any level of indis­pen­si­bil­ity will enhance their longevity by mak­ing them a neces­sity within the knowl­edge econ­omy.
It’s worth tak­ing a moment to call atten­tion to the impli­ca­tions: by defin­ing the user expe­ri­ences and tech­no­log­i­cal build­ing blocks brought together to real­ize col­lab­o­ra­tion in large enter­prises, these ven­dors will directly shape our basic con­cepts and under­stand­ing (our men­tal mod­els and cog­ni­tive frames) of col­lab­o­ra­tion. Once embed­ded, these archi­tec­tures, sys­tems, and busi­ness processes, and the social struc­tures and con­cep­tual mod­els cre­ated in response, will in large part define the (infor­ma­tion) work­ing envi­ron­ments of the future.
And yes, this is exactly what these ven­dors aspire to achieve; the Microsoft Share­point Prod­ucts and Tech­nolo­gies Devel­op­ment Team blog, offers:
“Share­Point Prod­ucts and Tech­nolo­gies have become a key part of our strat­egy for deliv­er­ing a com­plete work­ing envi­ron­ment for infor­ma­tion work­ers, where they can col­lab­o­rate together, share infor­ma­tion with oth­ers, and find infor­ma­tion and peo­ple that can help them solve their busi­ness prob­lems.“
And IBM’s mar­ket­ing is not pitched and deliv­ered in a man­ner as sweep­ing, but the impli­ca­tions are sim­i­lar, as in the overview IBM® Work­place™: Sim­ply a bet­ter way]:
IBM Work­place™ Solu­tions are role-based frame­works to help cus­tomers apply IBM Work­place tech­nolo­gies faster and more pro­duc­tively… These solu­tions are designed to pro­vide ‘short-cuts’ for cre­at­ing a high per­for­mance role-based work envi­ron­ment, help­ing to accel­er­ate time-to-value.“
The Mod­els for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rela­tion­ships built into our tools are very pow­er­ful, and often employed in other spheres of life. How many times have you started writ­ing a birth­day card for a friend, and found your­self instinc­tively com­pos­ing a set of bul­let points list­ing this person’s chief virtues, notable char­ac­ter traits, and the most impor­tant / amus­ing moments of your friend­ship. The creep­ing ubiq­uity of the rhetor­i­cal style of Pow­er­point (Tufte’s essay here) is just one exam­ple of the tremen­dous social impact of a habit­u­ated model of com­mu­nica­tive prac­tices that’s run amok.
What does the future hold, in terms of enter­prise ven­dor con­trol over every­day work­ing expe­ri­ences? I’ve writ­ten before on the idea that the days of the mono­lithic enter­prise sys­tems are num­bered, mak­ing the point along the way that these behe­moths are the result of a top-down, one-size-for-all approach. I think the same is true of the cur­rent approach to col­lab­o­ra­tion solu­tions and work­ing envi­ron­ments. And so I was happy to see Andrew McAfee of Har­vard Busi­ness School make sev­eral strong points about how enter­prise col­lab­o­ra­tion efforts will real­ize greater suc­cess by *reduc­ing* the amount of struc­ture imposed on their major ele­ments — roles, work­flows, arti­facts, and rela­tion­ships — in advance of actual use.
McAfee sees con­sid­er­able ben­e­fit in new approaches to enter­prise IT invest­ment and man­age­ment that reduce the top-down and imposed nature of enter­prise envi­ron­ments and solu­tions, in favor of emer­gent struc­tures cre­ated by the peo­ple who must work suc­cess­fully within them. McAfee advo­cates allow­ing staff to cre­ate the iden­ti­ties, struc­tures and pat­terns that will orga­nize and gov­ern their col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ments as nec­es­sary, in an emer­gent fash­ion, instead of fix­ing these aspects long before users begin to col­lab­o­rate.
McAfee says:
“When I look at a lot of cor­po­rate col­lab­o­ra­tion tech­nolo­gies after spend­ing time at Wikipedia, del.icio.us, Flickr, and Blog­ger I am struck by how reg­i­mented, inflex­i­ble, and lim­ited the cor­po­rate stuff seems, because it does some or all of the following:

  • Gives users iden­ti­ties before they start using the tech­nol­ogy. These iden­ti­ties assign them cer­tain roles, priv­i­leges, and access rights, and exclude them from oth­ers. These iden­ti­ties almost always also place them within the exist­ing orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture and for­mal cor­po­rate hierarchy.
  • Con­tains few truly blank pages. Instead, it has lots of templates–for meet­ings, for project track­ing, for doc­u­ments and reports, etc.
  • Has tons of explicit or implicit work­flow– seqences [sic] of tasks that must be exe­cuted in order.

How much of this struc­ture is nec­es­sary? How much is valu­able? Well, the clear suc­cess sto­ries of Web 2.0 demon­strate that for at least some types of com­mu­nity and col­lab­o­ra­tion, none of it is.“
The crit­i­cal ques­tion is then “what types of com­mu­nity and col­lab­o­ra­tion require which approaches to cre­at­ing struc­ture, and when?” As any­one who’s used a poorly or overly struc­tured col­lab­o­ra­tion (or other enter­prise) tool knows, the result­ing envi­ron­ment is often anal­o­gous to a feu­dal soci­ety designed and man­aged by crypto-technical over­lords; one in which most users feel as if they are serfs bound to the land for in per­pe­tu­ity in order to sup­port the leisure-time and war-making indul­gences of a small class of share­hold­ing nobil­ity.
Answer­ing these ques­tions with con­fi­dence based on expe­ri­ence will likely take time in the range of years, and require numer­ous failed exper­i­ments. There’s a larger con­text to take into account: the strug­gle of enter­prise soft­ware ven­dors to extend their reach and longevity by dom­i­nat­ing the lan­guage of col­lab­o­ra­tion and the range of offer­ings is one part of a much broader effort by soci­ety to under­stand dra­matic shifts in our ways of work­ing, and the social struc­tures that are both dri­ven by and shape these new ways of work­ing. And so there are sev­eral impor­tant ideas and ques­tions under­ly­ing McAfee’s assess­ment that social sys­tem design­ers should under­stand.
One of the most impor­tant is that the notion of “col­lab­o­ra­tion” is con­cep­tual short­hand for how you work, who you work with, and what you do. In other words, it’s a dis­til­la­tion of your pro­fes­sional iden­tity. Your role in a col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ment defines who you are within that envi­ron­ment.
More impor­tantly, from the per­spec­tive of growth and devel­op­ment, your sys­tem assigned role deter­mines who you can *become*. Knowl­edge work­ers are val­ued for their skills, expe­ri­ence, pro­fes­sional net­works, pub­lic rep­u­ta­tions, and many other fluid, con­text depen­dent attrib­utes. And so lock­ing down their iden­ti­ties in advance strips them of a sub­stan­tial pro­por­tion of their cur­rent value, and simul­ta­ne­ously reduces their abil­ity to adapt, inno­vate, and respond to envi­ron­men­tal changes by shift­ing their think­ing or prac­tices. In plain terms, deter­min­ing their iden­ti­ties in advance pre­cludes the cre­ation of future value.
Another impor­tant under­ly­ing idea is the impor­tance of prop­erly under­stand­ing the value and util­ity of dif­fer­ing approaches to sys­tem­ati­za­tion in dif­fer­ing con­texts. McAfee’s assess­ment of the unhealthy con­se­quences of impos­ing too much struc­ture in advance is use­ful for social sys­tem design­ers (such as infor­ma­tion archi­tects and knowl­edge man­agers), because it makes the out­comes of implicit design strate­gies and assump­tions clear and tan­gi­ble, in terms of the neg­a­tive effects on the even­tual users of the col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ment. For com­plex and evolv­ing group set­tings like the mod­ern enter­prise, cre­at­ing too much struc­ture in advance points to a mis­placed under­stand­ing of the value and role of design and archi­tec­ture.
Fun­da­men­tally, it indi­cates an over­es­ti­ma­tion of the value of the activ­ity of sys­tem­atiz­ing (design­ing) col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ments to high lev­els of detail, and with­out recog­ni­tion for evo­lu­tion­ary dynam­ics. The design or struc­ture of any col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ment — of any social sys­tem — is only valu­able for how well it encour­ages rela­tion­ships and activ­ity which advance the goals of the orga­ni­za­tion and it’s mem­bers. The value of a designer in the effort to cre­ate a col­lab­o­ra­tive com­mu­nity lies in the abil­ity to cre­ate designs that lead to effec­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion, not in the num­ber or speci­ficity of the designs they pro­duce, and espe­cially not in the arti­facts cre­ated dur­ing design — the tem­plates, work­flows, roles, and other McAfee men­tioned above. To sim­plify the dif­fer­ent views of what’s appro­pri­ate into two arti­fi­cially seg­mented camps, the [older] view that results in the pre­ma­ture cre­ation of too much struc­ture val­i­dates the design of things / arti­facts / sta­tic assem­blies, whereas the newer view valu­ing min­i­mal and emer­gent struc­tures acknowl­edges the greater effi­cacy of design­ing dynamic sys­tems / flows / frame­works.
The overly spe­cific and rigid design of many col­lab­o­ra­tion sys­tem com­po­nents com­ing from the older design view­point in fact says much about how large, com­plex enter­prises choose to inter­pret their own char­ac­ters, and cre­ate tools accord­ingly. Too often, a desire to achieve total­ity lies at the heart of this approach.
Of course, most total­i­ties only make sense — exhibit coher­ence — when viewed from within, and when using the lan­guage and con­cepts of the total­ity itself. The result is that attempts to achieve total­ity of design for many com­plex con­texts (like col­lab­o­ra­tion within enter­prises large or small) rep­re­sent a self-defeating approach. That the approach is self-defeating is gen­er­ally ignored, because the pur­suit of total­ity is a self-serving exer­cise in power val­i­da­tion, that ben­e­fits power hold­ers by con­sum­ing resources poten­tially used for other pur­poses, for exam­ple, to under­mine their power.
With the chimera of total­ity set in proper con­text, it’s pos­si­ble to see how col­lab­o­ra­tion envi­ron­ments — at least in their most poorly con­ceived man­i­fes­ta­tions — will resem­ble vir­tual retreads of Tay­lorism, wherein the real accom­plish­ment is to jus­tify the effort and expense involved in cre­at­ing the sys­tem by point­ing at an exces­sive quan­tity of pre­de­ter­mined struc­ture await­ing habi­ta­tion and use by dis­en­fran­chised staff.
At present, I see two diver­gent and com­pet­ing trends in the realm of enter­prise solu­tions and user expe­ri­ences. The first trend is toward homo­gene­ity of the work­ing envi­ron­ment with large amounts of struc­ture imposed in advance, exem­pli­fied by com­pre­hen­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion suites and archi­tec­tures such as MSOf­fice / Share­point, or IBM’s Work­place.
The sec­ond trend is toward het­ero­gene­ity in the struc­tures inform­ing the work­ing envi­ron­ment, vis­i­ble as vari­able pat­terns and locuses of col­lab­o­ra­tion estab­lished by fluid groups that rely on adhoc assort­ment of tools from dif­fer­ent sources (Base­Camp, GMail, social book­mark­ing ser­vices, RSS syn­di­ca­tion of social media struc­tures, com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice, busi­ness ser­vices from ASP providers, open source appli­ca­tions, etc.).
But this itself is a short term view, when sit­u­a­tion within a longer term con­text is nec­es­sary. It is com­mon for sys­tems or envi­ron­ments of all sizes and com­plex­i­ties to oscil­late cycli­cally from greater to lesser degrees of struc­ture, along a con­tin­uüm rang­ing from homo­ge­neous to het­ero­ge­neous. In the short term view then, the quest for total­ity equates to homo­gene­ity, or even efforts at dom­i­na­tion. In the long term view, how­ever, the quest for total­ity could indi­cate an imma­ture ecosys­tem that is not diverse, but may become so in time.
Apply­ing two (poten­tial) lessons from ecol­ogy — the value of diver­sity as an enhancer of over­all resilience in sys­tems, and the ten­dency of mono­cul­tures to exhibit high fragility — to McAfee’s points on emer­gence, as well as the con­tin­uüm view of shift­ing degress of homo­gene­ity, should tell us that col­lab­o­ra­tion solu­tion design­ers would be wise to do three things:

  1. Adopt the new design view­point and focus on design­ing struc­tures that allow col­lab­o­ra­tors to cre­ate value
  2. Spec­ify as lit­tle struc­ture of any kind in advance as possible
  3. Antic­i­pate the emer­gence of new archi­tec­tural ele­ments, and allow for their incor­po­ra­tion under the guid­ance of the com­mu­nity of collaborators

The end result should be an enter­prise approach to col­lab­o­ra­tion that empha­sizes the design of infra­struc­ture for com­mu­ni­ties that cre­ate their own struc­tures. Big ven­dors be wary of this enlight­ened point of view, unless you’re will­ing to respond in kind.

4 comments » | Ideas

Signs of Crisis and Decline In Organizations

April 21st, 2006 — 12:23pm

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?

1 comment » | Information Architecture

NYTimes.com Redesign Includes Tag Clouds

April 11th, 2006 — 9:58pm

Though you may not have noticed it at first (I didn’t — they’re located a few steps off the front page), the recently launched design of NYTimes.com includes tag clouds. After a quick review, I think their ver­sion is a good exam­ple of a cloud that offers some increased capa­bil­i­ties and con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion that together fall in line with the likely direc­tions of tag cloud evo­lu­tion we’ve con­sid­ered before.
Specif­i­cally, the New York Times tag cloud:

  1. allows users to change the cloud’s con­text — and thus its con­tent — with a set of con­trols (vis­i­ble as tabs, run­ning across the top)
  2. lets cloud con­sumers change the dis­play behav­ior of the cloud by switch­ing modes from list to cloud in-line, not out­side the user’s area of activity
  3. sup­ports the chain of under­stand­ing for cloud con­sumers by pro­vid­ing clear indi­ca­tion of the time period cov­ered (the note about update frequency)
  4. offers [lim­ited] capa­bil­i­ties to work with / share tag cloud con­tent out­side the cloud via email — though the mes­sage con­tains only a link to the cloud page, and not a full rendering

NYtimes.com Tag Cloud

The NYTimes.com tag cloud shows the most pop­u­lar search terms used by read­ers within three time frames: the last 24 hours, the last 7 days, and the last 30 days. Choos­ing search terms as the makeup for a cloud is a bit curi­ous — but it may be as close to socially gen­er­ated meta­data as seemed rea­son­able for a first explo­ration (one that doesn’t require a sub­stan­tial change in the busi­ness or pub­lish­ing model).
Given the way that clouds lend them­selves to show­ing mul­ti­ple dimen­sions of mean­ing, such as change over time, I think the Times tag cloud would be more valu­able if it offered the option to see all three time frames at once. I put together a quick cut and paste of a con­cept screen that shows this sort of lay­out:
Screen Con­cept: 3 Clouds for Dif­fer­ent Time Frames

In an exam­ple of the rapid mor­ph­ing of memes and def­i­n­i­tions to fit shift­ing usage con­texts (as in Thomas Vanderwal’s obser­va­tions on the shift­ing usage of folk­son­omy) the NYTimes.com kept the label tag cloud, while this is more prop­erly a weighted list: the tags shown are in fact search terms, and not labels applied to a focus of some kind by tag­gers.
It’s plain from the lim­ited pres­ence and vis­i­bil­ity of clouds within the over­all site that the staff at NYTimes.com are still explor­ing the value of tag clouds for their spe­cific needs (which I think is a mature approach), oth­er­wise I imag­ine the new design con­cept and nav­i­ga­tion model would uti­lize and empha­sized tag clouds to a greater degree. So far, the Times uses tag clouds only in the new “Most Pop­u­lar” sec­tion, and they are offered as an alter­na­tive to the default list style pre­sen­ta­tion of pop­u­lar search terms. This posi­tion within the site struc­ture places them a few steps in, and off the stan­dard front page-to-an-article user flow that must be one of the core sce­nar­ios sup­ported by the site’s infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture.
NYTimes.com User Flow to Tag Cloud

Still, I do think it’s a clear sign of increas­ing aware­ness of the poten­tial strength of tag clouds as a way of visu­al­iz­ing seman­tic infor­ma­tion. The Times is an estab­lished entity (occa­sion­ally serv­ing as the def­i­n­i­tion of ‘the estab­lish­ment’), and so is less likely to endan­ger estab­lished rela­tion­ships with cus­tomers by chang­ing its core prod­uct across any of the many chan­nels used for deliv­ery.
Ques­tions of risk aside, tag clouds (here I mean any visu­al­iza­tion of seman­tic meta­data) couLd be a very effec­tive way to scan the head­lines for a sense of what’s hap­pen­ing at the moment, and the shift­ing impor­tance of top­ics in rela­tion to on another. With a tag cloud high­light­ing “immi­gra­tion”, “duke”, and “judas”, vis­i­tors can imme­di­ately begin to under­stand what is news­wor­thy — at least in the minds of NYTimes.com read­ers.
At first glance, low­er­ing the amount of time spent read­ing the news could seem like a strong busi­ness dis­in­cen­tive for using tag clouds to stream­line nav­i­ga­tion and user flow. With more con­sid­er­a­tion, I think it points to a new poten­tial appli­ca­tion of tag clouds to enhance com­pre­hen­sion and find­abil­ity by giv­ing busy cus­tomers pow­er­ful tools to increase the speed and qual­ity of their judg­ments about what to devote their atten­tion to in order to acheive under­stand­ing greater depth. In the case of pub­li­ca­tions like the NYTimes.com, tag clouds may be well suited for con­vey­ing snap­shots or sum­maries of com­plex and deep domains that change quickly (what’s the news?), and offer­ing rapid nav­i­ga­tion to spe­cific areas or top­ics.
A new user expe­ri­ence that offers a vari­ety of tag clouds in more places might allow dif­fer­ent kinds of move­ment or flow through the larger envi­ron­ment, enabling new behav­iors and sup­port­ing dif­fer­ing goals than the cur­rent infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and user expe­ri­ence.
Pos­si­ble Screen Flow Incor­po­rat­ing Clouds

Step­ping back from the specifics of the design, a broader ques­tion is “Why tag clouds now?” They’re cer­tainly timely, but that’s not a busi­ness model. This is just spec­u­la­tion, but I recall job post­ings for an Infor­ma­tion Archi­tect posi­tion within the NYTimes.com group on that appeared on sev­eral recruit­ing web­sites a few months ago — maybe the new team mem­bers wanted or were directed to include tag clouds in this design? If any of those involved are allowed to share insights, I’d very much like to hear the thoughts of the IAs / design­ers / prod­uct man­agers or other team mem­bers respon­si­ble for includ­ing tag clouds in the new design and struc­ture.
And in light of Mathew Patterson’s com­ments here about cus­tomer accep­tance of mul­ti­ple clouds in other set­tings and con­texts (price­line europe), I’m curi­ous about any usabil­ity test­ing or other user research that might have been done around the new design, and any the find­ings related to tag clouds.

Comment » | Ideas

Tag Clouds: Navigation For Landscapes of Meaning

March 14th, 2006 — 4:53pm

I believe the value of sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will be to offer ready nav­i­ga­tion and access to deep, com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing built up from the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion con­tained in many inter­con­nected tag clouds. I’d like share some thoughts on this idea; I’ll split the dis­cus­sion into two posts, because there’s a fair amount of mate­r­ial.
In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I sug­gested that the great value of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds is their abil­ity to make con­cepts and meta­data — seman­tic fields — broadly acces­si­ble and easy to under­stand and work with through visu­al­iza­tion. I believe the shift in the bal­ance of roles and value from first to sec­ond gen­er­a­tion reflects nat­ural growth in cloud usage and aware­ness, and builds on the two major trends of tag cloud evo­lu­tion: enhanced visu­al­iza­tion and func­tion­al­ity for work­ing with clouds, and pro­vi­sion of exten­sive con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion to accom­pany tag clouds.
Together, these two growth paths allow cloud con­sumers to fol­low the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect at con­nected clouds, and bet­ter achieve their goals within the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment and out­side. Fun­da­men­tally, I believe the key dis­tinc­tions between first and sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will come from the way that clouds func­tion simul­ta­ne­ously as visu­al­iza­tions and nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms, and what they allow nav­i­ga­tion of — land­scapes of mean­ing that are rich in seman­tic con­tent of high value.
For exam­ples of both direc­tions of tag cloud evo­lu­tion com­ing together to sup­port nav­i­ga­tion of seman­tic land­scapes, we can look at some of the new fea­tures del.icio.us has released in the past few months. I’ve col­lected three ver­sions of the infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture of the stan­dard del.icio.us URL details page from the past seven months as an exam­ple of evo­lu­tion hap­pen­ing right now.
The first ver­sion (screen­shot and break­down in Fig­ure 1) shows the URL details page some­time before August 15th, 2005, when it appeared on Matt McAlister’s blog.
Fig­ure 1: Del.icio.us URL Page — August 2005

The lay­out or infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture is fairly sim­ple, offer­ing a list of the com­mon tags for the url / focus, a sum­mary of the post­ing his­tory, and a more detailed list­ing of the post­ing his­tory that lists the dates and tag­gers who book­marked the item, as well as the tags used for book­mark­ing. There’s no cloud style visu­al­iza­tion of the tags attached to this sin­gle focus avail­able: at this time, del.icio.us offered a ren­dered tag cloud visu­al­iza­tion at the aggre­gate level for the whole envi­ron­ment.
Envi­ron­ment and sys­tem design­ers know very well that as the scope and com­plex­ity of an envi­ron­ment increase — in this case, the num­ber of tag­gers, focuses, and tags, plus their cumu­la­tive his­to­ries — it becomes more impor­tant for peo­ple to be explic­itly aware of the con­text of any item in order to under­stand it prop­erly. Explicit con­text becomes more impor­tant because they can rely less and less on implicit con­text or assump­tions about con­text based on the uni­ver­sal aspects of the envi­ron­ment. This is how cloud con­sumers’ needs for clearly vis­i­ble and acces­si­ble chains of under­stand­ing dri­ves the fea­tures and capa­bil­i­ties of tag clouds. Later ver­sions of this page addresses these needs in dif­fer­ing ways, with dif­fer­ing lev­els of suc­cess.
Fig­ure 2 shows a more recent ver­sion of the del.licio.us his­tory for the Ma.gnolia.com ser­vice. This screen­shot taken about ten days ago in early March, while I was work­ing on a draft of this post.
Fig­ure 2: Del.icio.us URL Page — Early March 2006

Key changes from the first ver­sion in August to this sec­ond ver­sion include:

  1. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Com­mon Tags block to a cloud style rendering
  2. Remov­ing the indi­vid­ual tags cho­sen by each tag­ger from the Post­ing His­tory block
  3. The addi­tion of a large and promi­nent block of space devoted to “User Notes”
  4. Mov­ing the Post­ing His­tory block to the right column
  5. Chang­ing visu­al­iza­tion of the Post­ing His­tory block to a proto-cloud style rendering

The most impor­tant change in this sec­ond ver­sion is the removal of the indi­vid­ual sets of tags from the Post­ing His­tory. Sep­a­rat­ing the tags applied to the focus from asso­ci­a­ton with the indi­vid­ual tag­gers that chose them strips them of an impor­tant layer of con­text. Remov­ing the nec­es­sary con­text for the tag cloud breaks the chain of under­stand­ing (Fig­ure 3) link­ing tag­gers and cloud con­sumers, and obscures or increases the costs of the social con­cep­tual exchange that is the basic value of del.icio.us to its many users. In this ver­sion, cloud con­sumers con­sumers read­ing the URL details page can only find spe­cific tag­gers based on the con­cepts they’ve matched with this focus by vis­it­ing or nav­i­gat­ing to each indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ area within the larger del.icio.us envi­ron­ment one at a time.
Fig­ure 3: Chain of Under­stand­ing
The switch to ren­der­ing the Com­mon Tags block as a tag cloud is also impor­tant, as an indi­ca­tor of the con­sis­tent spread of clouds to visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, and their grow­ing role as nav­i­ga­tion tools within the larger land­scape.
The User Notes are a good exam­ple of an attempt to pro­vide addi­tional con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion with (poten­tially) high value. User Notes are cre­ated by users exclu­sively for the pur­pose of pro­vid­ing con­text. The other forms of con­text shown in the new lay­out — the Post­ing His­tory, Related Items — serve a con­tex­tual func­tion, but are not cre­ated directly by users with this goal in mind. The dif­fer­ence between the two pur­poses for these items undoubt­edly influ­ences the way that peo­ple cre­ate them, and what they cre­ate: it’s a ques­tion that more detailed inves­ti­ga­tions of tag­ging prac­tices will surely exam­ine.
The third ver­sion of the same URL his­tory page, shown in Fig­ure 4, was released very shortly after the sec­ond, prov­ing tag cloud evo­lu­tion is hap­pen­ing so quickly as to be dif­fi­cult to track delib­er­ately on a broad scale.
Fig­ure 4: Del.icio.us URL Page — March 2006 #2

This ver­sion changes the con­tent and lay­out of the Post­ing His­tory block, restor­ing the com­bined dis­play of indi­vid­ual tag­gers who tagged the URL, with the tags they applied to it, in the order in which they tagged the URL for the first time.
The third ver­sion makes two marked improve­ments over the first and sec­ond versions:

  1. Pre­sen­ta­tion of the indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing that inter­sect with this focus / cloud in nav­i­ga­ble form, to increase aware­ness of the con­text for this item and allow users to retrace these paths to their origins
  2. Pre­sen­ta­tion of indi­vid­ual tag­gers’ flat­tened clouds that inter­sect this focus as nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms for mov­ing from the cur­rent focus to else­where within the larger landscape

These three dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the del.icio.us URL details page show that the amount and type of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion accom­pa­ny­ing a sin­gle focus is increas­ing, and that the num­ber of con­crete nav­i­ga­ble con­nec­tions to the larger seman­tic land­scape of which the focus is one ele­ment also increas­ing
Over­all, it’s clear that clouds are quickly emerg­ing as nav­i­ga­tion tools for com­plex land­scapes of mean­ing, and that cloud con­text has and will con­tinue to become more impor­tant for cloud cre­ation and use.
And so before dis­cussing the con­text nece­sary for clouds and the role of clouds as nav­i­ga­tion aids in more detail, it will be help­ful to get an overview of land­scapes of mean­ing, and how they arise.
Land­scapes of Mean­ing
A land­scape of mean­ing is a densely inter­con­nected, highly valu­able, exten­sive infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment rich in seman­tic con­tent that is cre­ated by com­mu­ni­ties of tag­gers who build con­nected tag clouds. In the early land­scapes of mean­ing emerg­ing now, a con­nec­tion between clouds can be a com­mon tag, tag­ger, or focus: any one of the three legs of the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle required for a tag cloud (more on this below). Because tag clouds visu­al­ize seman­tic fields, con­nected tag clouds visu­al­ize and offer access to con­nected seman­tic fields, serv­ing as bridges between the indi­vid­ual accu­mu­la­tions of mean­ing each cloud con­tains.
Con­nect­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of indi­vid­u­ally cre­ated clouds and fields, as del.icio.us has enabled social book­mark­ers to do by pro­vid­ing nec­es­sary tools and infra­struc­ture, cre­ates a very large infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment whose ter­rain or geog­ra­phy is com­posed of seman­tic infor­ma­tion. Such a seman­tic land­scape is a land­scape con­structed or made up of mean­ing. It is an infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment that allows peo­ple to share con­cepts or for social pur­poses of all kinds, while sup­ported with visu­al­iza­tion, con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion, func­tion­al­ity, and far-ranging nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ties.
The flickr Land­scape
flickr is a good exam­ple of a land­scape of mean­ing that we can under­stand as a seman­tic land­scape. In a pre­vi­ous post on tag clouds, I con­sid­ered the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud (shown in Fig­ure 5) in light of the basic struc­ture of clouds:
“The flickr style tag cloud is …a visu­al­iza­tion of many tag sep­a­rate clouds aggre­gated together. …the flickr tag cloud is the visu­al­iza­tion of the cumu­la­tive seman­tic field accreted around many dif­fer­ent focuses, by many peo­ple. …the flickr tag cloud func­tions as a visu­al­iza­tion of a seman­tic land­scape built up from all asso­ci­ated con­cepts cho­sen from the com­bined per­spec­tives of many sep­a­rate tag­gers.”
Fig­ure 5: The flickr All Time Most Pop­u­lar Tags Cloud

From our ear­lier look at the struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds we know a tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field made up of con­cepts referred to by labels which are applied as tags to a focus of some sort by tag­gers.
Based on our under­stand­ing of the struc­ture of a tag cloud as hav­ing a sin­gle focus, the flickr cloud shows some­thing dif­fer­ent because it includes many focuses. The flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud com­bines all the indi­vid­ual tag clouds around all the indi­vid­ual pho­tos in flickr into a sin­gle visu­al­iza­tion, as Fig­ure 6 shows.
Fig­ure 6: The flickr Land­scape of Mean­ing

This means the flickr all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a visu­al­iza­tion of the com­bined seman­tic fields behind each of those indi­vid­ual clouds. It’s quite a bit big­ger in scope than a tra­di­tional sin­gle focus cloud. Because the scope is so large, the amount of mean­ing it sum­ma­rizes and con­veys is tremen­dous. The all time most pop­u­lar tags cloud is in fact a his­toric win­dow on the cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal state of the seman­tic land­scape of flickr as a whole.
This is where con­text becomes crit­i­cal to the proper under­stand­ing of a tag cloud. The cloud title “All time most pop­u­lar tags” sets the con­text for this tag cloud, within the bound­aries of the larger land­scape envi­ron­ment defined and com­mu­ni­cated by flickr’s user epx­e­ri­ence. With­out this title, the cloud is mean­ing­less despite the large and com­plex seman­tic land­scape — all of the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment of flickr — it visu­al­izes so effec­tively, because cloud con­sumers can­not retrace a com­plete chain of under­stand­ing to cor­rectly iden­tify the cloud’s ori­gin.
flickr — 1st Gen­er­a­tion Land­scape Nav­i­ga­tion
The flickr cloud is a pow­er­ful nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nism for quickly and eas­ily mov­ing about within the land­scape of mean­ing built up by all those thou­sands and thou­sands of indi­vid­ual clouds. Still, because it is a first gen­er­a­tion cloud, we can­not directly fol­low any of the many indi­vid­ual chains of under­stand­ing con­nect­ing this cloud’s tags back to spe­cific tag­gers, or the con­cepts they asso­ciate with spe­cific pho­tos or focuses. In this visu­al­iza­tion, the group’s under­stand­ing of mean­ing is more impor­tant than any individual’s under­stand­ing. And so the flickr cloud does not yet allow us com­pre­hen­sive nav­i­ga­tion of the under­ly­ing seman­tic land­scape illus­trated in Fig­ure 6 (chains of under­stand­ing sug­gested in light green). The flickr cloud also remains a first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud because users can­not con­trol its con­text.
Fig­ure 7: A Seman­tic Land­scape

Even so, these nav­i­ga­tional and con­tex­tual needs will help iden­tify the way that users rely on clouds to work in land­scapes of mean­ing.
Growth of Land­scapes
Land­scapes of mean­ing like flickr, del.icio.us, or the bur­geon­ing num­ber of social seman­tic busi­ness ven­tures debut­ing as I write — typ­i­cally grow from the bot­tom up, emerg­ing as dozens or thou­sands of indi­vid­ual tag clouds cre­ated for dif­fer­ent rea­sons by dif­fer­ent tag­gers coin­ci­den­tally or delib­er­ately inter­con­nect and over­lap, all of this hap­pen­ing through a vari­ety of social mech­a­nisms. Tag­gers typ­i­cally cre­ate con­nected or over­lap­ping tag clouds one at a time, adding tags, focuses, and tag­gers (by cre­at­ing new accounts) in the ad hoc fash­ion of open net­works and archi­tec­tures. But first we should look at the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle to under­stand the most basic ele­ments of a tag cloud.
The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
To make a tag cloud, you have to have three ele­ments: a focus, a tag­ger, and a(t least one) tag. I call this the Tag­ging Tri­an­gle, illus­trated in Fig­ure 8. In the most com­mon ren­der­ings of famil­iar tag clouds, one or two of these ele­ments are often implied but not shown: yet all three are always present.
This illus­tra­tion shows a cloud of labels, not tags, because a ren­dered cloud is really a list of labels. The labels shown in most first gen­er­a­tion clouds are often tags, but struc­turally they could also be a set of names for tag­gers, as in the del.icio.us post­ing his­tory block proto-cloud we saw above, or a set of focuses as in the ‘Inverted Cloud’ I sug­gested.
Fig­ure 8: The Tag­ging Tri­an­gle
An Exam­ple Land­scape
A sim­ple exam­ple of the growth of seman­tic land­scapes leads nat­u­rally to the dis­cus­sion of spe­cific ways that tag clouds will enable nav­i­ga­tion within large land­scapes of mean­ing.
Fig­ure 9 shows the tag cloud accreted around a sin­gle focus. This cloud includes some of the tags that Tag­ger 1 has used in total across all the tag clouds she’s cre­ated (those other clouds aren’t shown). We’ll assume that she’s cre­ated other clouds for other focuses.
Fig­ure 9: A Sin­gle Tag Cloud

When a sec­ond per­son, Tag­ger 2, tags that same focus (again with a sub­set of the total set of all his tags), and some of those tags are the same as those used for this focus by Tag­ger 1, their indi­vid­ual tag clouds for this focus (shown by the dashed line in the cumu­la­tive tag cloud) con­nect via the com­mon tags, and the cumu­la­tive cloud grows. If any of the tags from their total sets are the same, but are not used for this focus, they form another con­nec­tion between the two tag­gers. Fig­ure 10 shows two indi­vid­ual clouds con­nected in both these ways.
Fig­ure 10: Two Con­nected Clouds

When a third tag­ger adds a third cloud with com­mon tags and unique tags around the same focus, the cumu­la­tive cloud grows, and the num­ber of both kinds of con­nec­tions between tags and tag­gers grows. Fig­ure 11 shows three con­nected clouds.
Fig­ure 11: Con­nected Clouds

Every tag cloud visu­al­izes a seman­tic field, and so the result of this bot­tom up growth is a series of inter­linked seman­tic fields cen­tered around a com­mon focus, as Fig­ure 12 shows. Since seman­tic fields are made of con­cepts, linked fields result in linked con­cepts.
Fig­ure 12: Con­nected Seman­tic Fields

The total num­ber and the vari­ety of kinds of inter­con­nec­tions amongst these three tag­gers, their tags, and a sin­gle focus is remark­able. As this sim­ple exam­ple shows, the total num­ber and den­sity of con­nec­tions link­ing even a mod­er­ate size pop­u­la­tion of tag­gers, tags, and focuses could quickly become very large. This increased scale dri­ves qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive topol­ogy changes in the net­work that per­mit a land­scape of mean­ing to emerge from con­nected seman­tic fields.
Land­scapes And Depth
The accu­mu­la­tion of con­nec­tions and con­cepts cre­ates a land­scape of mean­ing with real depth; but it’s the depth of a land­scape that dri­ves its value. For this dis­cus­sion, I’m defin­ing depth loosely as the amount of seman­tic infor­ma­tion or the den­sity of the seman­tic field either across the whole land­scape, or at a cho­sen point.
Value of course is a very sub­jec­tive judge­ment. In par­tic­i­pa­tory economies like that of del.icio.us, the value to indi­vid­ual users is pre­dom­i­nantly one of loosely struc­tured seman­tic exchange based on accu­mu­la­tion of col­lec­tive value through shared indi­vid­ual efforts. From a busi­ness view­point, a group of investors and yahoo as a buyer saw con­sid­er­able value in the emer­gent land­scape and / or other kinds of assets
To make the idea of depth a bit clearer, Fig­ure 13 illus­trates two views of a seman­tic land­scape built up by the over­lap of tag clouds. The aer­ial view shows the con­tents, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and over­lap of a num­ber of tag clouds around a set of focuses. The hori­zon view shows the depth of the seman­tic field for each focus, based on the amount of over­lap or con­nec­tion between the cloud around that focus and all the other clouds.
Fig­ure 13: Seman­tic Land­scape Depth Views

Of course this is only a con­cep­tual way of show­ing the cumu­la­tive seman­tic infor­ma­tion that makes up a land­scape of mean­ing, so it does not address the rel­a­tive value of this infor­ma­tion. Plainly some indi­ca­tion of the qual­ity of the seman­tic infor­ma­tion in a land­scape is crit­i­cal impor­tant to mea­sure­ments of both depth and value. Met­rics for qual­ity could come from a com­bi­na­tion of assess­ment of the diver­sity and gran­u­lar­ity of the tag pop­u­la­tion for the focus, bench­marks for the domain of the focus and tag­gers (health­care indus­try), and an esti­mate on the matu­rity of the domain, the focus, and the tag clouds in the seman­tic land­scape.
Look­ing ahead, it’s likely that accepted met­rics for defin­ing and describ­ing the depth, value, and char­ac­ter­is­tics of seman­tic fields and land­scapes will emerge as new com­bi­na­tions of some of the mea­sure­ments used now in the realms of cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics, set the­ory, sys­tem the­ory, topol­ogy, infor­ma­tion the­ory, and quite a few other dis­ci­plines besides.
In Part Two
The sec­ond post in this series of two will fol­low sev­eral of the top­ics intro­duced here to con­clu­sion, as well as cover some new top­ics, including:

  • How chains of under­stand­ing shape needs for cloud con­text and nav­i­ga­tion paths
  • How the tag­ging tri­an­gle will define nav­i­ga­tion within land­scapes of meaning
  • The emer­gence of strat­i­fi­ca­tion in land­scapes of meaning
  • The idea that clouds and land­scapes have a shape which con­veys mean­ing and value
  • The kinds of con­tex­tual infor­ma­tion and con­trols nec­es­sary for nav­i­ga­tion and social exchanges

Watch­ing Nav­i­ga­tion Fol­low Chains of Under­stand­ing
I’ll close with a screen­cast put together by Jon Udell that cap­tures a wide rang­ing nav­i­ga­tion path through the del.icio.us landscape.

Comment » | Ideas, Tag Clouds

Second Generation Tag Clouds

February 23rd, 2006 — 5:34pm

Lets build on the analy­sis of tag clouds from Tag Clouds Evolve: Under­stand­ing Tag Clouds, and look ahead at what the near future may hold for sec­ond gen­er­a­tion tag clouds (per­haps over the next 12 to 18 months). As you read these pre­dic­tions for struc­tural and usage changes, keep two con­clu­sions from the pre­vi­ous post in mind: first, ade­quate con­text is crit­i­cal to sus­tain­ing the chain of under­stand­ing nec­es­sary for suc­cess­ful tag clouds; sec­ond, one of the most valu­able aspects of tag clouds is as visu­al­iza­tions of seman­tic fields.
Based on this under­stand­ing, expect to see two broad trends sec­ond in gen­er­a­tion tag clouds.
In the first instance, tag clouds will con­tinue to become rec­og­niz­able and com­pre­hen­si­ble to a greater share of users as they move down the nov­elty curve from nou­veau to known. In step with this grow­ing aware­ness and famil­iar­ity, tag cloud usage will become:
1. More fre­quent
2. More com­mon
3. More spe­cial­ized
4. More sophis­ti­cated
In the sec­ond instance, tag cloud struc­tures and inter­ac­tions will become more com­plex. Expect to see:
1. More sup­port for cloud con­sumers to meet their needs for con­text
2. Refined pre­sen­ta­tion of the seman­tic fields under­ly­ing clouds
3. Attached con­trols or fea­tures and func­tion­al­ity that allow cloud con­sumers to directly change the con­text, con­tent, and pre­sen­ta­tion of clouds
Together, these broad trends mean we can expect to see a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of numer­ous and diverse tag clouds val­ued for con­tent and capa­bil­ity over form. Sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will be eas­ier to under­stand (when designed cor­rectly…) and open to manip­u­la­tion by users via increased func­tion­al­ity. In this way, clouds will visu­al­ize seman­tic fields for a greater range of sit­u­a­tions and needs, across a greater range of speci­ficity, in a greater diver­sity of infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments, for a greater num­ber of more var­ied cloud con­sumers.
Usage Trends
To date, tag clouds have been applied to just a few kinds of focuses (links, pho­tos, albums, blog posts are the more rec­og­niz­able). In the future, expect to see spe­cial­ized tag cloud imple­men­ta­tions emerge for a tremen­dous vari­ety of seman­tic fields and focuses: celebri­ties, cars, prop­er­ties or homes for sale, hotels and travel des­ti­na­tions, prod­ucts, sports teams, media of all types, polit­i­cal cam­paigns, finan­cial mar­kets, brands, etc.
From a busi­ness view­point, these tag cloud imple­men­ta­tions will aim to advance busi­ness ven­tures explor­ing the poten­tial value of aggre­gat­ing and expos­ing seman­tic fields for a vari­ety of strate­gic pur­poses:
1. Cre­at­ing new mar­kets
2. Under­stand­ing or chang­ing exist­ing mar­kets
3. Pro­vid­ing value-added ser­vices
4. Estab­lish­ing com­mu­ni­ties of inter­est / need / activ­ity
5. Aid­ing over­sight and reg­u­la­tory imper­a­tives for trans­parency and account­abil­ity.
Mea­sure­ment and Insight
I think tag clouds will con­tinue to develop as an impor­tant poten­tial mea­sure­ment and assess­ment vehi­cle for a wide vari­ety of pur­poses; clouda­li­cious is a good exam­ple of an early use of tag clouds for insight. Other appli­ca­tions could include using tag clouds to present meta­data in geospa­tial or spa­tiose­man­tic set­tings that com­bine GPS / GIS and RDF con­cept / knowl­edge struc­tures.
Within the realm of user expe­ri­ence, expect to see new user research and cus­tomer insight tech­niques emerge that employ tag clouds as visu­al­iza­tions and instan­ti­a­tions of seman­tic fields. Maybe even cloud sort­ing?
Clouds As Nav­i­ga­tion
Turn­ing from the strate­gic to the tac­ti­cal realm of expe­ri­ence design and infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture, I expect tag clouds to play a grow­ing role in the nav­i­ga­tion of infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments as they become more com­mon. Nav­i­ga­tional appli­ca­tions com­prise one of the first areas of tag cloud appli­ca­tion. Though nav­i­ga­tion rep­re­sents a fairly nar­row usage of tag clouds, in light of their con­sid­er­able poten­tial in reify­ing seman­tic fields to ren­der them action­able, I expect nav­i­ga­tional set­tings will con­tinue to serve as a pri­mary exper­i­men­tal and evo­lu­tion­ary venue for learn­ing how clouds can enhance larger goals for infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments such as enhanced find­abil­ity.
For new infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments, the rules for tag clouds as nav­i­ga­tion com­po­nents are largely unwrit­ten. But many infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ments already have mature nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems. In these set­tings, tag clouds will be one new type of nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nism that infor­ma­tion archi­tects and user expe­ri­ence design­ers inte­grate with exist­ing nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nisms. David Fiorito’s and Richard Dalton’s pre­sen­ta­tion Cre­at­ing a Con­sis­tent Enter­prise Web Nav­i­ga­tion Solu­tion is a good frame­work / intro­duc­tion for ques­tions about how tag clouds might inte­grate into mature or exist­ing nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems. Within their matrix of struc­tural, asso­cia­tive and util­ity nav­i­ga­tion modes that are invoked at vary­ing lev­els of prox­im­ity to con­tent, tag clouds have obvi­ous strengths in the asso­cia­tive mode, at all lev­els of prox­im­ity to con­tent, and poten­tial strength in the struc­tural mode. Fig­ure 1 shows two tag clouds play­ing asso­cia­tive roles in a sim­ple hypo­thet­i­cal nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem.
Fig­ure 1: Asso­cia­tive Clouds

I also expect nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems will fea­ture mul­ti­ple instances of dif­fer­ent types of tag clouds. Nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems employ­ing mul­ti­ple clouds will use com­bi­na­tions of clouds from vary­ing con­texts (as flickr and tech­no­rati already do) or domains within a larger infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment to sup­port a wide vari­ety of pur­poses, includ­ing implicit and explicit com­par­i­son, or views of the envi­ron­ment at mul­ti­ple lev­els of gran­u­lar­ity or res­o­lu­tion (high level / low level). Fig­ure 2 illus­trates mul­ti­ple clouds, Fig­ure 3 shows clouds used to com­pare the seman­tic fields of a one focus cho­sen from a list, and Fig­ure 4 shows a hier­ar­chi­cal lay­out of nav­i­ga­tional tag clouds.
Fig­ure 2: Mul­ti­ple Clouds

Fig­ure 3: Cloud Com­par­i­son Lay­out

Fig­ure 4: Pri­mary / Sec­ondary Lay­out

Struc­tural and Behav­ioral Trends
Let’s move on to con­sider struc­tural and behav­ioral trends in the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of tag clouds.
Given the suc­cess of the sim­ple yet flex­i­ble struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds, I expect that sec­ond gen­er­a­tion clouds will not sub­stan­tially change their basic struc­ture. For exam­ple, tag clouds will not have to change to make use of chang­ing tag­ging prac­tices that enhance the seman­tic depth and qual­ity of tags applied to a focus, such as faceted tag­ging, use of qual­i­fiers, hier­ar­chi­cal tag­ging, and other forms. James Melzer iden­ti­fies some best prac­tices on del.icio.us that make con­sid­er­able sense when the focus of a seman­tic field is a link. His rec­om­men­da­tions include:

  • Source your infor­ma­tion with via:source_name or cite:source_name
  • Cre­ate a par­ent cat­e­gories, and thus a rudi­men­tary hier­ar­chy, with parent_tag/subject_tag
  • Men­tion pub­li­ca­tions names with in:publication_name
  • Flag the type of resource with .exten­sion or =resource_type
  • Use a com­bi­na­tion of gen­eral and spe­cific tags on every book­mark to pro­vide both clus­ter­ing and differentiation
  • Use syn­onyms or alter­nate forms of tags
  • Use unique or dis­tinc­tive terms from doc­u­ments as tags (don’t just use major sub­ject terms)

The two ele­ment struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds can accom­mo­date these tag­ging prac­tices. How­ever, with a seman­tic field of greater depth and rich­ness avail­able, the inter­ac­tions, behav­iors, and pre­sen­ta­tion of tag clouds will evolve beyond a sta­tic set of hyper­links.
Cloud con­sumers’ need for bet­ter con­text will drive the addi­tion of fea­tures and func­tion­al­ity that iden­tify the con­text of a tag cloud explic­itly and in detail. For exam­ple, clouds cre­ated by a defined audi­ence will iden­tify that audi­ence, whether it be sys­tem admin­is­tra­tors, free­lance web design­ers, DJ’s, or pas­try chefs rat­ing recipes and cook­ing equip­ment and pro­vide indi­ca­tion of the scope and time peri­ods that bound the set of tags pre­sented in the cloud. Flickr and oth­ers do this already, offer­ing clouds of tags cov­er­ing dif­fer­ent inter­vals of time to account for the chang­ing pop­u­lar­ity of tags over their lifes­pan.
Mov­ing from pas­sive to inter­ac­tive, tag clouds will allow users to change the cloud’s seman­tic focus or con­text with con­trols, fil­ters, or other para­me­ters (did some­one say ‘slid­ers’ — or is that too 5 min­utes ago…?). I’ve seen sev­eral pub­lic requests for these sorts of fea­tures, like this one: “It would be great if I could set pref­er­ences for items such as time frame or for tags that are rel­e­vant to a par­tic­u­lar area etc or even colour the most recent tags a fiery red or remove the most recent tags.” Fig­ure 5 shows a tag cloud with con­text con­trols attached.
Fig­ure 5: Con­text Con­trols
Fig­ure 6: Behav­ior Con­trols
Diver­si­fy­ing con­sumer needs and goals for way find­ing, ori­en­ta­tion, infor­ma­tion retrieval, task sup­port, prod­uct pro­mo­tion, etc., will bring about inverted tag clouds. Inverted tag clouds will cen­ter on a tag and depict all focuses car­ry­ing that tag.
Fig­ure 7: Inverted Clouds Show Con­cep­tu­ally Related Focuses
In the vein of con­tin­ued exper­i­ment, tag clouds will take increased advan­tage with RIA / AJAX and other user expe­ri­ence con­struc­tion meth­ods. Fol­low­ing this, tag clouds may take on some of the func­tions of known nav­i­ga­tion ele­ments, appear­ing as sub-menus / drop down menus offer­ing sec­ondary nav­i­ga­tion choices.
Fig­ure 8: Clouds As Drop Menus

Along the same lines, tag clouds will demon­strate more com­plex inter­ac­tions, such as spawn­ing other tag clouds that act like mag­ni­fy­ing lenses. These over­lap­ping tag clouds may offer: mul­ti­ple lev­els of gran­u­lar­ity (a gen­eral view and zoom view) of a seman­tic field; the­saurus style views of related con­cepts; para­me­ter dri­ven term expan­sion; com­mon types of rela­tion­ship (other peo­ple bought, by the same author, syn­onyms, pre­vi­ously known as, etc.)
Fig­ure 9: Mag­ni­fy­ing Clouds
Look­ing at the inter­sec­tion of usage and behav­ior trends, I expect tag clouds will evolve, dif­fer­en­ti­ate, and develop into stan­dard gen­res. Gen­res will con­sist of a sta­ble com­bi­na­tion of tag cloud con­tent, con­text, usage, func­tion­al­ity, and behav­ior within dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments. The same busi­ness and user goals that sup­port gen­res in other media and modes of visu­al­iza­tion will drive the devel­op­ment of these tag cloud gen­res. One genre I expect to see emerge shortly is the search result.
Read­ing over the list, I see this is an aggres­sive set of pre­dic­tions. It’s fair to ask if I really have such high expec­ta­tions for tag clouds? I can’t say tag clouds will take over the world, or even the Inter­net. But I do believe that they fill a gap in our col­lec­tive visu­al­iza­tion toolset. The quan­tity, qual­ity, and rel­e­vance of seman­tic infor­ma­tion in both real and vir­tual envi­ron­ments is con­stantly increas­ing. (In fact, the rate of increase is itself increas­ing, though that is a tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non.) I think tag clouds offer a poten­tial to quickly and eas­ily sup­port the chain of under­stand­ing that’s nec­es­sary for seman­tic fields across diverse kinds of focuses. There’s need for that in many quar­ters, and I expect that need to con­tinue to grow.
For the moment, it seems obvi­ous that tag clouds will spend a while in an early exper­i­men­tal phase, and then move into an awk­ward ado­les­cent phase, as fea­tures, appli­ca­tions and gen­res sta­bi­lize in line with grow­ing aware­ness and com­fort with clouds in var­i­ous set­tings.
I expect these pre­dic­tions to be tested by exper­i­ments will play out quickly and in semi or fully pub­lic set­tings, as in the exam­ple of the dia­log sur­round­ing 83 degrees usage of a tag cloud as the sole nav­i­ga­tion mech­a­nism on their site that Rashmi Sinha’s post The tag-cloud replaces the basic menu — Is this a good idea? kicked off recently.
My answer to this ques­tion is that replac­ing all nav­i­ga­tion menus with a tag cloud is only a good idea under very lim­ited cir­cum­stances. It’s pos­si­ble that 83 Degrees may be one of these lim­ited instances. Star­tups can ben­e­fit con­sid­er­ably from any pos­i­tive atten­tion from the Web’s early adopter com­mu­nity (wit­ness Don’t Blow Your Beta by Michael Arring­ton of Techcrunch). The page’s designer said, “In this case it was done as a design/marketing effort and not at all for UI”. Since attract­ing atten­tion was the spe­cific pur­pose, I think the result is a suc­cess. But it’s still an exper­i­men­tal usage, and that’s con­sis­tent with the early stage of evo­lu­tion / devel­op­ment of tag clouds in gen­eral.
I’m look­ing for­ward to what hap­pens next…

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Tag Clouds Evolve: Understanding Tag Clouds

February 22nd, 2006 — 1:18pm

Zeld­man jok­ingly called tag clouds “the new mul­lets” last year. At the time, I think he was taken a bit by sur­prise by the rapid spread of the tag cloud (as many peo­ple were). A big year later, it looks like this ver­sion of the world’s favorite dou­ble duty hair­cut will stay in fash­ion for a while. Zeld­man was dis­cussing the first gen­er­a­tion of tag clouds. I have some ideas on what the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of tag clouds may look like that will con­clude this series of two essays. These two pieces com­bine ideas brew­ing since the tag­ging break­out began in earnest this time last year, with some pre­dic­tions based on recent exam­ples of tag clouds in prac­tice.
Update: Part two of this essay, Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion Tag Clouds, is avail­able.
This first post lays ground­work for pre­dic­tions about the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of tag clouds by look­ing at what’s behind a tag cloud. I’ll look at first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds in terms of their reliance on a “chain of under­stand­ing” that seman­ti­cally links groups of peo­ple tag­ging and con­sum­ing tags, and thus under­lies tag­ging and social meta­data efforts in gen­eral. I’ll begin with struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds, and move quickly to the very impor­tant way that tag clouds serve as visu­al­iza­tions of seman­tic fields.
Anatomy of a Tag Cloud
Let’s begin with the famil­iar first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud. Tag clouds (here we’re talk­ing about the user expe­ri­ence, and not the pro­gram­matic aspects) com­monly con­sist of two ele­ments: a col­lec­tion of linked tags shown in vary­ing fonts and col­ors to indi­cate fre­quency of use or impor­tance, and a title to indi­cate the con­text of the col­lec­tion of tags. Flickr’s tags page is the iconic exam­ple of the first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud. Screen shots of sev­eral other well known tag cloud imple­men­ta­tions show this pat­tern hold­ing steady in first gen­er­a­tion tag­ging imple­men­ta­tions such as del.icio.us and tech­no­rati, and in newer efforts such as last.fm and ma.gnolia.
Wikipedia’s entry for tag cloud is quite sim­i­lar, read­ing, “A tag cloud (more tra­di­tion­ally known as a weighted list in the field of visual design) is a visual depic­tion of con­tent tags used on a web­site. Often, more fre­quently used tags are depicted in a larger font or oth­er­wise empha­sized, while the dis­played order is gen­er­ally alpha­bet­i­cal… Select­ing a sin­gle tag within a tag cloud will gen­er­ally lead to a col­lec­tion of items that are asso­ci­ated with that tag.“
In terms of infor­ma­tion ele­ments and struc­ture, first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds are low com­plex­ity. Fig­ure 1 shows a schematic view of a first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud. Fig­ures 2 through 5 are screen­shots of well-known first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds.
Fig­ure 1: Tag Cloud Struc­ture
Fig­ure 2: last.fm
Fig­ure 3: tech­no­rati
Fig­ure 4: del.icio.us
Fig­ure 5: Ma.gnolia
Tag Clouds: Visu­al­iza­tions of Seman­tic Fields
The sim­ple struc­ture of first gen­er­a­tion tag clouds allows them to per­form a very valu­able func­tion with­out undue com­plex­ity. That func­tion is to visu­al­ize seman­tic fields or land­scapes that are them­selves part of a chain of under­stand­ing link­ing tag­gers and tag con­sumers. This is a good moment to describe the “chain of under­stand­ing”. The “chain of under­stand­ing” is an approach I use to help iden­tify and under­stand all the dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple and mean­ing, and the trans­for­ma­tions and steps involved in pass­ing that mean­ing on, that must work and con­nect prop­erly in order for some­thing to hap­pen, or an end state to occur. The chain of under­stand­ing is my own vari­a­tion / com­bi­na­tion of com­mon cog­ni­tive and infor­ma­tion flow map­ping using a sce­nario style for­mat. I’ve found the term res­onates well with clients and other audi­ences out­side the realm of IA.
How does the chain of under­stand­ing relate to tag clouds? The tags in tag clouds orig­i­nate directly from the per­spec­tive and under­stand­ing of the peo­ple tag­ging, but undergo changes while becom­ing a tag cloud. (For related read­ing, see Rashmi Sinha’s A social analy­sis of tag­ging which exam­ines some of the social mech­a­nisms under­ly­ing the activ­ity of tag­ging.) Tag clouds accrete over time when one per­son or a group of peo­ple asso­ciate a set of terms with a focus of some sort; a photo on flickr, a URL / link in the case of del.icio.us, an album or song for last.fm. As this list shows, a focus can be any­thing that can carry mean­ing or under­stand­ing. The terms or tags serve as car­ri­ers and ref­er­ences for the con­cepts each tag­ger asso­ciates with the focus. Con­cepts can include ideas of about­ness, ori­gin, or pur­pose, descrip­tive labels, etc. While the con­cepts may change, the focus remains sta­ble. What’s key is that the tag is a ref­er­ence and con­nec­tion to the con­cept the tag­ger had in mind. This con­nec­tion requires an ini­tial under­stand­ing of the focus itself (per­haps incor­rect, but still some sort of under­stand­ing), and the con­cepts that the tag­ger may or may not choose to asso­ciate with the focus. And this is the first step in the chain of under­stand­ing behind tag clouds, as shown in Fig­ure 6.
Fig­ure 6: Ori­gin: Focus and Con­cepts
As a result, tag clouds are more than col­lec­tion of descrip­tive or admin­is­tra­tive terms attached to a link, or other sort of focus. The tag is a sort of label that ref­er­ences a con­cept or set of con­cepts. A cloud of tags is then a col­lec­tion of labels refer­ring to a clus­ter of aggre­gated con­cepts. The com­bi­na­tion of tags that refer to con­cepts, with the orig­i­nal focus, cre­ates a ‘seman­tic field’. A seman­tic field is the set of con­cepts con­nected to a focus, but in a form that is now inde­pen­dent of the orig­i­nat­ing tag­gers, and avail­able to other peo­ple for under­stand­ing. In this sense, a seman­tic field serves as a form of rei­fied under­stand­ing that the tag­gers them­selves — as well as oth­ers out­side the group that cre­ated the seman­tic field — can now under­stand, act on, etc. (This speaks to the idea that infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture is a dis­ci­pline strongly aimed at reifi­ca­tion, but that’s a dif­fer­ent dis­cus­sion…). Fig­ure 7 shows this sec­ond step in the chain of under­stand­ing; with­out it, there is no seman­tic field, and no tag cloud can form. And now because this post is writ­ten from the view­point of prac­ti­cal impli­ca­tions for tag cloud evo­lu­tion, I’m going to hold the def­i­n­i­tion and dis­cus­sion of a seman­tic field and focus, before I wan­der off track into semi­otics, lin­guis­tics, or other ter­ri­to­ries. The most impor­tant thing to under­stand is that *tag clouds com­prise visu­al­iza­tions of a seman­tic field*, as we’ve seen from the chain of under­stand­ing.
Fig­ure 7: Seman­tic Field
I believe tag clouds are rev­o­lu­tion­ary in their abil­ity to trans­late the con­cepts asso­ci­ated with nearly any­thing you can think of into a col­lec­tively vis­i­ble and action­able infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment, an envi­ron­ment that car­ries con­sid­er­able evi­dence of the orig­i­nal under­stand­ings that pre­cede and inform it. In a prac­ti­cal infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture sense, tag clouds can make meta­data — one of the more dif­fi­cult and abstract of the fun­da­men­tal con­cepts of the dig­i­tal uni­verse for the prover­bial per­son on the street — vis­i­ble in an eas­ily under­stood fash­ion. The genius of tag clouds is to make seman­tic con­cepts, the frames of under­stand­ing behind those con­cepts, and their man­i­fes­ta­tion as applied meta­data tan­gi­ble for many, many peo­ple.
Fig­ure 8: Seman­tic Field As Tag Cloud
With this notion of a tag cloud as a visu­al­iza­tion of a seman­tic field in mind, let’s look again at an exam­ple of a tag cloud in prac­tice. The flickr style tag cloud (what I call a first gen­er­a­tion tag cloud) is in fact a visu­al­iza­tion of many tag sep­a­rate clouds aggre­gated together. Seman­ti­cally then, the flickr tag cloud is the visu­al­iza­tion of the cumu­la­tive seman­tic field accreted around many dif­fer­ent focuses, by many peo­ple. In this usage, the flickr tag cloud func­tions as a visu­al­iza­tion of a seman­tic land­scape built up from all asso­ci­ated con­cepts cho­sen from the com­bined per­spec­tives of many sep­a­rate tag­gers.
To sum­ma­rize, cre­at­ing a tag cloud requires com­ple­tion of the first three steps of the chain of under­stand­ing that sup­ports social meta­data. Those steps are:
1. Under­stand­ing a focus and the con­cepts that could apply that focus
2. Accu­mu­lat­ing and cap­tur­ing a seman­tic field around the focus
3. Visu­al­iz­ing the seman­tic field as a tag cloud via trans­for­ma­tion
The fourth step in this chain involves users’ attempts to under­stand the tag cloud. For this we must intro­duce the idea of con­text, which addresses the ques­tion of which orig­i­nal per­spec­tives under­lie the seman­tic field visu­al­ized in a tag cloud, and how those con­cepts have changed before or dur­ing pre­sen­ta­tion.
How Cloud Con­sumers Under­stand Tag Clouds
Users need to put a given tag cloud in proper con­text in order to under­stand the cloud effec­tively. Their end may goals may be find­ing related items, sur­vey­ing the think­ing within a knowl­edge domain, iden­ti­fy­ing and con­tact­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors, or some other pur­pose, but it’s essen­tial for them to under­stand the tags in the cloud to achieve those goals. Thus when­ever a user encoun­ters a tag cloud, they ask and answer a series of ques­tions intended to estab­lish the cloud’s con­text and fur­ther their under­stand­ing. Con­text related ques­tions often include “Where did these tags come from? Who applied them? Why did they choose these tags, and not oth­ers? What time span does this tag cloud cover?” Con­text in this case means know­ing enough about the con­di­tions and envi­ron­ment from which the cloud was cre­ated, and the deci­sions made about what tags to present and how to present them. Fig­ure 9 sum­ma­rizes the idea of con­text.
Fig­ure 9: Cloud Con­text

Once the user or con­sumer places the tag cloud in con­text, the chain of under­stand­ing is com­plete, and they can being to use or work with the tag cloud. Fig­ure 10 shows the com­plete chain of under­stand­ing we’ve exam­ined.
Fig­ure 10 Chain of Under­stand­ing
In part two, titled “Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion Tag Clouds”, I’ll share some thoughts on likely ways that the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of tag clouds will evolve in struc­ture and usage in the near future, based on how they sup­port a chain of under­stand­ing that seman­ti­cally links tag­gers and tag cloud con­sumers. Con­text is the key for tag cloud con­sumers, and we’ll see how it affects the likely evo­lu­tion of the tag cloud as a visu­al­iza­tion tool.
Update: Part two Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion Tag Clouds is available

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Hallmark of the New Enterprise: Knowledge Markets

January 30th, 2006 — 9:15pm

Using the auto­mo­tive indus­try and an anal­o­gous vari­ety of soft­ware mega-packages with three-letter acronyms as exam­ples, we’ve been dis­cussing the death of the tra­di­tional enter­prise for a few weeks. We’ve observed that enter­prise efforts rely­ing on mas­sive top-down approaches become inef­fi­cient and waste­ful, if not counter-productive. They also either fail to sup­port the health of the indi­vid­u­als or groups involved — cus­tomers, users, sell­ers, employ­ers — or in fact directly reduce the rel­a­tive health of these par­ties. With Conway’s Law as a guide, we dis­cov­ered that the struc­ture or form of an orga­ni­za­tion influ­ences or deter­mines the nature and qual­ity of the things the orga­ni­za­tion cre­ates.
This all con­cerns the past: so now it’s time to look ahead, at the new enter­prise. Of course, scry­ing the future inevitably relies on a mix­ture of hand wav­ing, vague pro­nounce­ments, and the occa­sional “it’s not pos­si­ble yet to do what this implies” to point the way for­ward. What’s often lack­ing is a present-tense exam­ple to serve as clear har­bin­ger of the future to come. I came across an exam­ple today, drawn from the debate sur­round­ing the propo­si­tion that the U.S. Army is close to a break­ing point. In an episode of On Point titled Are US Forces Stretched Too Thin?, sev­eral pan­elists (names not avail­able from the pro­gram web­site yet) made three telling points about the Army that show it as an orga­ni­za­tion in tran­si­tion from the old model enter­prise into a new form, albeit one whose out­lines remain fuzzy. I’ll para­phrase these points:

  1. The Army’s guid­ing vision and doc­trines (the ideas that shape think­ing at the high­est lev­els of the ser­vice) do not align with the real­ity of it’s status.
  2. The peo­ple for­mu­lat­ing Army vision and doc­trines are not will­ing or able to change per­spec­tive quickly enough to allow the Army to accom­plish it’s mis­sion while main­tain­ing itself in good health. Wit­ness recent recruit­ing fail­ures and pro­mo­tion trends, and their per­haps dire impli­ca­tions for the Army’s long-term health.
  3. In response, indi­vid­ual field com­man­ders in the Army are inno­vat­ing new doc­trines from the bot­tom up, at the com­pany level.

To sup­port this prac­tice, com­pany com­man­ders cre­ated a forum for shar­ing inno­va­tions amongst them­selves, called CO Team: Com­pa­ny­Command. The descrip­tion reads, “CompanyCommand.com is com­pany commanders-present, future, and past. We are in an ongo­ing pro­fes­sional con­ver­sa­tion about lead­ing sol­diers and build­ing combat-ready units. The con­ver­sa­tion is tak­ing place on front porches, around HMMWV hoods, in CPs, mess halls, and FOBs around the world. By engag­ing in this ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion cen­tered around lead­ing sol­diers, we are becom­ing more effec­tive lead­ers, and we are grow­ing units that are more effec­tive. Amaz­ing things hap­pen when com­mit­ted lead­ers in a pro­fes­sion con­nect, share what they are learn­ing, and spur each other on to become bet­ter and bet­ter.“
It’s the third point that gives us a clue about the nature of the new enter­prise. CompanyCommand.com is an exam­ple of a ‘knowl­edge mar­ket­place’ cre­ated and main­tained by an infor­mal net­work within an orga­ni­za­tion. Knowl­edge mar­ket­places are one of the com­po­nents of what McK­in­sey calls The 21st Cen­tury Orga­ni­za­tion. Knowl­edge mar­ket­places allow knowl­edge buy­ers “to gain access to con­tent that is more insight­ful and rel­e­vant, as well as eas­ier to find and assim­i­late, than alter­na­tive sources are.“
McK­in­sey believes that these mar­kets — as well as com­pan­ion forms for exchang­ing valu­able human assets called tal­ent mar­kets — require care­ful invest­ment to begin func­tion­ing.
”…work­ing mar­kets need objects of value for trad­ing, to say noth­ing of prices, exchange mech­a­nisms, and com­pe­ti­tion among sup­pli­ers. In addi­tion, stan­dards, pro­to­cols, reg­u­la­tions, and mar­ket facil­i­ta­tors often help mar­kets to work bet­ter. These con­di­tions don’t exist nat­u­rally — a knowl­edge mar­ket­place is an arti­fi­cial, man­aged one — so com­pa­nies must put them in place.“
On this, I dis­agree. Com­pa­ny­Command is an exam­ple of a proto-form knowl­edge mar­ket­place that appears to be self-organized and reg­u­lated.
Mov­ing on, another com­po­nent of the new enter­prise iden­ti­fed by McK­in­sey is the for­mal net­work. A for­mal net­work “…enables peo­ple who share com­mon inter­ests to col­lab­o­rate with rel­a­tively lit­tle ambi­gu­ity about decision-making author­ity — ambi­gu­ity that gen­er­ates inter­nal orga­ni­za­tional com­pli­ca­tions and ten­sion in matrixed struc­tures.“
In McKinsey’s analy­sis, for­mal net­works con­trast with infor­mal social net­works in sev­eral ways. For­mal net­works require des­ig­nated own­ers respon­si­ble for build­ing com­mon capa­bil­i­ties and deter­min­ing invest­ment lev­els, incen­tives for mem­ber­ship, defined bound­aries or ter­ri­to­ries, estab­lished stan­dards and pro­to­cols, and shared infra­struc­ture or tech­nol­ogy plat­forms.
My guess is that Com­pa­ny­Command again meets all these for­mal net­work cri­te­ria to a par­tial extent, which is why it is a good har­bin­ger of the forms com­mon to the new enter­prise, and a sign of an orga­ni­za­tion in tran­si­tion.
Can you think of other exam­ples of new enter­prise forms, or orga­ni­za­tions in tran­si­tion?
In the next post in this series, we’ll move on from the struc­ture of the new enter­prise to talk about the new enter­prise expe­ri­ence, try­ing to track a num­ber of trends to under­stand their impli­ca­tions for the user expe­ri­ence of the new enter­prise environment.

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