Archive for January, 2008

An Exercise in self observation

Can you watch yourself think? It’s a useful skill. Useful enough to spend some time trying to learn, and since we learn by practicing… here’s an exercise.

The internet is filled with a new form of ‘magic tricks’ – a particularly good one is located here:

So… the challenge here is – watch yourself ‘solve this’ and post the running commentary that went on in your mind as you puzzled your way towards understanding what’s going on. It’s ‘obviously’ not magic – but what is it?

If we get a dozen responses – then we’ll have a nice little collection of problem solving thought. Good luck.

January 16, 2008 at 12:44 pm 2 comments

Six Billion Nation States

When Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world”. I’m sure he knew he was right in theory only; that his vision of “world moving” was forever beyond the physical reach of individuals. Yet he was perfectly correct in another sense. Individuals, by applying the right technology in the right way, can move the world.

In many ways this is an observation of the obvious, or at least it should be. The category of human achievement we label as “technology”, is nothing more than a collection of tools leveraging every aspect of human ability: Cars, trains, planes and ships, leverage our ability to move; Microscopes and telescopes leverage our sight; Hydraulic pumps leverage physical effort; Computers leverage every aspect of the mind, from reasoning to memory … The list goes on, yet people are continually and genuinely surprised when individuals achieve what was once achievable only by corporations, industries and Nation States.

Technological progress continually increases personal ability. It makes us more capable than those who went before us. Even more powerful than the companies, infrastructures and governments they erected to increase their capability.

A transportation example: I’ve visited more than three dozen countries, crossed the Atlantic at least 200 times, and traveled a great global circle twice. A century ago, I would have been the envy of Presidents and Kings. Today this achievement is practically without merit. I barely qualify as an elite frequent flyer.

Immersed in capability, we lose sight of what technology has made possible. Constant acquaintance with the amazing, immunizes us against awe.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; because contempt requires conscious recognition. Familiarity breeds apathy, even ignorance of the wondrous. Once upon a time, only governments and big business could send a message around the world. Today the most disadvantaged of us, the homeless, own cell phones. Ho hum.

Because of this dramatic increase of leveraged ability, individuals can now compete with corporations, even industries. The almost exhausted example of Napster… an application developed by two students in a dorm room on a personal computer, placed the multi-billion dollar music industry at the edge of a precipice in less than a decade.

Even the loosely organized Fourth Estate is challenged by an individual’s ability to communicate on a global scale. Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report was as much a legitimate news source during the Clinton scandal, as the New York Times or the Washington Post. Personal Web Blogging by individuals has awoken and is considered as much a reasonable source of news and opinion as the major distributors, by a generation disenchanted with these traditional media channels.

This ability to leverage is not restricted to the domains of commerce. The world’s largest military machine is at war with an individual and his relatively small network of like minded ‘ associates’. Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, and author of “Losing Control – Global Security in the 21st Century” (Pluto Press), acknowledges this shift in power when he recognizes: “the capability for relatively weak groups, whether states or sub-state actors (italics mine), to be able to exercise political violence against advanced urban-industrial states.”

There is a growing awareness that through their increased ability to wage war, individuals can demand equality with the Nation State. Given the current world stage, it is difficult to argue they haven’t already succeeded.

Our shared fear is that these individuals will gain control of WMD. This acquisition immediately elevates them to the status of world powers. The military experts have even coined a perfectly appropriate term “Asymmetric Warfare”… while it was meant to describe those situations where smaller forces apply their strength against the weakest defenses of stronger forces, it aptly describes any situation where governments must devote their full attention to the attacks from what were once considered gnats.

Nor is the ability to wage war totally dependent on mere acquisition of ready made WMD. We now have the ability to create WMD in the back room. Specifically the weapons of biological, and chemical warfare. Germ warfare has always been an option, it’s nothing new. Poisoning a well, contaminating a food supply or distributing infected blankets are all low tech, historical versions of modern biological warfare, accessible to anyone with malicious intent, but technology has once again, raised the ante.

A team of researchers, at the University of New York, led by Dr. Eckard Wimmer have assembled a viable Polio virus from tailor-made sequences ordered from a supply house. Their ‘blueprint’ came from the Internet. According to one of the researchers, Jeronimo Cello, “It was very easy to do.” While the more dangerous viruses we know of are more complex, and therefore more difficult to assemble, the researchers admit that constructing such viruses is a distinct possibility.

As stated in the beginning, none of this should surprise us; these developments merely echo the trend of democratizing political power. Kingdoms once concentrated the power to shape and change the world in a single individual, now all individuals can move the world. Today we’re all Heads of State.

Archimedes’ lever, much to his eternal surprise, is now a common reality.

January 10, 2008 at 9:22 am 1 comment

Why do we GO to work?

One of our local newspapers recently ran a series of articles on the phenomenon of ‘commuting’ and how some people spend 3-5 hours of their day travelling to and from ‘work’. While the focus of the series was mostly the ‘human interest’ angle the question that kept intruding into my thoughts was ‘Why?’… Why are we still flowing into small geographical areas in the morning and then flowing out to find our beds in the evening? An alien looking down from on high would be very curious as to the our reasons for the daily migration

Thankfully, I no longer work in a corporate cubical, but I have taken the time to reflect on what I used to do day in and day out, and as a white collar worker there was VERY little I did, that I could not do from a desk located on the other side of the city – if not the other side of the world. This was true as a regular grunt in the organization and as a high mucky muck.

As a white collar worker – I moved nothing from one location to another, I did not physically manipulate the world, I really had no good, persistent reason to physically travel from my home to the ‘office’ on a daily basis.

This is driven home today where my reality is that as long as there is electrical power and internet access, my office is wherever I, and my trusty laptop, are ensconced.

While I’m a card carrying techno geek, I’m not one of those who believe that all meetings are replaceable by ‘virtual meetings’ – that wouldn’t be much fun – I speak for a living – there is something about sitting across the table from someone that pixels on a screen cannot replace. More is communicated in a handshake (or a hug) than is possible to transmit on a 50gb optical cable. That said, It is possible to shift all those types of meetings to a single day each week, allowing most people to remain at home, in a properly equipped office, most of the time.

As I’ve discussed the topic of telecommuting with people over the years, the #1 objection/fear that I’ve heard (the one that is the real reason IMO that Telecommuting hasn’t taken off) is that we don’t trust our employees to produce if we aren’t looking over their shoulders all the time. That’s it in a nutshell. We don’t trust either our employees to produce at a distance OR we don’t believe our managers are competent enough to manage remotely.

There’s an irony here – and that is that management usually lets people work entirely on their own for weeks at a time. All too often managers have admitted to me that they don’t have regular 1-on-1 meetings with their staff… in fact they rarely meet with their staff.

Sometimes other reasons for not moving into telecommuting are raised, cost, security, privacy, etc. but there are more ‘excuses’ than they are legitimate objections. Many of these, possibly all of these, are solved via technology.

And then there’s another irony in the resistance towards telecommuting… any time we ‘outsource’ something – not to mention ‘offshore outsourcing’ then we are making a decision to do the work generated at this location in a remote location… ‘outsourcing’ is nothing but telecommuting on a grand scale.

So? Why the post? I’d like to ask two sets of questions…

1) What is it that you do at the office that you cannot do at home? Assume you have access to power, internet and a phone at home.
What % of your time in the office are you engaged in that activity?

2) Has your organization even considered the possibility of telecommuting?
If you have… what’s the status of that thinking?

Contribute if you wish, either in the comments (preferred) or off line (happy to start a few conversations –

I’ll assume that the benefits of Telecommuting are well known… let me know if listing a few would add value to the conversation.

January 8, 2008 at 12:46 pm 5 comments

Capability in Context

Many years ago I was handed an assignment which would cause any technologist to drool over their keyboards. At the time I was working for a retail company with about 100 stores spread across Canada. The question raised by management was “should we install personal computers into the stores to improve store efficiency?”

The motivation for the question was obvious. PCs at head office were delivering huge gains in productivity. If this was possible at head office, was it also possible in the stores? If it was, then it would reduce store workload allowing store management more time on the sales floor.

To answer the question, a consultant – yours truly – was sent into a store for six months. The rationale was that there was no better way to gain store experience/knowledge than by assuming the role of a store employee. I was given no other responsibility but to observe the store, identify all store activities that might benefit from a local PC. Once the six month sojourn was complete I was to present a report and a conclusion. Oh… I also had regular store duties. I offloaded trucks, did inventory and sold goods.

The in-store experience was invaluable. It is one thing to have an intellectual understanding of how your company operates, and something else entirely to be a part of that process. To put it very bluntly… there’s a very good reason why the ‘field’ nearly always believes that ‘head office’ is populated by fools. This isn’t readily apparent until you are given totally contradictory prime directives… sell more… and always complete the paperwork.

It convinced me, beyond all reasonable doubt, that to intelligently integrate computers into an environment, one must be more than casually acquainted with that environment.

To that end we did something rather unusual. Stores received information in the form of memos, updates, shipping lists, inventory sheets, sales figures, employee schedules etc. etc. from every department in the organization. Since nobody at head office had an accurate sense of how much info was being sent out, we had to correct this. The solution was to identify the CEO’s office as store #999 and everything sent to the stores was also sent to his office and piled on a desk. The CEO had only to ‘read’ everything sent to him. That alone reduced the flood of info being sent to the stores, as he began to complain there was far too much junk in his growing store pile.

The final report concluded there was no question that PCs, properly used to manage store activities by properly trained store managers, would significantly reduce store work load allowing managers to work the floor and increase sales…

BUT… far greater and more immediate gains were achievable, if we reduced the amount of paperwork sent to the stores. Conclusion? Do not automate anything until what you’re already doing makes sense.

To my great surprise, this conclusion wasn’t embraced. There was a covert belief that we could find the solution to the problem of overworked managers in technology, and not in changing existing management practices. It was perceived that spending money to put PCs in the stores was an ‘easier’ solution than changing the existing Status Quo.

Here are the prime highlights of the ‘context’ into which we’d have catapulted the PCs:

i) Store employees, including managers, were not hired for their technical expertise. The effort necessary to bring a geographically dispersed group to the necessary level of technical competence, while taking turnover statistics into account, would be huge, expensive and ongoing.

ii) The development time necessary to create a system capable of supporting all the existing, and rapidly evolving, paperwork would take at least 2-3 years.

iii) Store managers motivated to sell would ignore our efforts to achieve that objective. They would ignore/resist the automation project.

These issues by themselves, were sufficient reason not to introduce PCs into the stores.

Regardless of how capable technology is, the readiness of the users to take advantage of the technology is the determining factor of the final result.

January 4, 2008 at 10:33 am 1 comment

January 2008
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