Category Archives: Social Networking

Flowers, Vegetables & Systems Practice

Two years ago I was about to embark on the first of two modules with the OU in Systems Practice. Whilst the two modules were in themselves interesting, the level of interaction with fellow students was quite astounding. Working on these courses as a distance learner can be a lonely existence yet the student forums for both the module work, and the coffee break chat, provided motivation and encouragement. It was very pleasing to be able to join many of those same students through a LinkedIn group and carry on those discussions when the modules were over.

One topic that is frequently revisited by the Systems Practice alumni is why the Systems Thinking approaches and practice are not being welcomed into many of the organisations that we work in.

Before I go any further, let me nail my colours to the mast on this topic: I embarked on this course of study because I felt it had a lot of benefit supporting what I do in my daily role, and it has delivered more than I expected, I am still learning and finding more to use every day. However, the systems thinking approaches are part of the tool kit, we still need governance, planning and the other components of management that introduce a level of rigour.

However our world is changing. It is becoming much more dynamic, and dare I say chaotic, as we see new organisational approaches such as: outsourcing, open innovation, and micro-organisation. I regularly see pieces exhorting us all to embrace “new” ideas such as “Design Thinking”, “Big Data” or “Social Networking at work”. All of these require news forms of management thinking in order that we survive & prosper in this new and rapidly changing environment. And yet the majority of senior figures seem to resolutely hold on to the older ways of management, eschewing any new ideas that could help.

And that is where a lot of the discussion amongst my fellow alumni has focused: just where & when will Systems Practice break through and become not only acceptable but substantive. Will, like our economy if Liam Halligan is to be believed, it be that when we are in dire straights, only then will there be an openness to any new ideas? Or is there so much inertia behind the methods employed by the large organisations & consultancies that these will continue to hold sway, not only where they do actually apply but in the areas where other approaches would be more suitable?

What has triggered these thoughts is a video at TED called Pam’s TED. How we can eat our landscapes in which Pam Warhurst describes how they changed the view of the people of Todmorden about green spaces through “propaganda gardening”.

Now, by highlighting this I’m not advocating that we go around massive business transformation by planting courgettes & sweet corn, but Pam does raise some interesting views that could be swiped (creatively of course) to apply more widely including to how we could get visibility and adoption of systems practice where it provides more value than existing methods.

So what is the systems practice equivalent of the green patch outside the railway station – something that is highly visible yet went uncared for before the “Todmorden Terrors” got to it, something that makes an impact on you as soon as you arrive at Todmorden. Watching the video I’m reminded of Captain Boycott of Yorkshire Airlines flying where he liked, at what height he liked. Pam talks about having no strategy and no permission, but just getting on with it anyway.

The Todmorden approach doesn’t hurt anyone, or take anything away from anyone and therefore is essentially benign. Yet it’s highly visible and people get a benefit. It’s also driven by unselfishness. And that’s what we have to do with getting systems practice made visible: find ways to use the approaches to provide benefits without hurting anyone. And that probably means doing the equivalent of working in the unwanted spaces at first. Here we go!

Was the Terminator so wrong after all?

I get called all sorts of things by friends; colleagues; fellow OU students etc, but a common description I get applied to me is “random“. Personally I prefer to think of it not so much as “being random”, as more making connections between things that I come across. It’s just that sometimes I don’t make all of the connections explicit which is why some of my thoughts may be hard to follow.

Anyway, I saw something recently that, for me, clicked into place and frankly worried me a lot. So, below is my attempt to bring to bear the connections and hopefully elaborate on what concerned me so much. Here goes…

Thought # 1

I must start by admitting to having made a bit of a mistake. For several years I have disregarded friends & relatives who have, to my mind, been overzealous in their protestations that social networking is insecure and betrays their privacy. My argument has been that if you (a) want to be an early adopter, and (b) are happy anyway to share whatever you share on these sites, then you have only yourself to blame if your privacy is breached.

Over time, Facebook, Twitter et al, have all moved from being something that was the preserve of our young children to being pervasive. As I drive to work in the morning I pass advertisment hordings which include Twitter & Facebook monikers, the BBC news reporters proudly have their Twitter names displayed. Familiarity has made these things acceptable to us all, and now we all entrust our thoughts, photographs and comments to them with impunity.

Thought # 2

From time to time I read about more developments from Intel (other CPU manufacturers are available!) about the research efforts to squeeze multiple CPU cores onto a wafer & deploy them to get higher & higher levels of compute power. The efforts, called Intel Tera-Scale are steadily making progress. Parallel computing is nothing new, I wrote a research paper as an undergraduate back in 1981 on methods for parallel computing, but then it was all in the domain of the large corporations and academic research. Now you can watch videos of Intel researchers doing mundane things with 80-core processors: porting Linux, running graphical networking tools. How long will it be before I upgrade my PC to a 64-core I wonder.

Thought # 3

A piece in SmartPlanet called Meet your new boss: a machine. In essence a Gartner Analyst called Nigel Rayner was making some rather off-the-wall claims. Now I’ve met Nigel a couple of times, and he’s a good guy, so his claims are more to provoke thoughts but he’s saying that we’re now developing decision rule capabilities in software that allow us to take multiple inputs, crash them together and evaluate complex rules about them so that the software can take very complex decisions quickly. [Notice I say “take” not “make” – the rules are still followed automatically, so we’re not at SkyNet yet]

The problem is that the software needs a mass of compute power, which many years ago (when I was an undergraduate writing my paper) would have been multimillion dollar stuff. Nigel’s view is that we’re making hardware cheaper and commoditising the parallel processing software which is starting to put this sort of complex decision-making not only into the realm of the possible, but also into the realm of the affordable.

First “Ahhh” Moment

But our friends at Intel research (and frankly other places too) are developing multiprocessor silicon and parallel processing software to drive into the commodity market. It’s now not whimsy to ask “When can I have a 64/128/256-core PC?”. This stuff is coming and we’re seeing the large software companies working on applications around complex business rules.

Thought # 4

There is a new trend which I’m finding disturbing. Today I was looking at an innocuous web site, the San Jose Mercury News tech pages (yes, laugh a minute stuff but very useful in my line of work) when I noticed that it had pulled through my Facebook details, inviting me to like the page. My concern was that I was at work, on a PC that I only use on Facebook very occasionally, yet SJMN had found the necessary on my PC, & then read my Facebook profile. Thank goodness it hadn’t found my LinkedIn profile.

The “Arghhh” Moment

But what if it had? What if the SJMN, or any other online journal, decided to look at my LinkedIn connections, and the article I was looking at and then automatically sent them a link to it on the grounds that if I was interested, then they might be?

Or what if it had checked the connections for a certain demographic, and then intelligently forwarded to my contacts it felt were worthy of the content, creating a set of “cyber haves” and “cyber have-nots”.

How about it isn’t a media site but a product company? And the product company is automatically trawling my social network to see who I know that would be useful for them to approach based on decisions, from a complex rules engine based on commoditised multi-cpu processors that are now available.

Or better still, how about it measures how influential I am from how well I am connected and then uses some complex business rules, again enacted via some large multi-core parallel processing to decide how worthy I am of seeing the site content? Now I’m becoming the one categorised as “cyber-worthy” or “cyber unworthy”.

To be honest, I’m still not too worried about this until I get to the last point. Some of that capability will be with us soon and some, as Nigel Rayner says, will take longer. In one sense, I’m not too fazed by this march of progress, as long as the machines aren’t “thinking” then there are benefits to be had.

What scares the wits out of me is the social change that this brings about. I’m already modifying my behaviour around software. I used to turn on the TV or radio and they came on immediately, but now in the digital world they need time to boot up and initialise. I now know not to press buttons on the remote control until the TV has had time to initialise the various functions, my behaviour is influenced by the software in the TV.

But if I get into the wider implications of software making decisions based around my long-term online lifestyle, then I’m going to start modifying how I work with social networking etc so that I change my ratings. And furthermore the few who stay away from this stuff will rapidly be penalised.

We already have skills based accreditations around technicla products. I can be a very clever CISCO implementer with a vast experience, but if I haven’t passed the exams then my value on the jobs market is reduced. What we are potentially talking about here is that my value could also be reduced if I don’t know, or worse still don’t have recommendations from, the right people.

So, the social network privacy issues become more important as we go forward. I can’t afford to be public, but soon I could end up not being able to afford not to be. I’m not convinced it’s a good thing….