Women in technology: What are the real issues?

It looks like I’m going to be running a panel discussion on Women in Technology at Web 2.0 Expo Europe. I’ve often steered clear of discussions about gender roles in the technology sector because they are so rarely constructive. It’s obvious that women are under-represented in tech, at conferences, in media coverage, etc. And it’s also obvious that the reasons why women are under-represented are complex, and aren’t going to be untangled by one panel discussion or one blog post.

So how can we make this discussion different? How can we have a discussion that counts? What sort of things are worth highlighting?

There are a few issues that I’ve stumbled upon lately that I think might be relevant:

Are these threads worth teasing out? What else do we need to look at to understand not just what’s going on, but what to do about it? How can we get really pragmatic about an issue that is very emotive and sometimes contentious?

UPDATE: I’ve been pointed in the direction of this post from Rain about the discussion she lead at BarCamp London 5 about gender (scroll about halfway down). The discussion included many anecdotes, which I summarise here:

  • Men seem to get nudged along the career path in a way that women don’t. Women rarely seem to get the key roles – or the keynotes – that men do.
  • Women are often made to feel inferior to their colleagues, even if they are as knowledgeable. This manifests as things like not being included in conversations.
  • Women are ignored when they are present at events: photographers don’t take photos of them, and the conference T-shirts don’t come in women’s sizes.
  • Women should blog more and be more visible.

The final point about the ghettoisation of women, and the attendant internalisation of misogyny, is one that deserves a whole section to itself. Now, it’s important to acknowledge that not all women are the same. Some women feel much more comfortable in large groups of their own gender, and some women do not. Some women actually feel more comfortable in large groups of men, and I suspect these are the ones that do best in the tech industry and at tech conferences. (And Rah! for them! We should celebrate these women, not pillory them.)

I grew up in an environment that was, in many ways, split strongly along gender lines. My family was very male – lots of male cousins – but my Mum worked in an almost exclusively female environment. I was frequently exposed to single gender groups and particularly to some very large groups of women (1000+). I’ve come to believe that single gender groups are inherently unhealthy: Men get over-testosteroney and women get catty. The groups with the healthiest dynamics are evenly balanced mixed-gender groups.

The aversion to large groups of women that I developed through my childhood and teenage years is one reason I’m not keen on conferences such as BlogHer or events like the Girl Geek Dinner (and yes, I know that men do attend both). Maybe that’s just my problem and I need to get over it. But there’s another aspect to this – if women only associate with women, where are they going to get the experience of walking into large groups of men and maintaining their sense of self, their confidence, and their self-belief?

I know that the idea of women-focused events is that women understand each other, and can learn from each other, take risks in a safe environment and that this will boost their confidence. But that can only ever go so far, even if it’s true. I personally find that someone’s past experience of life is a better indicator of how much they will understand me than their gender. There are plenty of men out there who totally empathise with me and many women who do not.

Like anything in life, the more you do of something, the more you practise something, the better you get at it. Public speaking, for example. Or presenting to a group of men. Or putting yourself forward for talks or key roles at work. The only way you improve your confidence in what are, frankly, some quite difficult situations is by doing them even if they scare the crap out of you.

Most of my life has been characterised by the feeling that I am just one step away from being found out as a fraud. I am not a fraud, however. I am damn smart, I have great experience in my field of expertise – indeed, I am an expert – and I am more than capable of taking on any man on his territory and winning. Yet the feeling of inadequacy still lurks just underneath the surface. Hanging out with lots of women at a conference isn’t going to help me because it doesn’t treat the core problem.

What’s going to help me is learning how to promote myself, how to do marketing, how to put myself forward and blow my own trumpet – all things that society seems to prefer women not to do. And once I’ve learnt a few techniques, the next step is to put them into practice. I can only learn to work confidently in a room of men twice my age with four times my self-belief is to get out there and get on with it. No man is going to give me a break just because I have two X chromosomes.

There are plenty of ways in which the less enlightened members of the male species act, deliberately or unconsciously, against the interests of the women around them. And there are plenty of men who work hard to combat the misogyny they see around them. But if women self-ghettoise, I don’t think they are doing themselves any favours in terms of their own personal development and they risk alienating their male allies.

Ultimately, the issue of gender is not just about men’s reactions and perceptions, and it’s not just about women’s lack of self-confidence. It’s about the complex web of societal, business and personal expectations that conspire – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – to prevent women from fulfilling their potential. It’s a complicated issue and so we need to treat it as such and try to understand the inherent nuance.

Your questions about US Elections: a(nother) experiment in journalism

Suw and I talk about the US elections over breakfast all of the time, and I realised since I came back to Washington last week that despite having very little interest in politics when I first came to Washington DC ten years ago, my geekiness has now spilled over into politics. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about politics and the economy with a range of people since I came back. Suw was asking questions that I’m sure on the on the mind of many Guardian readers, and instead of letting these conversations disappear, I realised that I wanted to capture and share those conversations.

We recorded this conversation this morning over Skype. She was sitting in our flat in London, and I was sitting in my hotel here in Washington. We used the Skype Call Recorder from Ecamm (a bank breaker at US$14.95), but if you use a PC, Pamela will do the same things plus can automatically handle uploads to FTP servers and auto posting to several blog services. I used Pamela to record broadcast quality interviews when I was at the BBC. If you use a nice broadcast quality mic such as the Snowball from Blue (a lovely wedding present that Suw and I received from our friend Vince), the sound quality is stunning. We simply used the mics on our MacBooks. The Call Recorder software has a side-by-side split screen option so we didn’t have to do anything to edit the video apart from top and tail it (edit out our pre-call and post-call chatter). In the end, it took very little production time apart from the time for the call. Viddler, the site we used to host this doesn’t like stereo audio so I had to merge the channels, but QuickTime Pro handled that with ease.

That’s the technical side of things. Technology is simply a means to a journalistic end for me, and the real aim is to expand my little experiment to anyone with a Skype connection, a webcam and a question about the US elections. Sure, I love talking to Suw about anything and everything, and she wants to talk after the vice presidential debate next week between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. I want to use this to open up a discussion with as many people as possible about the US election, around the US and around the world. I’d also like to see how feasible this is on the road. After next Thursday, I’ll be traveling across the US. The technical challenges are pretty minor, especially compared to previous election trips that I’ve taken. The real measure of success for this and many other journalistic experiments I have planned for the next month is the depth and breadth of the conversation. If you’d like to take part, drop me an email or leave a comment. Let’s talk. There are lots of important issues on the table, and I’m so excited about how technology opens up new possibilities for civic dialogue.

Five year plans and fairytales

“Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” goes the aphorism. Personally, I like plans, although I’ve never made one that I’ve managed to see all the way through to the end, because something always changes halfway through. I still find them useful things to write, though, because they help me see beyond the end of my own nose.

Being self-employed means that I have to make most of the decisions about my business myself and although nowadays I have a good network of friends – and, of course, Kevin – to help me, it’s still easy to get lost in the details. Losing perspective makes it much harder to figure out what my priorities should be, and that means I can end up wasting a lot of time doing… suboptimal things.

It’s difficult to see yourself from the outside, but I recently had a bit of a revelation and although I have some interesting work hovering just on the horizon, I can’t afford to be complacent. Indeed, I rather wish that I had had this revelation a few months ago – I could have done with a bit of this clarity over the summer!

The upshot of all this is that I am in the process of writing myself a five year life plan which is going to attempt to answer the questions “What do I want to achieve over the next five years? What do I need to do to get there?”

Of course, everyone knows that the last four and a half years of any five year plan is a complete fairytale, (although I’ve seen many a bank manager and business advisor nod sagely when reading a long-term business plan as if it meant something). But by looking that far ahead I hope that I can get a sense of my priorities now, and I can prime myself to recognise the right opportunities when they come along.

At the moment, our bedroom wall is covered with little Post-It notes that give some shape to my thoughts as they currently stand. They include ideas from discussions with various friends and colleagues about what I need to do to reinvigorate my consulting business – and many of them contain some really scary words, especially the ones clustered around the “Marketing” note.

Even now, at just the beginning of the process, I can see that there is a real tension between the things that I like to do, and the things that I dislike doing but feel I need to in order to be able to be paid to do the things that I like to do. On one side of that equation is writing, journalism and consulting, and on the other side is pitching (to get articles places) and self-promotion/marketing (to get new clients). I’ve never been good at self-promotion and, frankly, I’ve often (subconsciously) avoided doing marketing as much as possible because it makes me feel icky and dirty.

Seeing things laid out so clearly is quite interesting – it does rather explain a lot about why I focused one the things I focused on this summer (and, indeed, in years past). I shan’t pretend that this is an entirely new revelation – I’ve known how much I hate self-promotion for a long time. But I haven’t reminded myself of my aversion, nor confronted it, in a while.

I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do around my five year fairytale. And I’d be very curious to know: If you were thinking five years ahead, what sort of questions would you be asking yourself?

When politeness gets in the way

Back on 2005, Ben Hammersley did a talk at Reboot called “Etiquette and the Singularity” in which he argued, amongst other things, that technology is rude and that it takes time for us to negotiate a set of manners around each new piece of technology as it arrives in our lives. The audio is still available and it’s still recommended listening.

I want to flip this idea on its head for a moment, because it’s not just technology that breaks etiquette. Sometimes, good manners break technology. Specifically: too much politeness breaks email.

Even ignoring spam and bacn, only a small percentage of our email is actually useful or interesting. Of the email that’s not spam or bacn, but also isn’t interesting, there’s an unexamined class of message that has largely gone unexamined: the polite but unnecessary response. These are email that we send purely because it would seem rude not to.

Once a substantive email has been sent, and a substantive response received, manners kick in and the email conversation devolves into a back and forth of polite replies that aren’t really achieving anything. They are the email equivalent of “Why, thank you!” “No, thank you!” “Oh, but really, thank you!”

The problem, I think, is that we transfer our manners from in-person conversation to email, and the change in context makes for discomfort, because all of the subconscious indicators that the conversation is over are missing. A conversation that would be concise in person becomes verbose in email as each participant tries to ensure that they have been adequately polite without any idea how to tell if they have been polite enough.

It’s a behaviour I’ve noticed in myself – responses I send not because they have any informational content at all, but because I don’t want the recipient to think I’m being rude by not acknowledging their email. They tend to be very short, made up of phrases such as “You’re welcome!”, “No problem!” or “Thanks again!” Sadly, such exchanges can become absurdly long if both people exhibit this behaviour.

In person, we can rely on phatic communication and body language to bookend our conversations. We can open a conversation with a flick of our eyebrows and close it with a smile. Email has no equivalent, and textual versions lack sufficient clarity to be reliable.

Overpoliteness is not a behaviour easy to change because at its root is the fear of social humiliation, or of accidentally insulting or upsetting someone else. But we do need to negotiate a different set of rules for what is polite in email and because it’s eating time without us even realising. As I wrote in the Guardian, it takes on average 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after you’ve been interrupted by email, so the cost of each pointless email is:

Total time cost = T(sw) + T(srec) + T(rr) + T(rrec)


T(sw) = time taken for the sender to write the email
T(srec) = time taken for the sender to recover their train of thought after sending the email
T(rr) = time taken for the recipient to read the email
T(rrec) = time taken for the recipient to recover their train of thought after interruption of reading the email.

If we assume it takes a modest 30 seconds to read, write, send and file the email and it’s 64 seconds to recover train of thought, that means it’s 188 seconds for the whole process, just over 3 minutes. Of course, if the recipient responds with another email, we start this all over again – that’s another 3 minutes down the drain. It all adds up. You could easily end up wasting hours each week just being needlessly polite.

This isn’t to say that I advocate being rude by email! Email’s a difficult medium to communicate well through, and many people cause more problems than they intend because they failed to consider how their words might be misread. But we do need to send less phatic email.

I wonder if one reason for this urge to send phatic email is that we have no reliable way of knowing if our email has been received and read. Because we want to know that about the emails we send, we assume others want to know that about the emails they send (they probably do) and so we feel a need to acknowledge everything. If email could be just a little bit smarter and could do this acknowledgement for us – although not by sending a read receipt which would simply be yet more bacn! Maybe if it marked a sent mail as ‘opened’ that’d be all the indictor we’d need.

The oft unacknowledged truth about email is that we’re still trying to negotiate an appropriate etiquette for it. But instead of thrashing our way through it like a bull in a china shop, we need to stop and think a little about what it is that we’re doing, and why we’re doing it in the first place.

Writing a book – is it really worth the effort?

For the last few months I’ve been wondering how to bump my career up a bit. It’s been an odd year work-wise: I had loads of leads and work before I got married, then lots of interest when I got back off honeymoon, which then dried up completely over the summer. If I can be painfully honest, I’m just crap at self-promotion and avoid it if I can. Instead of embarking on a marketing and promotional drive, I spent the summer working on Fruitful Seminars, which drove home even more strongly how much I need to learn how to do marketing.

Something I did do was talk to a number of people about what one thing I need to do to really ratchet things up a notch and, to a (wo)man, they all said “Write a book.”

Writing a book is, of course, something I would love to do and have been planning to do for about, oh, the majority of my adult life. Admittedly for most of that time I’ve been wanting to write fiction (and still do), but over the last four years I’ve more and more wanted to write a non-fiction book. I put together a proposal for a book on business blogging about two or three years ago, got an agent and had some meetings and calls with publishers, but it went nowhere. I’m glad, now, because the book I would have written then would not have been as good as the book I could write now.

Like so many things on my To Do list, “Write Book” is rather a big project, and even though it is broken down into its much smaller component parts, such as “research email habits”, it’s one of those things that is infinitely put-off-able. And it does get put off, quite a bit. As it stands, I have a list of topics I’d like to cover in my book, some research done, a few links to relevant pieces, and not much else. And unless something changes radically in my life, I’m not sure how I’m going to get that much more done. Writing a book takes commitment, and when life is chaotic it’s hard to carve out the time to devote to it.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I read Penelope Trunk’s post, 5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book. On the one hand, it’s nice to have someone who has clearly given some considerable thought to the subject come down on the side of “don’t bother” (although I note that Ms Trunk has, herself, written a book, and one that I wouldn’t mind reading, at that). On the other hand, I’m neither emotionally nor intellectually convinced that a book would be a waste of time.

The emotional aspect to this I can get over with quickly – I want to write a book. No amount of logic is going to change that. I will write a book at some juncture, the question is, how much of a priority is it?

That’s where the intellectual aspects of such a decision really come into play. We’ve decided that yes, I want to write a book, but the reason I haven’t is simply because of time/commitment conflict – the curse of being self-employed. There are things I want to do, and things I need to do because someone’s paying me to, and things I think I ought to do in order to increase the number of things that I need to do that someone will pay me for. When work is quiet, you end up doing more of the things you feel you ought to do and less of the things you want to do. When work is busy, you do more of the things that you need to do, a few things you ought to do and often none of the things you want to do.

The end result is that you often end up not doing any of the things you want to do, because they’ve vanished into the black hole created by ought and need. Of course, the simple answer to this is to refigure one’s schedule to ringfence time for ‘want’, but that’s much easier said than done. When the priority is to put food on the table, want languishes on the bottom shelf, gathering dust.

(I’m also aware that there may be other psychological factors at place, such as fear of failure, inability to mentally conceive of the first step in the book writing process, etc., but I think the time one is the biggest problem as when I do sit down and do some work in that area I really enjoy it.)

But let’s put that aside for a moment, because that’s a productivity issue, and only tangential to the rest of my intellectual reaction to Penelope’s post. She says (and I suggest you read her post before carrying on):

1. People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.

I could not agree with this more. If you have lots of ideas, then get them into a blog. Talk about them. Discuss them. Refine them.

Getting a book deal out of your blog is easier said than done, especially if your blog is not focused on one specific topic. Blog about the psychology of cats, and you might get a deal writing about the psychology of cats. Blog about the psychology of cats, green technology, self-build, planning and related events, and whilst you might see the commonality, a publisher may not. If you are more scattershot than that, you’re doomed.

Books are great for fleshing out one central idea and delving into it in great detail, in a way that blogs sometimes aren’t. That’s not because there’s anything inherent in blog technology that prevents us from doing that, but because blogs tend to encourage us to flit from topic to topic and talk about what’s on our minds right now. If you obsess about one thing, then great! Your blog will probably be very focused. The rest of us sometimes struggle to keep things “on topic”.

Joint blogs, such as this one, also suck for producing a focused collection of posts that might attract a publisher. Kevin and I blog about sufficiently similar subjects that I think our audience is generally ok with our meandering about, but a publisher isn’t going to spend the time separating out his work from mine (hell, a lot of bloggers don’t even bother, often crediting me with his work, and visa versa), and then picking out the key themes.

2. A book is an outdated way to gain authority.

If only this were true. Books are a great way to gain authority, as shown by the dozens of authors that are given keynote slots at conferences or are invited to the RSA or other venerable institutions to speak. It would be wrong to imply that they didn’t have anything interesting to say or deserve those invitations, but oftentimes they are invited not because of their knowledge and experience, but because of the embodiment of their knowledge and experience – their book.

Books are also good at helping you access a different audience to the one your blog cultivates. One thing I learnt from Fruitful was that many of the people I need to reach to expand my business don’t read blogs, aren’t on Twitter, and have no real clue about the social web. And it takes a very long time for information to filter through from people who do read my blog to the people who need to know what I know, if it ever does. It’s an age old problem and one that marketers have been battling with since the invention of commerce.

Books, and articles in the mainstream media, expand your audience beyond your own echo chamber. I thought, with Fruitful, that because I have a good reputation and am well respected by my peers that I would easily be able to launch a seminar series. But my peers are the people who already know what I know, and the people who might be interested in learning what I know don’t know I exist. Books can introduce me to them in a way that my blog simply can’t.

3. Books lead to speaking careers, but speaking careers often lead nowhere.

I fear this may be true for some people, but I also think that this statement implies that the speaker exerts no control over their speaking career. The key thing here is balance – having enough speaking engagements to get you in front of people, but balancing that with real work that will inspire you and keep you at the cutting edge of what you do. There’s this little word that’s quite useful in helping prevent the proliferation of useless “make work” (which, let’s be honest, some speaking engagements are), and that’s “No”. I’m a big fan of no – it’s a very useful word used in the right way.

(I’m aware that a lot of people are allergic to the word ‘no’ and fear that it might cause a rift in the spacetime continuum that will suck us all into oblivion. To these people I would say that we should view ‘no’ in the same way as we view the Large Hadron Collider – it’s highly unlikely to create a black hole that will eat the earth and, used intelligently, it can contribute untold worth to humanity.)

4. You’ll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book.

So true. If you only count money made by the book, and not the money made because of the book. Same case with a blog, of course – I make no money at all from Strange Attractor, but I do make money because of it.

The worth of a book to the writer can’t just be measured in royalties and advances, but also in paid speaking gigs and additional work opportunities (whether a new job or freelance/consulting openings). When it comes to money, books open doors, even if only just enough for you to shove your foot in.

There’s no doubt that books do still count for something – many of my friends are writing books, and many others think that writing a book is a good way to develop one’s career. You can’t discount the higher status awarded (often subconsciously, and whether they deserve it or not) to authors. We might like to pretend that we’re not that shallow, but we’re human, and we are.

5. When you’re feeling lost, a book won’t save you.

Very true. But when you’re lost, a blog won’t save you either. Nor will your job. Or trading in your antique Mac for a Harley and roaring off into the sunset. When you’re lost, you need to think lots about many different things and try to find yourself some direction.

I think the key thing, if you want to write a book, is understanding your own motivations for doing so. If you don’t want to write the book, but want to have written it, then book writing is probably not for you, because it involves, you know, actually writing. In the same way, if you want the speaking gigs without the airports, then you should probably not bother trying to become a public speaker.

But if you enjoy the process of research and writing, then I see no good reason why you should not attempt a book. How you prioritise that work in the face of an overwhelmingly long list of other things to do is another topic for another time, but, perhaps quaintly, I still see a lot of value in the writing and publishing of books.

Enterprise 2.0 Forum: JP Rangaswami

I’m here at Enterprise 2.0 Forum in Cologne, enjoying the conference even though a lot of it is in German and I am entirely incompetent in the language. Luckily, JP, like me, is speaking in English even though he says he can ‘listen German’ rather than ‘speak German’.

JP Rangaswami
Favourite artist in the UK is Banksy, hidden within his “Graffiti Removal Hotline” piece is the message “Make sure that the cost of repair is kept equal to or below the cost of damage”.

Thanks to mcfer2k

However you implement whatever you choose to use, whether it’s Sharepoint (or Don’tSharepoint), Confluence, Twiki (and people get very polarised about it), you must watch the cost of repair.

Chewing gum – the cost of a stick of gum is about c5 but the cost of removing it off the pavement is c15, because the cost of repair is too high. So Singapore bans chewing gum all together.

Same is true about graffiti removal is the same. The cost of buying a can of paint and spraying a wall is low compared to the cost of fixing it, of cleaning the wall.

The power of Wikipedia lies in how easily you can undo attempts at vandalism, lies, errors – the magic is how quickly you can revert to a previous version. When we implement wikis in business we forget that because we come from an environment of permissions, authorities, firewalls. We’ve built a very complicated world. There’s something warped about how we build walls then tunnel through them all the time.

But the keeping the cost of repair lower than the cost of damage is essential.

Why do people not use manuals? Mainly because they are out of date. The pace of change is faster than the pace of updating the manual. If you know the manual is out of date you won’t use it. Same happens for employee handbooks, guidelines policies. The larger the enterprise the more of these documents get produced. These got moved onto the intranet, but there were few people with the right to edit. So you had a wall around the intranet that you couldn’t get through – you needed special permission and tools to change it. Unless you were the expert you were not allowed in. And people who were allowed in were a small team and the editing capacity of the firm was sharply restricted. They kept the cost of repair high. Cost of damage was low because information decays over time. Even doing nothing to the manual decays the manual, but the cost of repair was high – high cost of access, high barriers to entry.

Whatever you implement this for, watch the cost of repair. Magic of a wiki comes from allowing people to amend things. What if they amend it wrong? Who cares? Even an investment bank can allow people to use a wiki. Why? If you can prove to a regulator that you can capture the date and time that something that was put on, and that you can prove how fast errors were corrected, that’s what makes it valuable. You get a perfect audit trail of who did what and how fast things get corrected.

Whatever the content, it doesn’t matter. Don’t replicate the historical cost of repair. Don’t pave cow paths. When you move from cattle to roads, but just pave the cow paths, you’re just making an incremental changes. Need to carve a new path.

The space shuttle’s rockets are based on the shape of a horse’s back. The place they are assembled is linked by rail to the next assembly place. Rail gauge is related to horse paths. Ergo, space shuttle’s rocket design is influenced by legacy decisions from 150 years ago.

Kevin Kelly. Interesting chap. The internet is a copy machine. Printing presses of 15th century were about two things – cheap repeatability and cheap standardisation. Hand-written manuscripts never look the same and have errors, so every one is different. Add time, distance and culture, and the corruption gets worse.

But now, what we attach to email is just like the manuscript problem. Because we have version mismatch all over the place. Instead of people going to a single source, we are attaching documents to emails. And people spend a lot of time reconciling versions, checking that people have the right version. But we don’t have to do this because whilst we learnt this with the printing press, that standardisation and repeatability is critical, we haven’t learnt it with modern technology. Internet is a great big copy machine – a wiki should not allow people to diverge versions. You have to be looking at the same thing even if you disagree with it. Don’t want 100k copies of the same thing in everyone’s emails.

Doesn’t care which platform you use, but does care that you don’t raise the cost of copying and the cost of transmission. If policies force you to do it, throw the policies away don’t throw the value away. The value of the web is in copyability. Web became 2.0 when it became writable.

We’ve been able to create structured data for years, then came the ability to consume unstructured data via search engines, and now we have he ability to produce unstructured information. When someone comments on a blog they are uploading text – there’s no difference between text data, video data, audio data, other than size and file type. A comment is an upload.

Do not throw away the value of wikis by not understanding that you have to keep the cost of transmission and reproduction low.

Open source question. This has one other value for global organisations. It’s very easy when you have the web as basis for your architecture to change language. Speed of innovation for OpenOffice in different languages outstripped the work done by Microsoft, because the community is interested in solving its own problems. OS people don’t look for the business model, they look for problems they can solve. They don’t ask how they are going to make money or who they are going to hold captive.

Slide: Advise for spies in the war about how to sabotage organisations and production.


But the advice is similar to how many businesses are actually run. E.g. “Insist on doing everything through “channels”. “Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.” “Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions”.

This is very, very effective disruption.

Life has changed. His father had one job. JP will have had 7 jobs. His son will have 7 jobs at once. The concept of the contract between employee and enterprise has changed. Enterprises exist because they can get better capital than individuals, but this is changing. Enterprises were meant to have global scale and reach, but we have that as individuals now too. They were supposed to be about security – that has changed so dramatically. There is no security, unions don’t matter, culture of the labour movement doesn’t guarantee jobs. Enterprise is supposed to provide benefits, but these have decayed over last 20 years. So what is the enterprise? What does it mean in the current world?

Youngsters now don’t see things the same way as us. They are used to Google. They are used to ways of working that don’t require them to become institutionalised. 100 years ago, if you worked in a bank you could only use the company’s quill pens because they wanted to to standardise writing.

You can’t tell the upcoming generation that they can’t use their own computer, you have to use the company’s, because that device has become personal. They don’t want to carry two or three devices. So enterprise has to become device agnostic.

But only 60 years ago, people thought the spire piece was sabotage, now they think it’s normal work. Now they are wrong, it *is* sabotage. Wikis allow interconnection, lateral movement, movement beyond the departmental silo (see point 1 of sabotage advice). Point 2 is Twitter, SMS. You can get a lot done in short words. Speeches are not a good thing. And so on.

Have to stop being hypocritical. See a few people with computers. Normally at conferences most people have computers and they are listening to talk whilst they are checking on things, or if they’ve remembered something based on association to what I’m saying, but they are free to do what they want and they do it openly. But in a meeting, they hide the Blackberry and check it under the table, and think no one is noticing. New generation knows when someone is checking a Blackberry.

The things we do in large enterprises today, many of these things would have been considered not just unproductive, but sabotage 60 -70 years ago.


1. Keep cost of repair lower than cost of damage
2. Underlying value proposition of the web is copyability and standardisation
3. We are providing these tools to a new generation who don’t believe in the hypocrisies of the exiting generation

Open Source
DrKW went open source, and now many people are. If a problem is generic, allow the OS community to solve it. Is a problem is a commodity, then the community will scale and find a cheap and easy way to solve it. That’s why OS software tends to be generic tools that are built by people saying ‘this is too generic to be proprietary’. Proprietary = cost.

If a problem is specific to a vertical market, pharma, education, financial services, then go to the proprietary community, because someone will take the risk to solve it, because it’s too expensive to solve for one and the OS community won’t solve it because it’s too specific.

If the problem is unique to your enterprise. No one has an incentive to build it. So look to your own developers. Try to avoid unique problems.

When wanted to sell the idea of OS, we did it with the economics. Generic, non-contraversial, commoditised software is logical place for OS. So don’t deal with politics and emotion, but economics.

Is this “against pretty much every journalistic principle”? Should it be?

Last month, Mohamed Nanabhay of Al Jazeera asked what would be the most important things to include if one was building a news website from scratch. It kicked off a great conversation, largely via Twitter. I think it’s a question that more people are asking as we are open to more radical ideas to support journalism as the print business model comes under increasing pressure.

I collected some of the responses and added some of my own, but I wanted to flag up this response from Mads Kristensen in Denmark. He recast the question in terms not of building a news site but rather a media site “since the news business is so over-commoditized by now that it’s arguable if there’s any strategic advantage in looking just at news”. Some journalists might wince at that statement, but there is a lot of truth in it. We really need to ask some hard questions about what is our unique selling point. What information, analysis or entertainment are we providing that one else does?

Mads asks a question that is increasingly on my mind:

So to my mind this is more an idea of how to redefine media as such without the legacy of the old media companies. So what would I do?

I really am beginning to think that the ideas that will redefine media, news and information in a digital age will not come from legacy companies. They are in the awkward position of trying to build a new business to support the old, and I increasingly think that two motivations are mutually exclusive.

Mars’ vision is very customer oriented, which is not a view that one would hear in most news rooms. The question is what do our readers want to read or viewers want to see but rather what do we think they need to read an see. Mars believes:

Yes, I would act a lot more according to the stated needs of the community rather to what I myself would find important. I realize that’s against pretty much every journalistic principle in the book, but ultimately I think that’s one of the reasons why media companies struggle to stay relevant. And at the end of the day I would rather stay relevant and in business.

It’s sad to think that it would be considered against ‘every journalistic principle in the book’ to think this way. Every time I express that view, I’m accused of wanting to pander to the audience. I beg to differ. Journalists who don’t know want their communities want are both out of touch and these days soon to find themselves out of a job, and only a journalist in touch with their community knows what they really need to know.

Running a small to mid-size news site? Try this CMS

Steve Yelvington is one of my heroes. Last summer, we swapped stories over beer in Kuala Lumpur with Peter Ong after talking citizen media at an IFRA Asia workshop. Steve told me how he wrote a newsreader for the Atari ST in 1985 and how he got the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newsroom on the internet in 1993.

Now, Steve should be everyone’s hero. He’s working on a next-generation news site management system, and he and the folks at Morris Digital Works have pledged to release the code under the open-source GPL licence. Steve describes the design ethos of the system:

When we’re done, this will be an innovation platform, not just a content publishing and community platform. …

Open tools and open platforms are great for developers, but what we really want to do is place this kind of power directly in the hands of content producers. They won’t have to know a programming language, or how databases work, or even HTML to create special presentations based on database queries. Need a new XML feed? Point and click.

It’s based on the open-source Drupal platform, and he talks what is possible with the system.

We’re integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the “low frequency” problem that most news sites face.

We’re going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We’ll link heavily to all the sources, including “competitors.”

Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest.

I couldn’t agree with Steve more when he says that internet start-ups have been smart in adopting open-source tools while newspapers have failed to embrace them. That thinking has to change. Steve is looking for collaborators on the project, and I think this is a golden opportunity for news sites to work together to build a platform for their future.