Notes On a Full Day of Innovation

I was at a full day about innovation at Mediaplaza in Utrecht today. We used a room that had a stage in the center and chairs on four sides around it. This is a bit weird as the speaker has to look in four directions to be able to connect with the audience. The funny thing is that it actualy works (also because there are four screens on each wall): each of the speakers could do nothing else than be dynamic on the stage.

Below my public notes on a few of the presentations:

Gijs van der Hulst, Business Development Manager at Google

Gijs kicked off his presentation by showing this Project Glass demo:

The Wall Street Journal has done some research and found out that there has been an increase of 65% in how often top 500 companies mention the word “innovation” in their public documents in the last five years. Unfortunately the business practices of these companies have not really changed. How can you really effect change?

Google has nine “rules for innovation”:

  1. Innovation, not instant perfection. Another way of saying this is “launch and iterate”: first push it to the market and then see if it is working.
  2. Ideas come from everywhere. They can come from employees, but also from acquisitions or from outsiders.
  3. A licence to pursue your dreams. An example of a 20% project that was very succesful is Gmail. This was started by somebody who didn’t like how email was working at the time.
  4. Morph projects – don’t kill them. Google’s failed social efforts (Buzz, Wave) has taught it valuable lessons for its current effort: Google+
  5. Share as much information as you can. This is very different from most companies. The default for documents within the company is to share with everyone.
  6. Users, users, users. At Google they innovate on the basis what users want, not on profit.
  7. Data is apolitical. Opinions are less important than the data that supports them. They always seek evidence in the data to support their ideas. Personal note from me: Really? Really?? You cannot be serious!
  8. Creativity love constraints. Their obsession with speed (with hard criteria for how quickly the interface has to react to user input) is an example of an enabler for many of their innovations.
  9. You’re brilliant? We’re hiring. In the end it is about people and Google puts a lot of effort into making sure they have the right people on board.

Larger companies are more bureaucratic than smaller companies. Google is now more bureaucratic than it used to be. One of the ways this can be battled is by reorganizing which is exactly what Google has done recently.

Sean Gourley, Co-founder and CTO of Quid

Sean talked about our eye as an incredible machine with an incredible range. We enhanced our sight through microscopy and telescopy which opened up views towards the very small and the very big. We have yet to develop something that helps us see the very complex. He calls that “macroscopy”. For macroscopy you need:

  • big data
  • algorithms
  • visualization

He used this framing for his PhD work on understanding war. His team used publicly available information to analyze the war. When wikileaks leaked the US sig event database they could validate their data set and found that they had 81% coverage. His work was published in Science and in Nature. He decided to take it further though as he really wanted to understand complex systems. They needed to go from 300K in funding and 6 people towards an ambition level of about $100M and a 1000 people. He sought venture capital and had Peter Thiel as his first funder for Quid.

Sean then demoed the Quid software analyzing the term “big data”. Quid allows you to interactively play with the information. They extract entities from the information. So for example there are about 1500 companies involved in the big data space which can be put into different themes allowing you to see the connections between them while also sizing them for influence. Next was a fractal zoom into American Express where they looked at their patents portfolio and explored their IP creating a cognitive map of what it is that American Express does.

In 1997 Deep Blue changed the way we discussed artificial intelligence. We were beaten in chess by brute horsepower. As a reaction Kasparov started a new way of playing chess where you are allowed to bring anything you want to the chess table. The combination of human and machine turned out to be the best one. Gourley sees that as a metaphor for what he is trying to do with Quid: enhancing human cognitive capacity with machines, augmenting our ability to perceive this complex world.

Sean also talked about the adjacent possible: the way that the world could be if we used the pieces that are on the table right in front of you (e.g. the Apollo 13 Air Filter and duct tape).

His research on insurgents has taught him that some of them are successful and when they are, it is because of the following reasons:

  1. Many groups
  2. Internal Competition
  3. Long Distance Connections
  4. Reinforce Success
  5. Fail
  6. Shatter
  7. Redistribute

Polly Summer, Chief Adoption Officer at Salesforce

Salesforce was recently recognized by Forbes as the most innovative company in the world. According to Polly the tech industry has significant innovations every 10 years. For each of these ten-year cycles the industry has 10 times more users.

The ingredients for continueous innovation at Salesforce are: Alignment & Collaboration, “A Beginners Mind”, Agility, Listen to customers and Think big.

Polly talked about how she used their social platform called Chatter to collaborate in a completely “flat” way. They now even use Chatter as a means to make the worldwide management offsite meeting radically transparent. The next step in the Chatter platform is to “gamify” it and let the individual contributors rise and recognize their contributions (they’ve acquired Rypple for example).

Agile is about maintaining innovation velocity and delivering at speed. The “prioritize, create, deliver, get feedback, iterate”-cycle needs to be sped up. One way of doing this is by listening to your customers as they are all a natural source for ideas. She showed a couple of examples from Starbucks and KLM:

Polly then shared an example of where Salesforce made a mistake: they announced a premium service that they wanted to charge extra for. Customers complained loudly on social media and within 24 hours they reversed their decision.

In 2000 they asked themselves the questions: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Amazon.com? Right now in 2011 they asked themselves a different question: Why isn’t all enterprise software like Facebook? She would consider 2011 the year of Social Revolution. Salesforce’s vision is that of a social enterprise: allowing the employee social network and the customer social network to connect (preferably in a single social profile).

Bjarte Bogsnes, VP Performance Management Development for Statoil, chairman of Beyond Budgeting Roundtable Europe

On Fortune 500 Statoil rates first on social responsibility and seventh on Innovation.

Bjarte discussed the problems with traditional management. He used my favourite metaphor, traffic, comparing traffic lights to roundabouts. Roundabouts are more efficient, but also more difficult to navigate. A roundabout is values-based and a traffic light is rules-based. Roundabouts are self-regulating and this is what we need in management models too. He then touched on Theory X and Theory Y.

When you combine Theory X with a perception of a stable business environment you get traditional management (rigid, detailed and annual, rules-based micromanagement, centralised command and control, secrecy, sticks and carrots). If you perceive the business environment as stable and you have Theory Y your management is based on values, autonomy, transparency (can be an alternative control mechanism) and internal motivation. If you combine Theory X with a dynamic business environment you get relative and directional goals, dynamic planning, forecasting and resource allocation and holistic performance evaluation.

Finally, if you combine Theory Y with a dynamic business environment you get Beyond Budgeting.

Beyond Budgeting has a set of twelve principles (it isn’t a recipe, but more of an idea or a philosophy):

Governance and transparency

  • Values: Bind people to a common cause; not a central plan
  • Governance: Govern through shared values and sound judgement; not detailed rules and regulations
  • Transparency Make information open and transparent; don’t restrict and control it

Accountable teams

  • Teams: Organize around a seamless network of accountable teams; not centralized functions
  • Trust: Trust teams to regulate their performance; don’t micro-manage them
  • Accountability: Base accountability on holistic criteria and peer reviews; not on hierarchical relationships

Goals and rewards

  • Goals: Set ambitious medium-term goals; not short-term fixed targets
  • Rewards: Base rewards on relative performance; not on meeting fixed targets

Planning and controls

  • Planning: Make planning a continuous and inclusive process; not a top-down annual event
  • Coordination: Coordinate interactions dynamically; not through annual budgets
  • Resources: Make resources available just-in-time; not just-in-case
  • Controls: Base controls on fast, frequent feedback; not budget variances

Most companies use budgeting for three different things:

  • Setting targets
  • Forecasting
  • Resource allocation

When we combine these three things in a single number then we might run into its conflicting purposes. So the first step towards Beyond Budgeting is separating these three things. So for example the target is what you want to happen and the forecast is what you think will happen. The next step is to become more event driven rather than calendar driven.

Statoil has a programme called “Ambition to Action”:

  • Performance is ultimately about performing better than those we compare ourselves with.
  • Do the right thing in the actual situation, guided by the Statoil book, your Ambition to action, decision criteria & authorities and sound business judgement.
  • Within this framework, resources are made available or allocated case-by-case.
  • Business follow up is forward looking* and action oriented.
  • Performance evaluation is a holistic assessment of delivery and behaviour.

From strategic ambitions to KPIs (“Nothing happens just because you measure: you don’t lose weight by weighing yourself.”) and then into actions/forecasts and finally into individual or team goals.

Watching TED Global 2012 Streamed Live From Edinburgh

TED Global 2012

TED Global 2012

Today I attended a virtual TED session at Kennisnet in Zoetermeer. Kennisnet has a TED Live membership and hosted a few guests on their verdieping. I watched two sessions of about six talks each streamed straight from Edinburgh. Below my semi-live blog with the things that triggered me.

Shades of Openness

Chris Anderson kicked of this session on radical transparency (one of my favourite topics) by saying that transparency is a great driver of moral progress, but that it is also easy to get carried away by it. This session thus also presented some of the darker sides of openness.

Malte Spitz has a lot of courage: he has a significant stutter, but was still on stage talking about the power of mobile phones. He talked about the EU data detention directive which tells providers that they have to store the data of their customers for months on end. There have been a lot of protests against this. Spitz asked his telecome provider Deutsche Telecom multiple times to give him all the data that they stored about him. They wouldn’t send him the information, so he took them to court. The court case was settled and Deutsche Telecom gave him 35830 lines of information (basically six months of his life) on a CD. He decided to make this information public to show people what data retention truly means. He visualised it in a scary way:

Malte Spitz' data

Malte Spitz’ data

This shows that if you have access to this information you can control your society. He considers it a blueprint for countries like Iran and the future of a surveillance society. States love this type of information. Privacy is not an outdated concept and should continue to be a value in this 21s century. Spitz says we have to contineously remind ourselves and our friends to fight for our self-determination in this digital age.

Spitze’s talk reminded me that I still have not published the results of my Privacy Inzage Machine exercise that did a few months back. I should really make an effort to get this online.

Ivan Krastev is a political theorist from Bulgaria talking about the crisis of democracy. He wants to question the popular belief that transparency and openness will fix our democratic problems. He questioned the optimism of the “Church of TED” and contrasted it with “the most pessimistic country in the world”: Bulgaria. He wants to know how come we live in societies that are much free-er than before while at the same time having lost our faith in the democratic institutions and trust in politics. One issue he sees is the huge increase of unequality in our societies.

With a transparent government we might get into a situation where we have a “reverse 1984”: all of us monitoring the politicians. What would that mean? When we put all our politicians under the microscope will consistency become more important than common sense? Politics is about people changing their views. Will that become harder? We should also remember that any unveilling is also a veilling: there will always be things that people will hold back. Maybe the best way to shut people up is to publish everything they say on the Internet.

Gerard Senehi is an experimental mentalist. He performed a few relatively lame illusions around telekinesis and mind-reading. I guess this was the entertainment part of this session.

Gabriella Coleman is a digital anthropologist. She has been studying Anonymous for the last three years doing “ethnographic diplomacy”. According to her it is very hard to answer the simple question: Who/what is anonymous? One of their more famous campaigns was Operation Payback, but they also consist of smaller groups like LulzSec and Antisec. In general she would describe anonymous as irreverent. Slowly the movement has become more politicised which probably started with their “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” around Scientology.

Anonymous scales and is participatory; it is not simply hackers. To become anonymous you only have to self-identify as being anonymous. Anonymous may seem chaotic, but most targets are not random. They put on a good performance, obvious even to their detractors. They are a formidable PR machine that becomes a PR nightmare for others. Their political art is that of the spectacle. They dramatize the importance of anonimity and pricavy in an era when both are rapidly eroding. There visible and invisible.

What is their future? They’ve been plagued with government crackdowns and brand fatigue, but she believes that there will continue to be a group of people who care to protect the Internet and who might fight back when some forces and institutions are trying to erode the power of the net. As an aside: Wired has just published a good article on Anonymous too.

Walid al-Saqaf a journalist and TED fellow has developed a program called Alkasir that is designed to map and circumvent censorship in countries that censor the Internet. He shared some stats from the usage of his program: around 90% is Facebook usage.

Leslie T. Chang is a journalist who has spend a great deal of time talking to the people who make the things we use everyday: the factory workers making our running shoes or our phones. She says that our usual narrative equating Western greed to Chinese suffering is way too simple. Chinese workers are not forced into factories because of our insatiable demand for iPads, they migrate away from the countryside towards the big cities looking for a larger life. We shouldn’t think that we can know what the individuals making up what we see as the labouring masses are really thinking. Very few of them want to go back to the way things used to be.

I thought Chang’s talk itself mainly showed her prejudices going into this assignment: of course each of these factory workers has their individual life consisting of dreams and ambitions. Why wouldn’t they have? And yes, of course there is upwards mobility. But is that really the most interesting thing you can say about globalisation after spending two years talking to these people?

Neil Harbisson cannot see color (he is totally color blind, everything he sees is grey). He wears a device he calls the eyeborg allowing him to hear color. He created an electronic eye in 2003 that transforms light frequencies into tones allowing him to hear those tones using bone conduction. After wearing it for a while it became a true extension of his brain. Life has changed a lot for him now that he sees color. Visiting a supermarket is like going to a nightclub. He now dresses in a way that “sounds good”. During the talk he was dressed in “C-major” and he goes to funerals dressed in “B-minor”. He can use food to create melodies so that he can “eat songs”. When he meets people he likes to create sound portraits of them, finding for example eyes that sound similar. An interesting secondary effect is that normal sounds started to sound like colors. So he has created paintings from songs or from speeches. He can differentiate 360 colors (all degrees from the colour wheel), but he can also hear infrared and ultraviolet which are frequencies that normal people can’t see. He has started the cyborg foundation trying to encourage people to extend their senses through devices like eyeborgs, noseborgs, earborgs and fingerborgs.

Wonderful talk! I would love to make “extending your sensory perception” an informal research theme going forward. It reminded me of the Wired story about the haptic compass. Is there anybody who is willing to lend me some extra-sensory perception gear? Maybe something to be made in the Amsterdam Hackerspace Technologia Incognita? Here is an interesting blog belonging to the Extra Senses, Extra Interference research group at the Interfaculty ArtScience in The Hague.

Misbehaving Beautifully

Sarah Caddick introduced the topic of the talks in this session: they all relate to the brain in some way.

Read Montague is a reformed computational neuroscientist. He talked about what we can now do with fMRI technology. It has allowed us to study human beings to isolate mental functions. His research uses economic games (like the ultimatum game) and measures the cognitive apparatus that people use when they play these games. He has created technology to synchronize multiple fMRI machines and link them together on the net. For the first time we can now measure interacting brains simultaneously.

Elyn Saks is an academic with chronic schizophrenia. She described a psychotic episode she had years ago. She had delusions, hallucinations and weird/loose associations and was hospitalized in a psychiatric institution where she was restrained for many hours on end on many days. She wrote a paper about physical restraints and now is pro-psychiatry and anti-force. She also described how she tried to get off medication and what negative effects this had. Why is she able to address us like this today:

  1. She has had excellent treatment
  2. She has many friends that know her and know her illnesses and support her
  3. She works at an accomodating and even supportive workplace

But even though she has these three things, the stigma against mental illness is still so strong that it took her a long time before she was willing to talk about her schizophrenia in public. She asks us to stop criminalizing mental ilness (with the LA County Jail being the US’ largest mental institution) and to know that there aren’t schizophrenics, instead there are people with schizophrenia.

Ruby Wax started by thanking the creators of the chemicals that allow her to function. Without them she doubts she would have been able to conquer her depression. She had a terrible bout of depression and was institutionalized with the “other inmates”. She got very little support from the outside world, just a few calls telling her to “perk up”. How come we don’t get sympathy when our brains aren’t working properly? According to her there is a mismatch between how we are hardwired biologically and what modern life is throwing at us. This is why our pets are happier than us. She started a project/website titled Black Dog Tribe with the motto: Mental illness does not discriminate, it does stigmatise.

Vikram Patel talked about a life expectancy gap between people with a mental ilness and people without one: in developed countries this is 20 years, in developing countries this is worse. Many people all over the world don’t get the treatment they need. There isn’t enough mental health professionals in the developing world. He found books on task-shifting in health (like this one) and on the basis of that created the concept of SUNDAR:

Simplify the message
UNpack the treatment
Deliver it where people are
Affordable and available human resources
Reallocation of specialists to train and supervise

With SUNDAR ordinary people are taught how to deliver health and psychiatric services. To help this end forward he started a movement for global mental health.

Wayne McGregor talked a bit about the body as a very literate entity and proprioception. He then live-choreographed a piece of dance inspired by the T from the TED logo and had two dancer interpret his movement into movement themselves. Fascinating to see a choreochrapher in action, I can’t remember seeing that before.

#4T2 at the Dutch Kennisnet

In the Netherlands we have an organization called Kennisnet (literally translated as “Knowledgenet”) that was created by the Dutch government to be a center of expertise, facilitation and innovation around the topic of Information Technology and learning.

Recently they have started a project titled #4T2 where they bring together 42 people to shape their innovation agenda. The group of 42 consists of 21 learners, young people who have shown that they are special in some way and 21 professionals, people with an interest in learning and technology (I am part of this second group):

The 42 of #4T2

The 42 of #4T2

We had our first session on May 21st. The presence of 21 young and extremely bright people made me feel old (and inconsequential) to be frank. I realized that there is a new generation and that I have lost touch with them since I left my teaching job more than 5 years ago.

I had interesting conversations with Robert van Hoesel who is helping kickstart a new mobile provider for young people *bliep and with Niels Gouman who runs the website and consultancy business Strategisch Lui (“strategically lazy”) where he teaches freelancers how to be more effective with their time.

The young people had to introduce the professionals and vice versa. Dzifa Kusenuh had the task to introduce me. Her printer wasn’t working so she decided to draw two pictures and talk to them.

Who is Hans? (Click to enlarge)

Who is Hans? (Click to enlarge)

What does Hans do? (Click to enlarge)

What does Hans do? (Click to enlarge)

I loved seeing what she picked up on from the 30 minute phone conversation we had (check her interpretation of the org-chart for example). I guess this is the “essential Hans”, thank you Dzifa!

I’ll try and make sure to blog about the next meeting where we will discuss some of Kennisnet’s innovation themes.

Network Lunch at Dutch Game Garden

Dutch Game Garden

Dutch Game Garden

Kars Alfrink of Hubbub invited me to come to a network lunch at the Dutch Game Garden in Utrecht last Wednesday.

I hadn’t been there before and was pleasantly surprised with the level of game-related development activity the directors Viktor Wijnen and Jan-Pieter van Seventer have managed to organize in a single building. More than 30 game organizations have their offices in the building, they have an incubator function and they sponsor a Game Developers Club geared for increasing the level of collaboration between students of game design. Commercial companies and educational institutes are mixed. Smart concepts like the option to have a virtual office or the renting of single desks have made this the obvious place to be for anybody interested in the gaming scene.

It must be possible to use this cross-pollination concept for other domains too. Where is the “Dutch Industrial Design Garden” or the “Dutch Journalism Garden” or the “Dutch Indie Multimedia Publishing Garden”? It will be hard to think of a better way to induce innovation in a domain on a particular location.

Kars showed me his book collection and talked about some of the design projects he is doing. I’ve written before about Code 4, he is working on a game for Het Universiteitsmuseum in which parents and children use a single iPhone to explore the museum and compete with each other and he gave me some background on the ideas behind Pig Chase, a game that will be played between humans and pigs:

A new theme for my thinking about learning and working will be the idea of the reflective practitioner nicely defined in Wikipedia as somebody with the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of contineous learning. Kars obviously embodies this spirit (read about his talk at Lift12 if your are in doubt: The Social Contract Put at Play). I have not often seen this level of deep thinking about what you are trying to accomplish with games with any of the other game “vendors” that I’ve met in the last year. Actually, I think we lack reflective practitioners in general in the learning industry. How can we change this?

I thoroughly enjoyed playing some of the games at the lunch by the way. My personal favorite of the afternoon was “Tennes”, made by the two-man game studio Vlambeer. Below an interview with the duo:

Their games are insanely fun to play. I’ve just lost two and half hours on Radical Fishing, their “simulation of the noble pastime that is traditional redneck fishing”, and I love everything about Luftrauser:

Reflecting on South by Southwest (SxSW) 2012

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

SxSW: The Place to Be (photo CC-licensed by Debbs)

It has been a few months since I attended SxSW in Austin. Time to do a bit of reflection and see which things have stuck with me as major takeaways and trends to remember.

Let me start by saying that going there has changed the way I think about learning and technology in many tacit ways that are hard to describe. That must have something to do with the techno-optimism, the incredible scale/breadth and the inclusive atmosphere. I will definitely make it a priority to go there again. The following things made me think:

Teaching at scale

One thing that we are now slowly starting to understand is how to do things at scale. Virtualized technology allows us to cooperate and collaborate in groups that are orders of magnitude larger than groups coming together in a physical space. The ways of working inside these massive groups are different too.

Wikipedia was probably one of the first sites that showed the power of doing things at this new scale (or was it Craigslist?). Now we have semi-commercial platforms like WordPress.com or hyper-commercial platforms like Facebook that are leveraging the same type of affordances.

The teaching profession is now catching on too. From non-commercial efforts like MOOCs and the Peer 2 Peer university to initiatives springing from major universities: Stanford’s AI course, Udacity, Coursera, MITx to the now heavily endowed Khan Academy: all have found ways to scale a pedagogical process from a classroom full of students to audiences of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. They have now even become mainstream news with Thom Friedman writing about them in the New York Times (conveniently forgetting to mention the truly free alternatives).

I don’t see any of this in Corporate Learning Functions yet. The only way we currently help thousands of staff learn is through non-facilitated e-learning modules. That paradigm is now 15-20 years old and has not taken on board any of the lessons that the net has taught us. Soon we will all agree that this type of e-learning is mostly ineffectual and thus ultimately also non-efficient. The imperative for change is there. Events like the Jams that IBM organize are just the beginning of new ways of learning at the scale of the web.

Small companies creating new/innovative practices

The future of how we will soon all work is already on view in many small companies around the world. Automattic blew my mind with their global fully distributed workforce of slightly over a hundred people. This allows them to truly only hire the best people for the job (rather than the people who live conveniently close to an office location). All these people need to start being productive is a laptop with an Internet connection.

Automattic has also found a way to make sure that people feel connected to the company and stay productive: they ask people to share as much as possible what it is they are doing (they called it “oversharing”, I would call it narrating your work). There are some great lessons there for small global virtual teams in large companies.

The smallest company possible is a company of one. A few sessions at SxSW focused on “free radicals”. These are people who work in ever-shifting small project groups and often aren’t very bounded to a particular location. These people live what Charles Handy, in The Elephant and The Flea, called a portfolio lifestyle. They are obviously not on a career track with promotions, instead they get their feedback, discipline and refinement from the meritocratic communities and co-working spaces they work in.

Personally I am wondering whether it is possible to become a free radical in a large multinational. Would that be the first step towards a flatter, less hierarchical and more expertise-based organization? I for one wouldn’t mind stepping outside of my line (and out of my silo) and finding my own work on the basis of where I can add the most value for the company. I know this is already possible in smaller companies (see the Valve handbook for an example). It will be hard for big enterprises to start doing this, but I am quite sure we will all end up there eventually.

Hyperspecialization

One trend that is very recognizable for me is hyperspecialization. When I made my first website around 2000, I was able to quickly learn everything there was to know about building websites. There were a few technologies and their scope was limited. Now the level of specialization in the creation of websites is incredible. There is absolutely no way anybody can be an expert in a substantial part of the total field. The modern-day renaissance man just can’t exist.

Transaction costs are going down everywhere. This means that integrated solutions and companies/people who can deliver things end-to-end are losing their competitive edge. As a client I prefer to buy each element of what I need from a niche specialist, rather then get it in one go from somebody who does an average job. Topcoder has made this a core part of their business model: each project that they get is split up into as many pieces as possible and individuals (free radicals again) bid on the work.

Let’s assume that this trends towards specialization will continue. What would that mean for the Learning Function? One thing that would become critical is your ability to quickly assess expertise. How do you know that somebody who calls themselves and expert really is one? What does this mean for competency management? How will this affect the way you build up teams for projects?

Evolution of the interface

Everybody was completely focused on mobile technology at SxSW. I couldn’t keep track of the number of new apps I’ve seen presented. Smartphones and tablets have created a completely new paradigm for interacting with our computers. We have all become enamoured with touch-interfaces right now and have bought into the idea that a mobile operating system contains apps and an appstore (with what I like to call the matching “update hell”).

Some visionaries were already talking about what lies beyond the touch-based interface and apps (e.g. Scott Jenson and Amber Case. More than one person talked about how location and other context creating attributes of the world will allow our computers to be much smarter in what they present to us. Rather than us starting an app to get something done, it will be the world that will push its apps on to us. You don’t have to start the app with the public transport schedule anymore, instead you will be shown the schedule as soon as you arrive at the bus stop. You don’t start Shazam to capture a piece of music, but your phone will just notify you of what music is playing around you (and probably what you could be listening to if you were willing to switch channel). Social cues will become even stronger and this means that cities become the places for what someone called “coindensity” (a place with more serendipity than other places).

This is likely to have profound consequences for the way we deliver learning. Physical objects and location will have learning attached to them and this will get pushed to people’s devices (especially when the systems knows that your certification is expired or that you haven’t dealt with this object before). You can see vendors of Electronic Performance Support Systems slowly moving into this direction. They are waiting for the mobile infrastructure to be there. The one thing we can start doing from today is to make sure we geotag absolutely everything.

One step further are brain-computer interfaces (commanding computers with pure thought). Many prototypes already exist and the first real products are now coming to market. There are many open questions, but it is fascinating to start playing with the conceptual design of how these tools would work.

Storytelling

Every time I go to any learning-related conference I come back with the same thought: I should really focus more on storytelling. At SxSW there was a psychologist making this point again. She talked about our tripartite brain and how the only way to engage with the “older” (I guess she meant Limbic) parts of our brain is through stories. Her memorable quote for me was: “You design for people. So the psychology matters.”

Just before SxSW I had the opportunity to spend two days at the amazing Applied Minds. They solve tough engineering problems, bringing ideas from concept to working prototype (focusing on the really tough things that other companies are not capable of doing). What was surprising is that about half of their staff has an artistic background. They realise the value of story. I’m convinced there is a lot to be gained if large engineering companies would start to take their diversity statements seriously and started hiring writers, architects, sculptors and cineasts.

Open wins again

Call it confirmation bias (my regular readers know I always prefer “open”), but I kept seeing examples at SxSW where open technology beats closed solutions. My favourite example was around OpenStreetMap: companies have been relying on Google Maps to help them out with their mapping needs. Many of them are now starting to realise how limiting Google’s functionality is and what kind of dependence it creates for them. Many companies are switching to Open Street Map. Examples include Yahoo (Flickr), Apple and Foursquare.

Maybe it is because Google is straddling the line between creating more value than they capture and not doing that: I heartily agree with Tim O’Reilly and Doc Searl‘s statements at SxSW that free customers will always create more value than captured ones.

There is one place where open doesn’t seem to be winning currently and that is in the enterprise SaaS market. I’ve been quite amazed with the mafia like way in which Yammer has managed to acquire its customers: it gives away free accounts and puts people in a single network with other people in their domain. Yammer maximizes the virality and tells people they will get more value out of Yammer if they invite their colleagues. Once a few thousand users are in the network large companies have three options:

  1. Don’t engage with Yammer and let people just keep using it without paying for it. This creates unacceptable information risks and liability. Not an option.
  2. Tell people that they are not allowed to use Yammer. This is possible in theory, but would most likely enrage users, plus any network blocks would need to be very advanced (blocking Yammer emails so that people can’t use their own technology to access Yammer). Not a feasible option.
  3. Bite the bullet and pay for the network. Companies are doing this in droves. Yammer is acquiring customers straight into a locked-in position.

SaaS-based solutions are outperforming traditional IT solutions. Rather than four releases a year (if you are lucky), these SaaS based offerings release multiple times a day. They keep adding new functionality based on their customers demands. I have an example of where a SaaS based solution was a factor 2000 faster in implementation (2 hours instead of 6 months) and a factor 5000 cheaper ($100 instead of $500,000) than the enterprise IT way of doing things. The solution was likely better too. Companies like Salesforce are trying very hard to obsolete the traditional IT department. I am not sure how companies could leverage SaaS without falling in another lock-in trap though.

Resource constraints as an innovation catalyst

One lesson that I learned during my trip through the US is that affluence is not a good situation to innovate from. Creativity comes from constraints (this is why Arjen Vrielink and I kept constraining ourselves in different ways for our Parallax series). The African Maker “Safari” at SxSW showed what can become possible when you combine severe resource constraints with regulatory whitespace. Make sure to subscribe to Makeshift Magazine if you are interested to see more of these type of inventions and innovations.

I believe that many large corporations have too much budget in their teams to be really innovative. What would it mean if you wouldn’t cut the budget with 10% every year, but cut it with 90% instead? Wouldn’t you save a lot of money and force people to be more creative? In a world of abundance we will need to limit ourselves artificially to be able to deliver to our best potential.

Education ≠ Content

There is precious few people in the world who have a deep understanding of education. My encounter with Venture Capitalists at SxSW talking about how to fix education did not end well. George Siemens was much more eloquent in the way that he described his unease with the VCs. Reflecting back I see one thing that is most probably at the root of the problem: most people still equate education/learning to content. I see this fallacy all around me: It is the layperson’s view on learning. It is what drives people to buy Learning Content Management Systems that can deliver to mobile. It is why we think that different Virtual Learning Environments are interchangeable. This is why we think that creating a full curriculum of great teachers explaining things on video will solve our educational woes. Wrong!

My recommendation would be to stop focusing on content all together (as an exercise in constraining yourself). Who will create the first contentless course? Maybe Dean Kamen is already doing this. He wanted more children with engineering mindsets. Rather than creating lesson plans for teacher he decided to organise a sport- and entertainment based competition (I don’t how successful he is in creating more engineers with this method by the way).

That’s all

So far for my reflections. A blow-by-blow description of all the sessions I attended at SxSW is available here.