Monthly Archives: May 2005

Real S-curves

A few weeks ago, I taught a class on business strategy, and ended up discovering that many of my otherwise quite capable students had no clue of how things work. The result (aside from much head-shaking on my part) was a little essay – The S-Curves of Sinks, and Technology – which now has been published in ACM Ubiquity.

Joe Speyer, incidentally, was a really nice man. He wasn’t really fond of business school professors, but had the good grace never to tell me that.

Sasson for the defense

Today I attended Amir Sasson‘s doctoral defence, where he defended his thesis “On Affiliation and Mediation: A Study of Information Mediated Network Effects in The Banking Industry.” Amir has studied to what extent companies and banks have economic gain from being well connected, in essence: Do well-connected companies have higher survival rates, do they pay less interest on their loans, and do they have higher credit availability than others? And vice versa – do banks do better by targeting customers that are connected to each other? Amir’s conclusion is that both companies and their banks benefit from being interconnected – and that banks can provide value for their clients by increasing the number of ties between their customers.

His supervisor has been Øystein Fjeldstad, chairman of the committee has been Henrich Greve, and the opponents have been Brian Uzzi of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and Kent Eriksson, KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

The work received excellent marks – Amir has done a tremendous job in creating the data set and developing a way to analyse network structures. Most importantly, as Brian Uzzi said, the work has a high potential for generalization to other industries and, indeed to other literatures – the hallmark of an excellent dissertation.

The questions given by the opponents in a doctoral defense tend to be more difficult the better the dissertation is – and the questions from the two opponents were detailed and hard-hitting. Amir sailed through with an understanding of theory, conceptualization and method that sets a standard that will be hard to follow for other doctoral candidates at BI. Congratulations are in order both to Amir and his advisors – this is an unusually well designed and executed thesis.

Why DRM is a bad idea for books

My colleague, respected academic Bård Kuvaas, told me about his problems with an Adobe eBook he had purchased at Amazon UK. The book, Psychological Management of Individual Performance costs £94 ($172, about NOK1100). He downloaded it, things worked fine, until he decided to upgrade his Adobe Acrobat from the reader software to the full, commercial Adobe Reader/Writer. Now he can no longer access his eBook, and has so far not gotten any help from Adobe, from Wiley (the publisher) or from Amazon.
I think this little case illustrates the problem with DRM technology: Bård is in many respects the ideal eBook customer – a serious scientist willing to shell out serious money for copyrighted information that he needs. And when he decides to upgrade to a better version of the reader software, he loses access to the product he has purchased. (And just so you know – Bård is not an IT specialist, but proficient enough to purchase eBooks and install new software from a network. And yes, he has sought help from the school’s very competent IT department, which can’t figure this one out either.)
I especially like his very low-key conclusion:

If copyright issues regarding ebooks are so complicated that honest customers cannot access their books, I don’t think ebooks will have any success among scholars or students in Norway.

My thoughts exactly.
Update: The issue, for this specific instance, has been resolved – after reading about this on Boingboing, a representative from Wiley has contacted Dr. Kuvaas, and a new eBook has been sent from Amazon. (The underlying problem – software that makes products hard to use – is still there.)

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Lessig frustrated with Kopinor conference

Lawrence Lessig gave a talk at a conference for licensing organizations here in Norway and was frustrated because the audience (or, at least, most of them) didn’t get it, and he was seen as naïve and dangerous.
I am not really surprised – the collective licensing organizations collect money where they can and dole it out to “approved” authors (not all authors, only those deemed qualitatively good enough.) Creative Commons and other forms of financing destroys (or, at least, attacks) their reason for being. Hence the hostility.

I could, unfortunately, not be at the conference. Wish I was. But I will get my chance later this year, giving a talk at a conference for a similar organization in Denmark.

As for Lessig’s view of Norway – I hope he is reassured that some Norwegians, at least, think highly of him and his ideas. The Future of Ideas remains the one book I recommend to everyone to understand the need for a differentiated set of rights systems and a “default option” of free and available.

Don’t give up, Larry. The Swedes joke that when airplanes from Stockholm land in Oslo, the captain will tell passengers to put their clocks five years back. We will get there, eventually.

Spanish university fires P2P lecturer

I suppose it is always dangerous to voice support for something without having heard both sides, but in the case of Jorge Cortell, I will make an exception. Cortell was fired from his teaching post at Polytechnic University of Valencia UPV because he held a conference on the legal uses of P2P file sharing networks. I only have Cortell’s story to go with, since I don’t know Spanish. But I also have Cory’s word for it. That being said, Cortell does not seem terribly upset by losing his job – only about the censorship.
Apparently, in a stunning display of academic cowardliness (not to mention PR ineptness), the Dean of the University not only gave in to pressure from the recording industry and fired Cortell – but now tries to deny that he ever taught at the place, and to pressure him to remove links to the university from his web page. Surreal in a world of free information and instant communication.
It will be interesting to watch further development – I think the dean will find that the world is larger, more connected, and certainly more vocal than he ever thought.
Update: Check the comments on this one – there are issues around this lecturer’s CV.

The war in the war

Book Cover: The Spanish Civil War by Antony BeevorAntony Beevor: The Spanish Civil War is highly readable, as are all his books (Stalingrad and The fall of Berlin are the most well known.) The Spanish Civil War was a war that is often described as a prelude to and training ground for WWII, with an elected democratic Republic fighting a Fascist army, the latter with decisive German and Italian support – especially the Condor Legion, German pilots who notoriously bombed the Basque town of Guernica, rendered famous by Picasso’s painting of the same name. The history of war is written by the winners, says Beevor, but for this war, the story was written by the losers – and the reason they lost is rather complicated.
The Fascist side was called the Nationalists, an insurgence led by Franco in a conservative alliance between officers, landowners and the Catolic church (which really has some explaining to do and excuses to make for their role in the conflict.) The Republicans, on the other side, consisted of Socialists, Anarkists and Communists, the latter of whom were better organized than the others and managed to co-opt both the Anarkists and Socialists organization, sometimes to the point were there was a “civil war inside the civil war.” Most of the time, it seemed the Communists were more interested in that they would win that that the opposition should lose, so weapons were withheld from allies and tactics were decided for progaganda reasons rather military, resulting in grievous losses for no military purpose.
The Spanish Civil war was a conflict between centralization and decentralization, feudalism and socialism, and religion and secularism. The Nationalists managed to keep their internal feuds internal (mostly by clever maneuvering by Franco), whereas the Spanish Republic never was more than a coalition of groups united only by their opposition to the Nationalists, and sometimes not even that. Extremism won out on both sides, resulting in tragedies and atrocities both during the war and after – events that haunted Spain for the rest of the century.
One aspect that struck me is that in the story of Spain lies much of the key to how Hitler could come into power in Germany – the opposition on the left was destroyed to a large degree by their own internal strife, allowing an initially small group (Franco started with 30,000 legionnaires from Morocco) to take over a country because the majority was split into groups that would rather lose than see any of their allies get credit for a victory.
I wonder if not the Spanish Civil War should be taught more in schools – its is more overviewable and allows less for demonization of the enemy than that of Germany. The political forces and internal machinations are more visible and more understandable. Extremism wins out when centrism cannot offer a unified and clear voice – a dilemma which we still haven’t found out how to counter, at least not in the short run.

Quants and schmoozers

Brad deLong has a great discussion of the difference between quants and schmoozers (or specialists and generalists, in my terms) in the investment bank community. Any young consultant who wonders why the old farts on the golf courses are paid so much should read it – for one thing (not mentioned by Brad) they know the capabilities of their own company and which deals to walk away from.
The greatest danger to a consulting company (or investment bank, I presume) is the young salesman who doesn’t know what is hard and what isn’t. The old farts are there because they have tacit knowledge on what they can commit the company to, and at what price.

Cory in Oslo

I had great fun arranging Cory Doctorow‘s visit to Oslo together with Eirik Newth. Aside from an excellent talk and a lively discussion (about 100 people came to the meeting), I got to have dinner with Cory before his talk and lunch the day after – with a number of Norwegian digerati (Jon Bing, Gisle Hannemyr, Hkon Wium Lie, Jon Lech Johansen, Eirik Chambe-Eng, Jorunn Danielsen Newth and Thomas Gramstad) in addition to the board of the Norwegian Polytechnic Society’s IT Group. (Incidentally, PF is 150 years old and the world’s oldest society of its kind, dedicated to non-partisan debate around matters technological and societal.)
Others have blogged about the talk and their impressions:

My impressions were more personal: I was impressed with Jon Lech Johansen not being a quiet and difficult geek as portrayed by the newspapers, he is fluent and articulate in several languages and has broad interests (I wonder what the Norwegian police were thinking when they brought the case against him.) I thought Petter Merok of Microsoft Norway quite the hero for standing up for his company with articulated and knowledgeable arguments – which took some doing in that crowd. I thought Jon Bing was rather tough for showing up when he had been wilified for arguing for the new copyright law in a report his law company did for the Norwegian Record Industry Association – but he enjoyed himself and participated in the lively debate.
I found Cory himself incredibly easy to host as a speaker and as a visitor – all he wanted was a fast Internet connection at his hotel room and some time to do email and BoingBoing a bit. Moreover, he managed to suss out Oslo’s best bookstore within two hours of arrival, and showed a keen interest in Norwegian governance, history, geography and culture that had me doubling as a not very professional guide around town. He is welcome back anytime he wants to.
And what a blast it was to participate in a long and lively dinner where the arguments were flying thick and fast about technology, the Internet, literature – and theory about all three – with nobody bothering with or needing to explain the acronyms and references….

Seth’s digital divide

Seth Godin has created a set of categories for the “new digital divide” which will the next meme for a week or so. He has a point, though it could be expanded – as does Karsten Schneider to include behavior such as “uses Google for user support”.
I am also proud to say that I am safely on the side of the digerati here – in every category. And it used to be so hard to be a digeratus – you had to write books and give talks and develop new software. Now, all you do is keep up with a few RSS-feeds and make sure you install the latest and the greatest, as approved by Slashdot and hated by Dvorak.
Life is getting easier. Now you don’t even have to run Linux or buy a Mac.

Generic meeting summary

I think this goes for most meetings:

“[…] a […] faculty meeting is not over when everything has been said, it is only over when everything has been said by everyone. By my count, we’re about 2/3 done with the first criteria but only about 1/4 done with the latter.”

Not that I am not guilty of spurious (and oh so well formed) rambling overspecifications myself.
From ProfessorBainbridge.com via Infectious Greed.

Simson says – labels!

Simson Garfinkel has a fundamentally good idea – mandatory labeling of software – over in TechReview. He wants a “Pure Software Act” that forces companies to label software as to what it does to your computer, much like food companies are forced to declare what their products are made of. Excellent idea – provided you can get precise and useful in the definitions in just what constitutes behavior that has to be labeled. Perhaps having an independent labeling committee – or how about making labeling something done collaboratively by the customers?
Anyway – here are the symbols he proposes:
Simson's software symbols

Boring, obvious and very valuable

As previously mentioned, I am involved in a very interesting project at the Concours Group, called tools and techniques for business experimentation. We had a great teleconference yesterday, discussing the use of experimentation as a business tool, particularly focusing on the role of IT.
One issue that came up towards the end of the conference was the question of justification – how do you get funding for running experiments? Experiments, in our view at least, are not happenstance “lets try a few things and see what happens”, but real, planned activities with predefined learning objectives. The costs of those are substantial and relatively easily determined. But what insights do you gain from business experimentation, and what is the value of those insights?
Thinking about this, it struck me that the learnings from business experimentation most likely will be boring, obvious and – somewhat implausibly – very valuable. They are boring because they generally lead you to design offerings that the regular customers wants, not what designers dream up. And they are obvious because you really should have thought about them yourself. They are valuable because, while boring and obvious, you really need the experimentation not just to discover them, but also to document that this is what the customers really want.
But still – boring and obivous?
Let’s start with the boring part. Check out Fidelity’s homepage. While it will never win any awards for fancy design, it is in daily use by millions of customers who use it as a tool for managing their finances. The page – as are all of Fidelity’s pages – is carefully designed after extensive usability testing in Fidelity’s usability lab. In this lab, they use eye tracking, videorecording and careful monitoring of user behavior (and they use regular users, not whiz kids) and have come up with a page that is boring – but highly usable. The most used features – customer login, access to customized page, most used services) are up in the left corner, where people look first. The choices up on the top, providing access to the services offered, stay the same through all web pages. I could go on and on …
In fact, I think I will. Search is prominently featured, as is stock quotes. The main space, where user-defined information such as bank transactions would go, is used for advertising new services and features, until the customer specifies something else. Every choice you make takes you to a page where you can do something (as opposed to many financial web pages, where, if you jump from banking to insurance, will take you to the top level of the insurance subsidiary.) Corporate information and contact info is available at the bottom of the page, easily found when needed but not in the way for daily use. The colors are understated but easily recognizable.
This is an excellent web site – and rather boring. But in this sense, boring is good – as seen in the disappearance of the brochure-oriented financial website, high on flashiness and very low on actually getting the job done. Insisting that web pages be subject to usability tests – that is, to highly structured experimentation – means that customers will like them. Not to mention that it is a great way to fend off the fancy web designers, still wearing black turtlenecks, who insist on Flash animations and font coloring straight from WiRED Magazine. Fidelity did this early, and it was experimentation that got them there.
As for obvious – in the late 90s, I learned about the English retail chain Sainsbury‘s, who was about to design a service where customers could order groceries and have it delivered at home. The company was well underway with the design when it occurred to them that perhaps they should test this out with the customers first. They ran a few experiments – and discovered that not only was it extremely expensive to deliver groceries at home – the customers did not want it! What customers wanted, was either to have the groceries delivered at work (so you could walk out the front door of the office, pick up the groceries from a Sainsbury’s truck parked outside, dump them in the back of your car and go home) or to pick them up outside the store (which meant that, if they had forgotten something or wanted to touch and feel the merchandize, they could run into the store for those items). Delivering at home with any kind of precision is hard in the densely populated England, and customers can’t be bothered to be at home to receive the goods at a precise time anyway.
With hindsight, the fact that most people don’t want groceries delivered is fairly obvious – but it took experimentation to discover it and the documentation provided by the experimentation to convince the organization that home delivery would not be something the customers wanted.
The very valuable part has to do with how we think. As pointed out in Clayton Christensen‘s excellent The Innovator’s Solution, companies designing products and service have a tendency to think in boxes. Either they become product focused – that is, they look at what the competition is offering and then design something that imitates successful features of the competitors’ offerings. Or they become segment focused, obsessing over what they should do in the youth market, the retiree market, or whatever. The Norwegian radio channel Kanal24, for instance, decided that their average customer was a 32 year old working woman who liked Elton John and easy listening music, not realizing that just because companies have a need to simplify their picture of the customer, the average customer not only may not exist, but also don’t want to be boxed in with “appropriate” offerings.
What companies should do, says Christensen, is ask themselves what job the customer is hiring your product or service to do – realizing that it might differ with time, place, and mood. Most of all, it differs by preference, as anyone involved in a discussion of what computer tool to use for almost any job quickly will find out.
Doc Searls has stated that “markets are conversations” – you have to find out what to do in a dialogue with your customers (as Hugh McLeod says, smarter conversations). Having a facility to do experimentation, not to mention a culture that allows for it, is crucial in establishing and nurturing that communication.
And what you will find, is boring, obvious – and very valuable.

The flattening grandfather…

Doc Searls has a great two-part essay in Linux Journal. The first part criticizes Tom Friedman’s new best-seller The world is flat (seemingly a “more of the same” book from The Lexus and the olive tree, my favorite book on globalization.) The second part criticizes the education system (what Doc refers to as “the bell curve”) and how the focus on measurement and conformity is ruining many children’s use of their own capabilities.
I don’t agree with Doc that an education system focused on measurement ruins childrens futures, at least not the way he describes. For one thing, I think lack of measurement – multi-dimensional at that – of students and lack of measurement – in general – of teachers is as much to blame for the many students not making use of the potential that is in them. Nevertheless, it is easy to agree with Doc and John Taylor Gatto, the excellent teacher he quotes a lot in the second part of the essay, that the chief problem of education is that it fails to unlock the wonderful potential inherent in every kid.
There is a small problem with implementation, though.
Starting with open source, which Doc says is an example of unlocked learning outside any classroom. That may be the case with Doc and Jon Lech Johansen and some others, but at a recent Linux conference, I was told that most open source software is written by those conformist, boring corporate programmers, not 16 year old whiz kids with home-built Linux workstations. If you check out the Gathering (not that I have), the biggest data meet in the world, you will find game playing and demoing, but not a lot of open source. So ideas can come from anywhere, but implementation, I suspect, is more of a sustaining technology kind of thing, patiently making it a little bit better every year.
As for the supposed genius inside every child – it may be there, but unlocking the potential takes enormous energy and resources. I teach myself, I like to teach, and I try to make my courses as good a learning experience as I can. But it wears me out – and I teach Master’s classes in a business school, meaning the students are preselected and fairly motivated. Focusing on teaching in an academic environment does not give me much to show for my efforts, except excellent course ratings and the occasional pat on the shoulder.
Good teaching is hard, not just because you have to make things clear and compelling, but because you have to spend such an inordinate amount of time motivating the students to prepare and think beyond what is in the book. That means discussion classes, preparing every class anew rather than run the old slides, and careful evaluation of every student’s participation after class. So much simpler to just run through the publisher-prepared text-book slides, give a simple exam that test whether the students can repeat the book, and spend my time consulting or writing.
Things would be much simpler if the students came pre-motivated. I did like the approach of Gatto’s grandfather. Gatto asks: Who is to blame for the state of boredom in the classroom? And answers:

We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable student.
He goes on to describe how his unorthodox teaching methods landed him in trouble.
That approach requires teachers who are able to nurture the seed of self-learning and push students to think for themselves. And we probably can find them – most teachers want to do just that, but they don’t have the means, personal or resource-wise.
The real problem, I suspect, is a lack of grandfathers.