Category Archives: Business as unusual

On videoconferencing and security

Picture: Zoom

Yesterday began with a message from a business executive who was concerned with the security of Zoom, the video conferencing platform that many companies (and universities) have landed on. The reason was a newspaper article regurgitating several internet articles, partly about functionality that has been adequately documented by Zoom, partly about security holes that have been fixed a long time ago.

So is there any reason to be concerned about Zoom or Whereby or Teams or Hangouts or all the other platforms?

My answer is “probably not” – at least not for the security holes discussed here, and for ordinary users (and that includes most small- to medium sized companies I know about).

It is true that video conferencing introduces some security and privacy issues, but if we look at it realistically, the biggest problem is not the technology, but the people using it (Something we nerds refer to as PEBKAC – Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.)

When a naked man sneaks into an elementary school class via Whereby, as happened a few days ago here in Norway, it is not due to technology problems, but because the teacher had left the door wide open, i.e., had not turned on the function that makes it necessary to “knock” and ask for permission to enter.

When anyone can record (and have the dialogue automatically transcribed) from Zoom, it is because the host has not turned off the recording feature. By the way, anyone can record a video conference with screen capture software (such as Camtasia), a sound recorder or for that matter a cell phone, and no (realistic) security system in the world can do anything about it.

When the boss can monitor that people are not using other software while sitting in a meeting (a feature that can be completely legitimate in a classroom, it is equivalent to the teacher looking beyond the class to see if the students are awake), well, I don’t think the system is to blame for that either. Any leader who holds such irrelevant meetings that people do not bother to pay attention should rethink their communications strategy. Any executive I know would have neither time nor interest in activating this feature – because if you need technology to force people to wake up, you don’t have a problem technology can solve.

The risk of a new tool should not be measured against some perfect solution, but against what the alternative is if you don’t have it. Right now, video conferencing is the easiest and best tool for many – so that is why we use it. But we have to take the trouble to learn how it works. The best security system in the world is helpless against people writing their password on a Post-It, visible when they are in videoconference.

So, therefore – before using the tool – take a tour of the setup page, choose carefully what features you want to use, and think through what you want to achieve by having the meeting.

If that’s hard, maybe you should cancel the whole thing and send an email instead.

Getting dialogue online

Bank in the nineties, I facilitated a meeting with Frank Elter at a Telenor video meeting room in Oslo. There were about 8 participants, and an invited presenter: Tom Malone from MIT.

The way it was set up, we first saw a one hour long video Tom had created, where he gave a talk and showed some videos about new ways of organizing work (one of the more memorable sequences was (a shortened version of) the four-hour house video.) After seeing Tom’s video, we spent about one hour discussing some of the questions Tom had raised in the video. Then Tom came on from a video conferencing studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to discuss with the participants.

The interesting thing, to me, was that the participants experienced this meeting as “three hours with Tom Malone”. Tom experienced it as a one hour discussion with very interested and extremely well prepared participants.

A win-win, in other words.

I was trying for something similar yesterday, guest lecturing in Lene Pettersen‘s course at the University of Oslo, using Zoom with early entry, chat, polling and all video/audio enabled for all participants. This was the first videoconference lecture for the students and for three of my colleagues, who joined in. In preparation, the students had read some book chapters and articles and watched my video on technology evolution and disruptive innovations.

For the two hour session, I had set up this driving plan (starting at 2 pm, or 14:00 as we say over here in Europe…):

Image may contain: Espen Andersen, eyeglasses

Leading the discussion. Zoom allows you to show a virtual background, so I chose a picture of the office I would have liked to have…

14:00 – 14:15 Checking in, fiddling with the equipment and making sure everything worked. (First time for many of the users, so have the show up early so technical issues don’t eat into the teaching time.)
14:15 – 14:25 Lene introduces the class, talks about the rest of the course and turns over to Espen (we also encouraged the students to enter questions they wanted addressed in the chat during this piece)
14:25 – 14:35 Espen talking about disruption and technology-driven strategies.
14:35 – 14:55 Students into breakout rooms – discussing whether video what it would take for video and digital delivery to be a disruptive innovation for universities. (Breaking students up into 8 rooms of four participants, asking them to nominate a spokesperson to take notes and paste them into the chat when they return, and to discuss the specific question: What needs to happen for COVID-19 to cause a disruption of universities, and how would such a disruption play out?
14:55 – 15:15 Return to main room, Espen sums up a little bit, and calls on spokesperson from each group (3 out of 8 groups) based on the notes posted in the chat (which everyone can see). Espen talks about the Finn.no case and raises the next discussion question.
15:15 – 15:35 Breakout rooms, students discuss the next question: What needs to happen for DNB (Norway’s largest bank) to become a data-driven, experiment-oriented organization like Finn.no? What are the most important obstacles and how should they be dealt with?
15:35 – 15:55 Espen sums up the discussion, calling on some students based on the posts in the chat, sums up.
15:55 – 16:00 Espen hand back to Lene, who sums up. After 16:00, we stayed on with colleagues and some of the students to discuss the experience.

zoom dashboard

The dashboard as I saw it. Student names obscured.

Some reflections (some of these are rather technical, but they are notes to myself):

  • Not using Powerpoint or a shared screen is important. Running Zoom in Gallery view (I had set it up so you could see up to 49 at the same time) and having the students log in to Zoom and upload a picture gave a feeling of community. Screen and/or presentation sharing breaks the flow for everyone – When you do it in Zoom, the screen reconfigures (as it does when you come back from a breakout room) and you have to reestablish the participant panel and the chat floater. Instead, using polls and discussion questions and results communicated through the chat was easier for everyone (and way less complicated).
  • No photo description available.

    Satisfactory results, I would say.

    I used polls on three occasions: Before each discussion breakout, and in the end to ask the students what the experience was like. They were very happy about it and had good pointers on how to make it better

  • We had no performance issues and rock-steady connection the whole way through.
  • It should be noted that the program is one of the most selective in Norway and the students are highly motivated and very good. During the breakout sessions I jumped into each room to listen in on the discussion (learned that it was best to pause recording to avoid a voice saying “This session is being recorded” as I entered. The students were actively discussing in every group, with my colleagues (Bendik, Lene, and Katja) also participating. I had kept the groups to four participants, based on feedback from a session last week, where the students had been 6-7 and had issues with people speaking over each other.
  • Having a carefully written driving plan was important, but still, it was a very intense experience, I was quite exhausted afterwards. My advice on not teaching alone stands – in this case, I was the only one with experience, but that will change very fast. But I kept feeling rushed and would have liked more time, especially in the summary sections, would have liked to bring more students in to talk.
  • I did have a few breaks myself – during the breakout sessions – to go to the bathroom and replenish my coffee – but failed to allow for breaks for the students. I assume they managed to sneak out when necessary (hiding behind a still picture), but next time, I will explicitly have breaks, perhaps suggest a five minute break in the transition from main room to breakout rooms.

Conclusion: This can work very well, but I think it is important to set up each video session based on what you want to use it for: To present something, to run an exercise, to facilitate interaction. With a small student group like this, I think interaction worked very well, but it requires a lot of presentation. You have to be extremely conscious of time – I seriously think that any two-hour classroom session needs to be rescheduled to a three hour session just because the interaction is slower, and you need to have breaks.

As Winston Churchill almost said (he said a lot, didn’t he): We make our tools, and then our tools make us. We now have the tools, it will be interesting to see how the second part of this transition plays out.

A teaching video – with some reflections

Last Thursday, I was supposed to teach a class on technology strategy for a bachelor program at the University of Oslo. That class has been delayed for a week and (obviously) moved online. I thought about doing it video conference, but why not make a video, ask the students to see it before class? Then I can run the class interactively, discussing the readings and the video rather than spending my time talking into a screen. Recording a video is more work, but the result is reusable in other contexts, which is why I did it in English, not Norwegian. The result is here:

To my teaching colleagues: The stuff in the middle is probably not interesting – see the first two and the last five minutes for pointers to teaching and video editing.

For the rest, here is a short table of contents (with approximate time stamps):

  • 0:00 – 2:00 Intro, some details about recording the video etc.
  • 2:00 – 27:30 Why technology evolution is important, and an overview of technology innovation/evolution processes
    • 6:00 – 9:45 Standard engineering
    • 9:45 – 12:50 Invention
    • 12:50 – 15:50 Structural deepening
    • 15:50 – 17:00  Emerging (general) technology
      • 17:00 – 19:45 Substitution
      • 19:45 – 25:00 Expansion, including dominant design
      • 25:00 – 27:30 Structuration
  • 27:30 – 31:30 Architectural innovation (technology phases)
  • 31:30 –  31:45 BREAK! (Stop the video and get some coffee…)
  • 31:45 – 49:40 Disruption
    • 31:45 – 38:05 Introduction and theory
    • 38:05 – 44:00 Excavator example
    • 44:00 – 46:00 Hairdresser example
    • 47:00 – 47:35 Characteristics of disruptive innovations
    • 47:35 – 49:40 Defensive strategies
  • 49:40 – 53:00 Things take time – production and teaching…
  • 53:00 – 54:30 Fun stuff

This is not the first time I have recorded videos, by any means, but it is the first time I have created one for “serious” use, where I try to edit it to be reasonably professional. Some reflections on the process:

  • This is a talk I have given many times, so I did not need to prepare the content much – mainly select some slides. for a normal course, I would use two-three hours to go through the first 30 minutes of this video – I use much deeper examples and interact with the students, have them come up with other examples and so on. The disruption part typically takes 1-2 hours, plus at least one hour on a specific case (such as the steel production). Now the format forces me into straight presentation, as well as a lot of simplification – perhaps too much. I aim to focus on some specifics in the discussion with the students.
  • I find that I say lots of things wrong, skip some important points, forget to put emphasis on other points. That is irritating, but this is straight recording, not a documentary, where I would storyboard things, film everything in short snippets, use videos more, and think about every second. I wanted to do this quickly, and then I just have to learn not to be irritated at small details.
  • That being said, this is a major time sink. The video is about 55 minutes long. Recording took about two hours (including a lot of fiddling with equipment and a couple of breaks). Editing the first 30 minutes of the  video took two hours, another hour and a half for the disruption part (mainly because by then I was tired, said a number of unnecessary things that I had to remove.)
  • Using the iPad to be able to draw turned out not to be very helpful in this case, it complicated things quite a bit. Apple’s SideCar is still a bit unpredictable, and for changing the slides or the little drawing on the slides I did, a mouse would have been enough.
  • Having my daughter as audience helps, until I have trained myself to look constantly into the camera. Taping a picture of her or another family member to the camera would probably work almost as well, with practice. (She has heard all my stories before…)
  • When recording with a smartphone, put it in flight mode so you don’t get phone calls while recording (as I did.) Incidentally, there are apps out there that allow you to use the iPhone as a camera connected to the PC with a cable, but I have not tested them. It is easy to transfer the video with AirPlay, anyway.
  • The sound is recorded in two microphones (the iPhone and a Røde wireless mic.) I found that it got “fatter” if I used both the tracks, so I did that, but it does sometime screw up the preview function in Camtasia (though not the finished product). That would also have captured both my voice and my daughter’s (though she did not ask any questions during the recording, except on the outtakes.)
  • One great aspect of recording a video is that you can fix errors – just pause and repeat whatever you were going to say, and the cut it in editing. I also used video overlays to correct errors in some slides, and annotations to correct when I said anything wrong (such as repeatedly saying “functional deepening” instead of “structural deepening”.) It does take, time, however…

My excellent colleague Ragnvald Sannes pointed out that this is indicative of how teaching will work in the future, from a work (and remuneration) perspective. We will spend much more time making the content, and less time giving it. This, at the very least, means that teachers can no longer be paid based on the number of hours spent teaching – or that we need to redefine what teaching means…

Moving your course online: Five things to consider

Another video on moving to video-based teaching, this time about some things to consider to make the transition as easy for yourself as possible (as well as increasing the experience for the students):

From the Youtube posting:

Many teachers now have to move their courses online, and are worried about it. Teaching online is different from teaching in a classroom, but not so different: The main thing is still that you know your material and care about the the people at the other end. There are some things to consider, however, so here are five tips to think about when you move your course online:

  1. Talk to one student, not many.
  2. Structure, structure, structure (much more important in online teaching).
  3. Interaction is possible, but needs to be planned.
  4. Bring a friend: Teach with a colleague, for mutual help and a better experience.
  5. Use the recording as a tool for making your teaching better, by reviewing it and editing it yourself.

Recommended: appear.in

Premium_–_appear_in_–_one_click_video_conversationsTelenor has made a video conferencing service called appear.in (Twitter: @appear_in) – and it is fantastic! All you need to do is open a browser window and type

appear.in/something

where “something” is a word you choose. The other participants do the same, and you are in conference. Camera, screen sharing, everything work great, the whole thing is free (at least with up to four participants, have not tested with more). If you want your own room with your own design there is a premium version for $12 per month. No app installation, no weird settings, no drivers, no updates. Just works. Excellent!

Recommended!

(No, I am not sponsored. Just like the service.)

The coolest referral prize ever…

top-girlriding-mobile-1[From the department of irrelevant stuff…]

Like many Norwegians, I have a Tesla (it is a bit like owning a Volvo station wagon here, due to enormous tax breaks on electric cars.) I am very happy with it. Elon Musk got rich on Paypal and took some business concepts from that experience, including a referral program: If a Tesla owner refers someone who buys a Tesla (my referral link is here, hint hint), the new Tesla owner gets a $1000 rebate and free supercharging as long as they own the car. And that is a nice thing to give away.

But what is the referral prize? I did not know, but someone I have referred has bought a Tesla, and it turns out I get a Radio Flyer Tesla electric toy car. It not only looks like a Tesla S (down to the charging cable), but also has a frunk and you can connect a music player to its sound system(!).

Oh, to be four again… On the other hand, Lena and I will be grandparents in a few months, so it will see some use.

Notes from ACM Webinar on blockchain (etc.)

The Next Radical Internet Transformation: How Blockchain Technology is Transforming Business, Governments, Computing, and Security Models

Speaker: Mark Mueller-Eberstein, CEO & Founder at Adgetec Corporation, Professor at Rutgers University, Senior Research Fellow at QIIR

Moderator: Toufi Saliba, CEO, PrivacyShell and Chair of the ACM PB Conference Committee

Warning: These are notes taken live. Errors and omissions will occur. No responsibility whatsoever.

  • intro: old enough to remember the discussions in the early 90s about how the internet would change mail services – completely forgetting shopping, entertainment and others
  • Blockchain solves the problem of transferring value between Internet users without a third party
  • goes beyond the financial industry, can handle any kind of transaction
  • most of the world has access to a mobile phone, only about 20% has access to the banking system
  • Blockchain is the banking industry’s Uber movement
  • Blockchain much wider than Bitcoin, will facilitate new business models.
  • Blockchain transfers rather than copies digital assets, making sure there is only one instance of it.
    • settlement process: no clearing houses or central exchanges
    • peer-to-peer transfers, validation by network
  • Example: WeChat taking over payments in China, no link to banks
  • many commercial or government services are basically “databases” that are centrally managed, with one central point of failure
  • Blockchain allows a distributed ledger, information put in cannot be changed
    • Estonia thinking about a Blockchain in case of hacking or occupation
  • public (open), private and government blockchainsxx1
  • allows new services to existing customers, lots of inefficiencies up for grabs
    • estate records, voting, domain control, escrow, etc…
    • iPayYou allows use of Bitcoin
    • Walt Disney looking at Blockchain (DragonChain) for internal transfers, also use it for tracking supply chain to their cruise ships. Opensourced it.
  • 80% of Bitcoin mining done in China
  • regulation comes with a cost
  • Shenzhen want to be Blockchain Tech capital
  • 6-level security model, developed by William Mougayar (goes through it in detail: transaction, account, programming, distributed organizations, network (51% attacks, perhaps as low as 30%, smaller blockchains more vulnerable), governance)
  • Ethereum blockchain focusing on smart contracts: Hard forked in 2016, DAO issue where somebody hacked DAO code to siphon off money, hacking the program using the blockchain (not the blockchain),
  • credit card transaction can take up to 30 days, with disputes and everthing, Blockchain is almost instant
  • How “real” is blockchain technology
    • Goldman-Sachs invested $500m+
    • 15% of top global banks intend to roll out full-scale, commercial blockchain
    • etc.
  • what is holding it back?
    • difficult to use, understand, buy in; perception of risk and legality
    • difficult to see value for the individual
  • questions:
    • what are the incentives and adoption models?
      • different philosophies: computing power must be made available in the network: industrial mining vs. BitTorrent model, the amount of computing provided will be important, if we can find a model where just a little bit from every mobile phone is required
    • what are the hard costs of Blockchain?
      • you can google the costs. There are other approaches being developed, will post some links
    • can Blockchain be compromized by a virus?
      • theoretically, yes. Bitcoin is 10 years without, open source means verification (change is happening slowly because of code inspection)
      • comes back to incentive and governance model
  • and that was that…recording will be at webinar.acm.org in a few days.

Norway and self-driving cars

(This is a translation (with inevitable slight edits) from Norwegian of an op-ed Carl Störmer (who, in all fairness, had the idea) and I had in the Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv.)

A self-driving future

Espen Andersen, BI Norwegian Business School and Carl Störmer, Jazzcode AS

Norway should become the world’s premier test laboratory for self-driving cars.

Norway needs to find new areas of development after oil – and we should go for something the whole world wants, where we have local advantages, and where we will develop deep and important knowledge even if the original idea does not succeed. We suggest that Norway should become the world’s premier test laboratory for self-driving cars – a “moon landing” we can develop far further than what we have been able to do from our expertise in sub-sea petroleum extraction.

1280px-tesla_model_s_26_x_side_by_side_at_the_gilroy_superchargerSelf-driving cars will do for personal transportation what e-mail has done for snail mail. Tesla-founder Elon Musk says Teslas will drive themselves in two hears – they already can change lanes and park themselves in your garage. The “summon“-function (a “come here”-command for your car) could, in principle, work across the entire USA.

An electrical self-driving vehicle will seldom par, choose the fastest or most economical route, always obey the traffic laws, and emit no pollutants. A society with self-driving cars can reduce the number of cars by 70-90%, free up about 30% more space in large cities, reduce traffic accidents by 90%, and drastically reduce local air pollution.

Google’s self-driving carsgoogle_self_driving_car_at_the_googleplex have driven several million kilometers without self-caused accidents, but there are still many technical problems left to solve. The cars work well in the well marked and carefully mapped roads of sunny California. The self-driving cars drive well, but the human drivers do not. But we cannot execute a sudden transition – for a long time, human and automated drivers will have to coexist.

Norway has unique advantages as a lab. In Norway, we can develop our own self-driving cars, but also be the first nation to really start using them. We do not have our own car industry to protect, we are quick to purchase and start to use new technologies, we are such a small country that decision paths are short, and should an international company make a marketing blunder in Norway, the damage will be limited to a very small market. We can easily change our laws to allow for testing of self-driving cars: Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Stavanger has enough traffic issues and large enough populations to suffice for a serious experiment. As a nation, we are focused on environmental issues, innovation and employment.

Norway’s bad road standard is an advantage. Norway has plenty of snow and ice, bad weather and bad roads. Today’s self-driving cars need clear road markings to be able to drive safely. But Norway has world leading capabilities in communication and coordination technology: The oil industry has learned how to continuously position ships in rough seas with an accuracy of about five centimeters. Telenor is a world-leading company in building robust mobile phone networks in complicated terrain. Technology developed for Norwegian conditions will work anywhere in the world.

Norway needs self-driving cars more than most nations. Norway is the world’s richest and most equal country, creating a modern welfare state through automation and technology-based productivity improvements. The transportation industry is over-ripe for automation. The technology can maintain productivity growth and offer a new life for many people – the blind, the old and the physically handicapped – who do not have access to cheap and simple transportation today. It will create many jobs – think before and after the smart phone here – that can be created based on abundant and cheap transportation.

Norway will win even if we don’t succeed. Lots of new technology has to be developed to make self-driving cars from experiment to production: For instance, software has to be developed that can handle extremely complicated situations when autonomous cars will have to share the road with tired human drivers. More importantly, lots of products and services can be built on top of self-driving cars, business models have to be developed, and many industries will be impacted. The insurance business, for instance, will have to adapt to a market with very few accidents. Even the donor organ market will be impacted – though traffic accident organs by no means make up the majority of organs available, there might be a shortage of available organs.

Norway has faced tremendous changes before. We have transited from being harvested ice to electric refrigertation (in the process enabling our large fishing and fish farming industries), from sail to steam shipping, from fixed line telephony to mobile phones. Our politicians have, quite wisely, created an electric car policy ensuring that we have the highest density of electric cars in the world (10% of all Teslas are sold in Norway.) Norway has everything to earn and very little to lose by going all in for self-driving cars.

Let’s do it!

All the cargo in the world…

I just love this map, created by Kiln, so I wanted it on my blog for easy reference:

It is rather fascinating, and clearly shows why Singapore has acquired such an important position in the world’s logistics. Click on the play button in the top right corner for a short narration. The data is from 2012, but the pattern is largely the same today.

Elon Musk biography

Elon Musk: Inventing the FutureElon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting biography because Elon Musk is an interesting person. Very capable description of the various business ventures (including a very succinct analysis of why and how Tesla is disruptive to the regular car industry, and, even more so, SpaceX to the space industry. But much of Musk as a person remains an enigma, partly because Musk keeps his cards close to his chest. This is an attempt to create a balanced account of Musk as a businessman and person, and it is worth reading to get the background of what Musk has done and how he has done it. But I doubt if I will reread it…

View all my reviews

A trendy walk through Oslo…

This video was actually quite fun to make:


My part is done in the offices of Masterstudies Marketing Group, to illustrate my point that if a small nation like Norway (or, for that matter, Europe) wants to compete on the world market, recruiting should be based on who is the best person for the job, not who fits in with the reigning culture.

Masterstudies, incidentally, is located in Oslo, is doing very well indeed, and has about 35 employees who collectively speak more than 20 languages. Two of the employees are Norwegian….

Elon, I want my data!

Last week I got a parking ticket. I stopped outside BI Norwegian Business School where I work, to run in and deliver some papers and pick up some computer equipment. There is a spot outside the school where you can stop for 10 minutes for deliveries. When I came out, I had a ticket, the attendant was nowhere in sight – and I am pretty sure I had not been there for 10 minutes. But how to prove that?

Then it dawned on me – I have a Tesla Model S, a very innovative car – not just because it is electric, but because it is constantly connected to the Internet and sold more as a service than a product (actually, sold as a very tight, proprietary-architecture product, much like whatever Apple is selling). Given that there is a great app where I can see the where the car is and how fast it is going, I should be able to get the log from Tesla and prove that I parked the car outside BI less than 10 minutes before the ticket was issued…

Well, not so fast. I called Tesla Norway and asked to see the log, and was politely turned down – they cannot give me the data (actually, they will not hand it over unless there is a court order, according to company policy.) A few emails back and forth have revealed that the location and speed data seen by the app is not kept by the internal system. But you can still find out what kind of driving has been done – as Elon Musk himself did when refuting a New York Times journalist’s bad review by showing that the journalist had driven the car harder and in different places than claimed. I could, for instance, use the data to find out precisely when I parked the car, even though I can’t show the location.

And this is where it gets interesting (and where I stop caring about the parking ticket and start caring about principles): Norway has a Personal Data Protection Act, which dictates that if a company is saving data about you, they not only have to tell you what they save, but you also have a “right of inspection” (something I confirmed with a quick call to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority). Furthermore, I am vice chairman of Digitalt Personvern,  an association working to repeal the EU data retention directive and know some of the best data privacy lawyers in Norway.

So I can probably set in motion a campaign to force Tesla Norway to give me access to my data, based on Norwegian law. Tesla’s policies may be American, but their Norwegian subsidiary has to obey Norwegian laws.

But I think I have a better idea: Why not, simply, ask Tesla to give me the data – not because I have a right to data generated by myself according to Norwegian law, but because it is a good business idea and also the Right Thing to do?

So, Elon Musk: Why not give us Tesla-owners direct access to our logs through the web site? We already have password-protected accounts there, storing documents and service information. I am sure some enterprising developer (come to think of it, I know a few myself, some with Teslas) will come up with some really cool and useful stuff to make use of the information, either as independent apps or via some sort of social media data pooling arrangement. While you are at it, how about an API?

Tesla has already shown that they understand business models and network externalities by doing such smart things as opening up their patent portfolio. The company is demonstrably nerdy – the stereo volume literally goes to 11. Now it is time to open up the data side – to make the car even more useful and personable.

PS: While I have your attention, could you please link the GPS to the pneumatic suspension, so I can set the car to automatically increase road clearance when I exit the highway onto the speed-bumpy road to my house? Being able to take snapshots with the reverse camera would be a nice hack as well, come to think of it. Thanks in advance! (And thanks for the Rdio, incidentally!)

Update a few hours later: Now on Boingboing!

Update Sept. 2: The parking company (Europark) dropped the ticket – didn’t give a reason, but probably not because I was parked too long but because I was making a delivery and could park there.

Write, that I may find thee

A Google Dance – when Google changes its rankings of web sites – used to be something that happened infrequently enough that each “dance” had a name – Boston, Fritz and Brandy, for instance – but are now happening more than 500 times per year, with names like Panda #25 and Penguin 2.0, to name a few relatively recent ones. (There is even a Google algorithm change “weather report”, as many of the updates now are unnamed and very frequent.) As a consequence, search engine optimization seems to me to be changing – and funny enough, is less and less about optimization and more and more about origination and creation.

It turns out that Google is now more and more about original content – that means, for instance, that you can no longer boost your web site simply by using Google Translate to create a French or Korean version of your content. Nor can you create lots of stuff that nobody reads – and by nobody, I mean not just that nobody reads your article, but that the incoming links are from, well, nobodies. According to my sources, Google’s algorithms have now evolved to the point where there are just two main mechanisms for generating the good Google juice (and they are related):

  1. Write something original and good, not seen anywhere else on the web.
  2. Get some incoming links from web sites with good Google-juice, such as the New York Times, Boing Boing, a well-known university or, well, any of the “Big 10” domains (Wikipedia, Amazon, Youtube, Facebook, eBay (2 versions), Yelp, WebMD, Walmart, and Target.)

The importance of the top domains is increasing, as seen by this chart from mozcast.com:

image

In other words, search engines are moving towards the same strategy for determining what is important as the rest of the world has – if it garners the attention of the movers and shakers (and, importantly, is not a copy of something else) it must be important and hence, worthy of your attention.

For the serious companies (and publishers) out there, this is good news: Write well and interesting, and you will be rewarded with more readers and more influence. This also means that companies seeking to boost their web presence may be well advised to hire good writers and create good content, rather than resort to all kinds of shady tricks – duplication of content, acquired traffic (including hiring people to search Google and click on your links and ads), and backlinks from serially created WordPress sites.

For writers, this may be good news – perhaps there is a future for good writing and serious journalism after all. The difference is that now you write to be found original by a search engine – and should a more august publication with a human behind it see what you write and publish it, that will just be a nice bonus.

The political process of getting innovation done

Innovation is often about politics. Together with my excellent colleague Ragnvald Sannes I run a course called Strategic Business Development and Innovation (it is done in Norwegian, but if you are interested, we would be glad to export the concept, in English), where we take groups of students through an innovation process (with their own, very real, projects) over two semesters. The course is done in cooperation with Accenture’s Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis and is one of the most enjoyable things I do as a teacher.

Anyway. This note is to discuss something which came up in a web conference today – the political side of doing innovation. Many of the students we have come from public organizations, from the health care industry, or from educational or research-based institutions. In all of them (well, actually, in all organizations, but more so in those where profit is not the yardstick that trumps everything) politics are important, to the point where a project’s success depends on it. Since a number of our students also are engineers and/or IT people, with a very straightforward and rationalistic view of how things should be done (if the solution is better than the current one, well, then why don’t we adopt it?), I need to explain the nature of political processes in organizations.

I am not an expert in that particular field, but I have been involved in a few projects where politics have been important – and have found the work of March, Cohen and Olsen very useful – not just as theory, but also as a very practical checklist. These three professors are famous for the Garbage Can Model, explained in the classic article Cohen, M. D., J. G. March and J. P. Olsen (1972). “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice.” Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1). This article (which can be found here) is cited more than 6000 times and makes a lot of sense to me, but the it is not easy to understand (and that is not just because the specification of the model is in Fortran source code.) It posits that politically oriented organizations (they studied universities in particular, which for most purposes are anarchies) makes decisions by constructing “garbage cans” (one for each decision) and that the garbage can is a meeting point for choices, problems, solutions, and decision makers (participants), heavily dependent on energy. Decisions seek decision makers, solutions seek problems, and vice versa. Getting things done in such an environment means constructing these garbage cans and filling them with the right combination of problems, solutions, choices and participants.

This sounds rather theoretical, and is. Fortunately, March and Olsen wrote an (in my opinion) excellent book (Cohen, M. D. and J. G. March (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.) a few years later, with less theory and more application. Based on interviews with a number of university presidents as well as their garbage can model, they discuss the nature of getting things done in a university environment, where there is ambiguity of purpose, power, experience and success. They finish with a list of eight basic tactics for getting things done – probably at the instigation of Harvard Business School Press, which primarily caters to business people and want applicability, not just description.

I have found this list tremendously useful when trying to get decisions made – and have observed others doing this both very well and very badly. Here it is, with their points in boldface and my (probably imperfect, it is a few years since I read this) interpretation appended:

  1. Spend time. Getting things done will take time – you need to talk to people, create language, make people see your point. If you are not willing to spend that time, you might make some decisions, but people will not follow them. Decision making is social, so decision makers in these environments need to be. The winners in political organizations are often those with the most time – which is why many universities are dominated by the administration rather than the faculty, who have other calls for their time and do not come in to the office every day. (See this cartoon for an excellent description).
  2. Persist. One of the most frustrating things (I have seen this when businessmen come in to lead political organizations, several times) in a political setting is the decisions seldom seem to really be taken – there might be a decision, but every time it comes up, it get revisited. In other words, a decision made can always be raised again – so never give up, you can always get the organization to reconsider, either the same decision directly or the same decision dressed up in new language.
  3. Exchange status for substance. As someone said at some point, it is amazing what you can get done if you are prepared to forgo recognition for it. There are many leaders who want to look good and make decisions, but don’t have the knowledge or energy to do so. Make decisions easy for them – you can get a lot done if you make decision-makers look good in the process.
  4. Facilitate opposition participation. Rather than trying to overpower the opposition, find ways for them to participate in the new way of doing things. This is one of the reason why processes and fields frequently get renamed – to allow groups to continue doing what they are doing or want to do, but in new contexts.
  5. Overload the system (to change decision making style). Decision-making time expands to fill the entire time available (alternatively, a normal meeting is over when everything is said, an academic meeting is over when everything has been said by everyone.) By giving the system lots of decisions to make (i.e., many ), this style changes – and you can get your decision through because nobody has enough time or energy to give it the full treatment.
  6. Provide garbage cans. Provide arenas for discussion as distractions, to consume energy from decision-makers.
  7. Manage unobtrusively. You can get things changed by changing small things, and in succession. I have seen examples where you get a strategic goal set up that everyone can agree to but few define (“make us a more knowledge-based organization”), get resources allocated to it, and then propose lots of projects under this heading – which now is about fulfillment of a strategy (albeit redefined) rather than an entirely new strategic direction.
  8. Interpret history. Volunteer to write meeting minutes, and distribute them late enough that most participants have forgotten the details. History, traditionally, is written by the winners (except, perhaps, for the Spanish Civil War,) but you can make it the other way around – that you become the winner by writing history.

(After writing most of this I found this blog post by David Maister which summarizes this much better than me, in the context of professional service firms): Understanding politics is very much about recognizing these tactics and using them. It may seem Machiavellian, but then Machiavelli was one of the first political theorists and knew what he was talking about.

And now I feel a need to see the next episode of House of Cards on Netflix. Garbage cans in action…

A value chain at work

This old footage (via egmCartTech) of the 1936 production process at Chevrolet’s plant in Flint, Michigan, shows a value chain at work – i.e., a process where value is added in small, repeatable, sequential steps. This is how many people still see companies…

It is notable for many things – the relative imprecision of the production (dents in parts being marked for later fixes), the simple design of the cars (two-box design built on a frame, soon to be overtaken by the monocoque design already introduced with Chryslers’ 1934 Airflow), and the notion of the human as the servant of the machine, doing simple things repetitively and to be attempted replaced by robots in the 70s and 80s as production became increasingly componentized. Toyota eventually introduced the Kan-Ban principle, where each worker is responsible for the quality control of previous work and can stop the process. But no wonder GM had quality problem as designs got more complex…

Competing online at Lorange

I have just finished (as a matter of fact, I am writing this from the classroom while the students are taking their exam) teaching a two-day seminar called Competing online at Lorange Institute of Business, located in Horgen, a small town about half an hour south of Zürich in Switzerland. Teaching is normally quite tiring, but this time it was a breeze – firstly because it was only 9 students, secondly because they all had interesting experiences and viewpoints on how to use the Internet and Web 2.0 for business and personal purposes. As a consequence, I could run the class as an informal discussion, with less lecturing and quite a bit of learning for me as well as the students.

The diversity of backgrounds was quite interesting – we had three people that owned their own companies (technical textile manufacturing, logistics, and personal credit), three from pharmaceuticals and health companies, one from sports event marketing, one executive from a hotel company, and, last but not least, Isabella Löwengrip, who with her blog Blondinbella could provide very interesting perspectives on how to establish and promote a business on Web 2.0. She did, of course, blog (here and here and here) and Tweet about the experience, occasionally in real time – and she took the pictures you see here.

Linus Murphy, lively and inspiring CEO of Masterstudies.com, was the main case under discussion after lunch on the first day – and he did a great job talking about the importance of making your company findable on Google. To do this, you have to make sure your content is fresh and not duplicated, that each page is about one thing only (so the search engine is not confused) and design the structure and context of the web site before handing it over to be made pretty by a designer. When most of your traffic is driven by search, you must be both findable and searchable.

Norwegian Data Inspectorate outlaws Google App use

In a letter (reported at digi.no) to the Narvik Municipality (which has started to use Google Mail and other cloud-based applications, effectively putting much of its infrastructure in the Cloud) the Norwegian Data Inspectorate (http://www.datatilsynet.no/English/), a government watchdog for privacy issues, effectively prohibits use of Google Apps, at least for communication of personal information. A key point in this decision seems to be that Google will not tell where in the world the data is stored, and, under the Patriot Act, the US government can access the data without a court order.

Companies and government organizations in Norway are required to follow the Norwegian privacy laws, which, amongst other things, requires that “personal information” (of which much can be communicated between a citizen and municipal tax, health and social service authorities) should be secured, and that personal information collected for one purpose may not be used for other purposes without the owner’s expressed permission.

This has interesting implications for cloud computing – many European countries have similar watchdogs as Norway, and many public and private organizations are interested in using Google’s services for their communication needs. My guess is that Google will need to offer some sort of reassurance that the data is outside of US jurisdiction, or effectively forgo this market to other competitors, such as Microsoft of some of the local consulting companies, which are busy building their own private clouds. Should be an interesting discussion at Google – the Data Inspectorate is a quite popular watchdog, Norway has some of the strongest privacy protection laws in the world (though, for some reason, it publishes people’s income and tax details), and Google’s motto of “Don’t be evil” might be put to the test here – national laws limiting global infrastructures.

Manufacturing is changing, and so is productivity

Two excellent articles on increasing productivity, and why this will not result in many new jobs:

Davison describes the new kind of manufacturing, where everything is done by multi-step, highly complex machines, producing small series, requiring very high-skilled workers with rather sophisticated education. But they also need unskilled workers doing simple things, like moving parts between machines. The problem is, the pay scale for the second type is very low, and the difference in training to get to the skilled level so high, that no company will provide it:

For Maddie to achieve her dreams—to own her own home, to take her family on vacation to the coast, to have enough saved up so her children can go to college—she’d need to become one of the advanced Level 2s. A decade ago, a smart, hard-working Level 1 might have persuaded management to provide on-the-job training in Level-2 skills. But these days, the gap between a Level 1 and a 2 is so wide that it doesn’t make financial sense for Standard to spend years training someone who might not be able to pick up the skills or might take that training to a competing factory.

It feels cruel to point out all the Level-2 concepts Maddie doesn’t know, although Maddie is quite open about these shortcomings. She doesn’t know the computer-programming language that runs the machines she operates; in fact, she was surprised to learn they are run by a specialized computer language. She doesn’t know trigonometry or calculus, and she’s never studied the properties of cutting tools or metals. She doesn’t know how to maintain a tolerance of 0.25 microns, or what tolerance means in this context, or what a micron is.

The reason Maddie – hardworking and dedicated – has a job is simply one of distance: Shipping fragile parts to China for the unskilled operations is too risky and expensive. So Maddie has a job, but not career prospects. And the company’s management is facing very hard competition – their customers see them as a distributor – and is constantly scanning for things that can be outsourced or bought from another vendor.

Mandel describes the differences in productivity increases from improving productivity in domestic production – doing things smarter – and lowering cost by bargaining and optimizing the supply chain before it reaches the domestic organization. Both show up as productivity improvements, but have vastly different effects on domestic jobs:

But here’s the rub: both of these corporate strategies— domestic productivity improvements and global supply chain management—show up as productivity gains in U.S. economic records. When federal statisticians calculate the nation’s economic output, what they are actually measuring is domestic “value added”—the dollar value of all sales minus the dollar value of all imports. “Productivity” is then calculated by dividing the quantity of value added by the number of American workers. American workers, however, often have little to do with the gains in productivity attributed to them. For instance, if Company A saves $250,000 simply by switching from a Japanese sprocket supplier to a much cheaper Chinese sprocket supplier, that change shows up as an increase in American productivity—just as if the company had saved $250,000 by making its warehouse operation in Chicago more efficient.

This is known as import bias, and may be a problem, as it overestimates domestic productivity increases. Mandel goes on to show that this bias affect both left and right, and the difference in views is largely one about how to effectuate a change: Stimulus or tax relief.

Both authors advocate better data and better education as a way out, but quick fixes they aren’t. This is a real puzzler.

Fulfilling the status role of books

Espen Andersen (Photo: Nard Schreurs)In my office at BI Norwegian Business School I have many books, accumulated over the years. In my living room I have even more, having spent time building bookshelves and defending the wall space against family members who think it could be put to better use. And in my basement I have stacks of cartons with even more books, which I do not have the heart to throw out – hey, I might get around to reading the complete works of Hermann Hesse, in German, some day – but not the space to display.

The book collection is nice – I like books, I can remember almost viscerally where most of them are, and often all that is necessary to remember what is in them is just to take them out of the shelf. And they do tell everyone around me that I am a bona fide intellectual, should anyone wonder.

But I (almost) don’t read books on paper any more – I buy them and read them on my Kindle or PC or iPad. Electronic books are searchable, weightless, cheap, accessible and cost nothing to store. But nobody can see how many books I have on my PC or Kindle. Having many books signals status, to the point where there are companies that will fill you bookshelves for you, in any color and style you want, for a fee. The usefulness of books as status signals will diminish over time, however, just as what has happened with CD racks, which you don’t display anymore, unless you have thousands of vinyl records and cross the threshold from music lover to music fanatic. So, what to do?

The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian]. This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net (but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)

imageI initially thought I would make a joke about having to replace my bookshelves with neat little minishelves for the plastic cards, when it dawned on me that perhaps we have the solution here – i.e., a model where we could get the accessibility of digital books with the status display of the paper version. Why couldn’t the publishing industry sell you a digital book (for downloading, if you please) bundled with a cardboard book model, with binding and all, to put in your bookshelf? This would look great, allow you to effortlessly project your intellectualism and elevated taste, while avoiding the weight, dust, and (since these books would only need to be a in inch or two deep) space nuisances of traditional books. You could even avoid physical distribution by letting the customer self-print and cut and fold the “shelf-book” in the right format.

You could even electronically link the two, so that you cold pick your cardboard book from the shelf, wave it in the direction of the e-book tablet (using transponder, 2D barcoding or other identifying techniques) and the book would show up in your reader. If you really wanted to show off, you could add a little color coded bar indicated how far you were in each book, much like a download bar for your computer, to be displayed on each book. Moreover, such as book could be lent from one reader to another.

I recently bought Don DeLillo’s Underworld for my Kindle. Imagine if it came with with nice little book spine, leather as an expensive option, with a barcode and a “read” bar as illustrated here…status, spatial memory, interior decoration, and a way to gradually replace the paper library with an electronic one without disruption.

Remember, you saw it here first!

(In case you wondered: Yes, I am being facetious.)

Human-computer interaction, indeed

This event was great fun – fun as a show, but also impressive in what both the student teams (well, MIT didn’t do that well…) and the computer could do. Jeopardy is a very complicated game, relies on wordplay (In the category “presidential rhymes”, the answer is “George W.’s bottoms”, the question “What is Bush’es tushes), obscure knowledge and word combinations (such as combining two movie titles into a new one, as in “Millon Dollar Baby Boom”).

If only the HBS team hadn’t played it safe towards the end – they bet just enough money so that they would not lose to MIT if they missed the last question – we would have had the first instance where the computer had lost to a human team. Oh well…

Addendum: A perspective from Stacey Higginbotham: Why Watson can’t talk to Siri. (I wonder if they used the same questions at that event, since Chile was an answer in the HBS one, too. Doesn’t mean they are cheating, though – it is quite easy to make a computer forget…