Monthly Archives: August 2004

The wonders of free content

A few years ago, Sarah Kaull, currently at ICEX Corporation, and I wrote a teaching case called Catatech. The copyright statement says that the case can be freely used for teaching purposes, as long as the copyright statement is not removed – a sort of early Creative Commons license.
When “egosurfing” (putting your name into Google to see what comes up, a somewhat disenchanting experience) today, I found that the Uganda Martyrs University has taken the case and turned it into a word processing exercise – which I think is just excellent.
Quite frankly, when I hear academics being protective of their teaching material, I just don’t understand what they are talking about – I think it is great when someone can use my material for something – and frequently I get emails from teachers with ideas and thanks. The Catatech case was translated into Spanish and Portuguese by some teachers who needed them, as have some of the others. And over the years they take on a life of their own. Great fun!

Executive Leadership and Information Technology – A Fragile Dance

The AOM All-Academy symposium titled Executive Leadership and Information Technology – A Fragile Dance, described here, was great fun – the participants came at the issues from four different directions that together signalled that IT is both more invisible (at least if you don’t look closely) and yet more important than ever.
Jim Cash started (PDF slides here) by reflecting, based on his boardroom experience and his interaction with CIOs, that there has been a strong evolution in the role and expected contribution of CIOs – at least from the admittedly skewed sample he has. (Jim runs a invitation-only program called the Cash Concours, with 38 CIOs of Fortune 200 companies. The group meets quarterly, and Jim visits their companies twice a year.) CIOs are expected to help the firm with the challenges facing the whole firm, including the “large” issues such as the erosion of trust that lead to the Sarbanes-Oxley act, as well as the shifting definition of shareholder value, with more focus on long-term and risk reduction.
Jim considers IT-business-alignment – the notion that the business should come up with a strategy, and IT align with that – outdated. In the companies he is involved with, there is an IT/business convergence – and no new strategy is contemplated without thinking about the influence of technology and technology evolution on the specific business environment. The winners are the CIOs that are “redesigning themselves” to function as full partners in the strategy deliberation and implementation.
Two issues are particularly close to Jim’s heart, and in his view important for CIOs: One is the company’s awareness of and influence on technical standards. The other is the role of China – for many companies, the IT organization not only tasked with supplying IT for Chinese subsidiaries and joint ventures, but the IT organization is in many ways spearheading the company’s move into China. Understanding the role and evolution of China, including its future as an outsourcing location for IT services, is particularly important for CIOs of multinational corporations.
John Seely Brown (PDF slides here) started by noting that China as a market has important ramifications for US corporations – the challenge of selling their goods there, at 10% of the US price point, will lead to a lot of innovation which will make its way back to the US. Information technology is currently driven by the rapid commoditization in three levels: processing, open source, and open standards. He cited Akamai, Google, and the Internet archive as organizations that are able to provide stunning amounts of technology at 1-10% of the IT price point of regular companies – thanks to provisioning and virtualization technologies.
The main driver, however, is standardization – and standardization drives not only decreases in price but also enables flexibility – which is particularly important since IT frequently is the single biggest thing holding up M&A and other corporate change activities. With commonditized technology we can enable further specialization as well as learning.
The key challenge for corporations is to understand how to leverage resources they don’t own, as well as change their business model from supply push to demand pull. JSB cited Amazon, where he is on the board, as a particularly agile corporation – note that they are setting aside a relatively large portion of their screen space to the sale of used books, which means they understand the concept of reciprocity. A good way of understanding the new technology is to see the Internet not as wiring diagram, through which messages are sent, but as platform for inter-company applications.
Vijay Gurbaxani (PDF slides here) took the economic perspective, noting that information technologies have had a profound impact on labor and multi-factor productivity – and cited a number of companies that have created new dominant designs for business processes in their industries. He sees the new marketplace for outsourcing, which is moving from provisioning of IT towards business process outsourcing, as an important contributor to the commoditization of technology and processes.
Mark Kriger (PDF slides here) underscored the role of leadership, giving IBM as an example of a company that has turned itself around under new management. He wondered whether the problem of IT contribution might not be related to ITs perceived lack of explorative power (as opposed to power to exploit existing resources better), and saw the ability of CIOs to be leaders as the key differentiator.
After the presentations, a lively debate ensued – questions ranged from the security of XML applications to the role of IT in China. When asked by a prospective MIS teacher what he should teach the students which he wouldn’t have 5 years ago, the panel said “social software” and “managing vendor relationships” – the first as a new technology, the second as perhaps the most important supply skill for CIOs today.

The day the world exploded

Interesting book on the Krakatoa explosion: Simon Winchester (2003): Krakatoa, New York, HarperCollins. Subtitled “The day the world exploded: August 27, 1883”, this is a detailed account of the history of the Sunda straits and the Dutch colonial powers, prior eruptions, and the eruption that blew Krakatoa away and which was literally seen (or, at least, the pressure wave registered) all over the world. Winchester sees the event as the first “global” event – thanks to the newly established telegraphic network, the news was known within days all over the world. He also, less convincingly, sees Krakatoa as a catalyst to the Islamic rebellions against the Dutch colonial powers a few years after.
Most interesting to me was the explanation of the mechanisms of the eruption (the meeting of two tectonic plates of differing composition, water-rich material being pulled under one of the plates and then pressuring its way up again) as well as the sheer size of the eruption. The noise of the final explosion was so loud that it was heard 3000 miles away – on the island of Rodrigues, where people thought it was naval gunnery. This is equivalent to hearing a noise made in New York while sitting in San Francisco. Krakatoa remains largest single natural catastrophy known to modern man, at least by some measures. 38,000 people died, a paddle steamer was lifted 3 miles upland, and a number of tsunamis, the largest the height of a 10-storey building, swept away whole villages, harbors and ships.
Winchester writes in an almost Victorian detail, sometimes overdoing the flowery language – I suppose it is hard to avoide being influenced by one’s sources. The book is very detailed – but I like that. One small irritation, however, was the low quality of the overview charts in the beginning of the book. It took me quite a while to understand precisely where Krakatau was the Sunda strait. A more detailed overview map with some of the places that were eradicated (such as Anjer and Merok) would have helped.

Dante does it

Just as I was beginning to despair and think that another Name of the Rose wasn’t possible (and that we forever are doomed to read the illiterate snippets of The Da Vinci Code,) along comes Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club to rewive our spirits.
This is a very good book – historically correct as far as possible, painting fascinating portraits of Longfellow, Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., and other literary figures of late 19th century Boston, and with a proper plot, shades of Sherlock Holmes mixed with modern-day notions of what happens after the conclusion of a war.
One of the critiques of The Name of the Rose was that it seemed a bit after the fact: That the main protagonist had ideas that were several hundred years ahead of themselves, in expression if not in content. I had the same feeling reading this book, but it seems based in the writings of the people involved – and I am continually amazed by how early ideas turn up, and how we seem to rediscover them in every generation.
Nevertheless, The Dante Club is a must read in the historical crime mystery genre (if there is such a thing), and a relief, as I watch the NYT Book Magazine carrying ads for talks on lectures on The Da Vinci Code. Pearl can write, is historically correct as far as possible, and can set up a plot. His book is not very filmable, though. But it is very readable.
Very highly recommended.

Hotels that have understood what they are doing

I am currently staying at the New Orleans Marriott. Like most American business hotels, each room is so standardized that for an experienced business traveller, turning on the light is not really necessary – everything is where it always was, the only variable being whether the bathroom is to the left or to the right.
However, this hotel has a big plus: The Marriott chain – and most other US business hotels – have understood something that most European hotels have not gotten into their heads: That business travellers want connectivity without paying through their noses. European hotels have shoddy and expensive Internet connections and fleece you on the telephone bill even if you are calling free-phone numbers.
This hotel has no hotel charges for 800 numbers, meaning you can have long telephone conversations with your loved ones using cheap calling cards. But even better, they have a 10Mb Ethernet connection (as well as a USB option for those who don’t have Ethernet on their laptop) available for the entirely reasonable fee of $10 per 24 hours. It works beautifully, can be activated straight onto your room bill without fiddling with credit cards, and as an extra bonus the work table isn’t bad either. Meaning I have been able to edit course pages, down- and upload course material, and in general spend the jet lagged early hours of the morning, when you can’t sleep anyway, very productively.
I am just longing for the day when European hotels, business or not, will understand that connectivity should not be a revenue generator in itself, and instead a service that works to make you choose their hotel next time. Hotels should be hassle-free. This hotel is. Bravo.
Highly recommended.

Curious Incident of book about autism

Light summer reading that is neither shallow nor pointless: Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. About an autistic (at least that is what I assume he is, since all I know about the subject comes from Dustin Hoffmann’s performance in Rain Man) boy who finds his neighbor’s dog killed, and sets out to find out who did it. The journey he sets out on is one of very small and carefully planned steps – those of a person who is extremely smart in one dimension and handicapped in almost anything else. Wonderful insight in into the mind of a child with a psychiatric disorder – or, as the protagonist would say, we don’t know whether it is an insight or not, since we can’t get into other people’s minds. But it feels right, which is something he would not say.
Highly recommended.