Thursday Apr 16, 2009

(Customer) Service Oriented Architecture: Air France Fail

Day two of my emerging markets trip had me leaving Mexico City, changing planes in Paris, and continuing on to Johannesburg, South Africa. The departure side of the trip was a pleasure, including an extra spicy fish taco lunch and a smooth exit/entrance/rescan going through the gauntlet at Charles De Gaul airport. Despite the fact that airport security confiscated a bottle of whiskey I was toting for a friend in SA (they claimed it had to be bagged, even though it was sealed, in the original gift box and I had the duty-free receipt, someone in Paris is enjoying a bit of Jacques du Tennessee), it was almost too easy.

When I went to board the plane, though, Air France didn't find my ticket. This should have sent off loud klaxons for me, and should have initiated something of a "tie off the loose ends" set of transactions -- if I wasn't auto-checked in, then my bag was likely not going anywhere either. The gate agent re-assigned me into a seat, but the transaction died on the network vine. Somewhere around the equator, a flight attendant handed me a message saying I should contact baggage service in Johannesburg. Good news: they found my bag. Bad news: it was enjoying a vacation in France without me. As soon as AF realized that my ticket wasn't checked in, a series of transactions to find my bag, route it to the plane, and verify if it could be loaded within the departure window should have commenced without any whining or outside influence. Wasn't this the whole point of SOA?

While some analysts proclaim the death of SOA, the idea isn't bad, as long as the focus is on delivering some sort of result. What Air France needs is a mix of real-time request routing, SOA, and a focus on customer service.

Thirteen hours after landing, and 2 hours after my bag supposedly was supposed to arrive behind me, I still haven't heard from Air France. No idea where my bag is, or if or when I'll see it. They're doing their best to ensure I don't fly with them again, as it appears my luggage experience is far from unique.

If SOA is dead and social networking is alive, here's an idea: What if Air France's customer service people follow negative threads on Twitter or blogs? The "service" that matters here is customer service, whether automated or not, and human intervention in human problems frequently goes further than automated admissions of cluelessness.

Personally, I think it's the evil karma of wearing a suit that has come back to re-route the suits themselves away from me, but I don't have the tweets to prove it.

Tuesday Apr 14, 2009

Day Zero: Emerging Markets and Bath Tubs

I'm about to leave for a 4-city trip to our emerging markets region, visiting Mexico City (April 15), Johannesburg (April 17), Bangalore (April 21) and Mumbai (April 23). I'm hugely looking forward to talking to employees, customers, partners, and the media along the way. I'm going to remain Jersey-connected, at least virtually, as the NJ Devils start the NHL playoffs on Wednesday, and I'm also scheduled to keynote the virtual Cloud Clamp 09 on April 23rd.

Time zones can work to your advantage: my April 23 keynote is at 10:00 AM Eastern but 7:30 PM Mumbai local time, so I'll be webcasting from my hotel room. Most of the Devils games are at either midnight or 5:30 AM in local time. Caffeine and bandwidth will bend space-time, or at least it may seem that way. I've made a mental note not to add my own Sterling tones when Matt Loughlin announces a Devils goal. However, the increasingly superstitious part of me knows that the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2000 purely because I rebroadcast the exploits of Patrik Elias and Sergei Brylin using the reverberation of my Boston hotel bath tub for dramatic effect.

Speaking of bath tubs (and here you thought it was a non-sequitur)...

My Cloud Slam talk will tie together levels of abstraction and Bath Tub Curves with an emphasis on how they shape the reliability mechanisms used for cloud computing. Seriously.

Thursday Mar 12, 2009

ACM Queue Blog Aggregation

ACM Queue gets it -- they went from a primarily print edition to online, and now that they're online they're looking for ways to drive readership and interest. One of the (many) reasons I like print media is that you get an edited, assembled product that tells a story to some extent. You'll find content you want (which is why you purchased, subscribed, or liberated the dead trees from the next cubicle over), some content you don't want, but most important, some content that you didn't know you wanted but is informative, challenging or otherwise useful. This is the downside, for example, to googling the answer to an HTML/CSS question: you learn the syntax needed but nothing of the design, best practices or larger questions you could have been asking, many of which would have been prompted if you bought the magazine or book and took it to your nearest favorite reading spot. If you want to expand your readership, you have to expand the potential content that attracts those readers to your online property.

Editors at Queue are now aggregating author blogs, with a lineup on the Queue landing page and a full aggregation page one level down. And, shameless plug, they've added my blog with Sun peers Tim Bray and Bryan Cantrill and some marquee names like Cory Doctorow, Werner Vogels and Bruce Schneier. They're taking a risk as they have no editorial control over what I say in this white space, but if it helps their readers explore further than a search result, it's a win for both of us.

Thursday Feb 26, 2009

Reshaping Services Industries

I'm participating in a technology roundtable for one of the services industries this week; it's a closed-door session with some pretty heated discussion. The economy is definitely hurting this segment and one of the recurrent themes is that personal (low volume) customers are going to be the growth engine, not business (high volume) users as companies cut back on their spending. Without disclosing industries or players, here are the themes I presented as ways to reshape the services experience for a broader range of current and potential customers:

1. Open up interfaces to what you do. It's a time-honored tradition to think of a business' data as its very own. But what if that data can create new ways to think about the service, new market segments, or new demand for the service? Web mashups are interesting if they have useful data sources to draw from; this doesn't mean that services companies should expose personal data but they can provide interfaces to widely useful, logistics, location, or inventory information. The New York Times has done exactly this with the Times APIs, a set of services that let you search Times content by keyword, context, or specific parameters like dates and by-lines. It doesn't create new newspapers; it creates new ways of using the news that hopefully driver readers back to the Times site for additional information or context. It's not sufficient just to think about consumers as the endpoints of a transaction. Which brings me to...

2. Determine the value of social networks. In the words of Tim O'Reilly, it's not the network radix, it's what gets shared. What experiences are valued, or not valued? What are people saying about you? What does a Twitter search on a hash tag or keyword associated with your service turn up? Simple example: the 3rd generation of my family's cousins have a group on Facebook; every time we think about having a reunion somewhere we end up discussing air fare, hotels, meeting rooms, babysitting, photo sharing and mass quantities of food (it is my family, after all). All of those services businesses could find a pre-aggregated demand pool if they'd build a "Book Your Family Gig" application in Facebook.

3. Create an inbound channel. More informally, this is "listen" but it's the corollary to using the social network to get a pulse on what people think of your service. What are the limits on elasticity, choice, price, and user generated content that demonstrates new uses or specific value add to your service? Far too much services marketing is outbound only; I'm awash in email promotions, coupons, special codes, and one-time offers. But very rarely am I asked what I'd pay for something, or what my trade-off points are. Even more direct: just watch Twitter for "brand name #fail" and see where the exceptions are happening. Reach out and address, listen indirectly, because that creates....

4. Pleasant inconsistency drives loyalty. Give -- don't offer -- me a better seat, better room, nicer car, or 9 holes on the course that I'm going to bludgeon with a golf club that I can't control (this is in fact how my golf badness started). The first time I experience something out of the ordinary flow, I'm likely to decide whether or not I'm willing to use it again, pay a premium for it, or arrange my brand loyalties so that I'll get the benefits of being a repeat customer. Obviously, bad inconsistency, or consistently bad experiences, drive loyalty to other players.

All of these conversations have to happen with input from multiple demographics: Millennials, Gen Y, Gen X, Boomers and now Gloomers, crossed with various degrees of online experience, social networking utility and trust. If you don't figure out how to meet the demands of the Millennials, you won't be in a position to sell, serve or employ them in 5-10 years when they are riding the economic recovery as the core of the spending and working public.

Wednesday Feb 25, 2009

Small-Scale Art For Small-Scale Recovery

My father retired from a long career as a dentist to become at various times a painter, fisherman, gardener, cook, runner and Klezmer fan. I don't have his aesthetic sense or attention to fine artistic detail, which is why my art ends at geometric doodles on hotel note pads. But my father spends good chunks of the New Jersey winters painting in his basement studio, working off of pictures that various family members and friends email to him as potential e-muse-ments. A few times a year, he frames a cross-section of his work and submits it to a show, or occasionally finds a gallery owner willing to take a few pieces.

Last week I got a smile-generating email from Pops: He sold a painting. On the home studio scale, it's a nice deal; it's as much a boost to the artistic ego as to the weekend (and weakened) cash flow. The second line of my father's email put it in context, though: He was proud to sell a painting when the "real art" market seems to have tanked worse than the local housing market. Sotheby's and Christie's can't move the "name" artists now, with nearly a third of recent auction pieces going unsold.

More than ever, we need art. I'm tired of graphs that go down and to the right; I don't want to look at red numbers on a screen because there's only a backwards-looking story in them. Art is healthy. Art is something that makes us laugh, think, feel uncomfortable, or remember what it was like when we took that picture we consider postcard-worthy. Supporting local, small-scale artists will do more for the economy than buying a museum piece because you'll help a starving artist fund supplies or entertainment, pumping that money right back into the economy. My contribution this week: one not-so-scary Bear Monster shirt from Jeph Jacques' repertoire. Topatoco, Jeph, UPS, and wherever Jeph spent some of the proceeds on art-enhancing food and drink get small-scary benefits; I just look more bear-like. Both are good things.

Sunday Feb 15, 2009

How To Fix The Housing Market

I'm pretty uncomfortable with the sum of money being given to the US banks as part of an economic recovery plan, because I haven't seen any proposals for the banks that outline what they'll do differently, better or more quickly this time around. If the Obama administration wants to inject liquidity into the housing market, it has to make the market function, which means ensuring there is a rebalancing of supply and demand. In areas hardest hit by the economic crunch, there's little supply at a reasonable price (because people are holding on to over-priced assets) and not enough demand (because there are too few buyers entering the market, due in part to holding on to those houses in losing positions).

Part of this stagnation is due to the IRS provision that precludes you from recognizing a loss on your primary residence. Quite simply, if the IRS would allow homeowners to deduct the loss on a primary residence up to (hypothetically) 50% of your taxable income, up to $100,000 year, for up to 5 years (a $500,000 loss could be written off over 5 years provided the homeowner has AGI of at least $200,000 in each of those years). The reduction in income taxes immediately creates disposable income at the local level, in individual's hands, where it can be invested in local goods and services. That's how you stimulate an economy; you get people to buy things they've been avoiding. It effectively creates additional buying power for people looking to trade houses (up, down or sideways), and above all, it encourages homeowners to price their houses at the market, to sell to new buyers at fair prices, and to re-invest themselves with the implied tax benefits of selling at a loss. This even fits the current trend in the mortgage market of pushing 5-year ARMs; consider taking each year's tax savings and making a balloon payment on the principal, forcing the mortgage to be re-evaluated or setting it up for a re-financing before the first major adjustment.

The best part: it doesn't depend on any outside forces or new business models; banks will originate mortages; real estate agents will drive buyers around; all of the infrastructure services that benefit from a robust housing market will get a local boost. Isn't that how government is supposed to help us?

Saturday Jan 31, 2009

Traceroute For A Bobble

I am appealing to the 'net for help in solving what has become a family mystery. Cross-posted to my sports blog as well, because I'm looking for any reasonable clues. And yes, I got the idea from Clay Shirkey's Here Comes Everybody. Not as exciting as a misappropriated cell phone, but perhaps of more interest to baseball nerds of all ages.

During 1960 and 1961, a series of 15 bobble heads were made representing 12 Major League Teams and 3 Pacific Coast League teams. They are made of a (now) brittle plaster or soft clay/ceramic mixture, much denser and more poorly weighted than today's acrylic bobbles. Some time during the late 1960s, an aunt (I think) gave this Minnesota Twins bobble to me as a gift, probably to appease me as I sat bored in her living room on a day when it was too muddy or rainy to play outside. It sat on a shelf for the better part of 15 years, then in a drawer, has been moved twice, and has remarkably few dings or chips.

I have no idea how it ended up with my family. I have four theories: (1) someone visited the Twin Cities in 1961 and got this as a stadium give-away, which seems unlikely for a variety of reasons; (2) a visitor from Minnesota brought this as a gift for one of my cousins, and my aunt gave it to me after it sat on his (or her) shelf for half a decade, which is somewhat less unlikely; (3) they were sold in other Major League ballparks, and a cousin bought it on a summer outing, with it ending up in my hands much in the manner of my previous idea or (4) the distributor or manufacturer tried to leverage local Topps distribution and left a sample in my grandfather's general store (the source of my pasteboard empire in the day), and my uncle (who worked in, and later owned the store) brought it home, where my aunt passed it along to me.

Option (4) makes the most sense, as my sole recollection of the bobble is getting it at that particular aunt's house, and nobody (that I know of) had family west of the Delaware River, let alone the Big Muddy. If we were getting in the car to visit, it was a trip to the deli and perhaps the beach, but not a baseball game in Minneapolis.

If you know any of the backstory of the 1960-1961 colored base bobble heads, leave a comment. I'm looking for data on how they were distributed or sold, how a Twin ended up on the right coast, and how to trace back the route of a giveaway item that now has totemistic value in my family.

Wednesday Jan 28, 2009

WordCamp NYC 2009

We are going to host and sponsor another WordCamp, once again at Sun's NYC office. The date is October 24, 2009, the place is 101 Park Avenue, and the details are being worked out. Last year we had Matt Mullenweg as a keynote, and some spectacular speakers covering everything from building a personal brand to writing code. Where else do PHP, MySQL and HTML hackers congregate with budding journalists, photographers and other micro voices? Video from previous WordCamps is now part of WordPress.tv, a great way to fill the 9 months it's going to take to gestate our next show.

Early shout out to the GSE Divas for their continued support and efforts in making these happen.

Tuesday Jan 20, 2009

Makers Of Things

Obama hit a home run with his inaugural address:
[I]t has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.
The emphasis is mine, the words are his. Engineering has always been at the root of recovery. If you don't feel empowered after that speech, read it again.

Inaugural Optimism

I am breaking a few self-enforced "work rules" this morning, and I feel no shame or guilt about it. I have the television in my office turned on to watch the inaugural proceedings, sound turned down, but a distraction anyway. I should be preparing for an upcoming conference call, but I'm blogging because I'm captivated by what's happening in Washington. Thoughts in no particular order:

Listening to the screams - not just cheers, but screams - of the crowd as the motorcade progresses, it's audibly clear that Obama is bigger than the Beatles.

NBC commentators mis-identify Michelle Obama's brother Craig in the crowd. The black and orange scarf gets a locomotive cheer.

Long-lived institutions - governments, universities, religions - change in time scales relative to their own existence. They remain immune to change as long as their constituents refuse to repair pre-conceived notions of leadership or longevity; you have to embrace the diversity of a larger whole to benefit from it. As I frequently tell prospective students during interviews, Princeton didn't admit women as undergraduates until 1969, and it was nearly another 30 years until incoming classes reflected the gender demographics of the larger body of global university students. But Princeton is a decidedly better place having made the change. What tenets of "Washington as usual" will the Obama administration challenge?

I'm eagerly anticipating an administration that embraces science, that encourages innovation, that names a national CTO, that used modern grass roots support mechanisms to truly grasp the spirit of the American people. Despite parallels drawn to JFK (age and appeal) and Lincoln, the better Presidential model is Andrew Jackson. His inaugural party was the subject of high school history classes; an open party in the White House then is a multi-million strong crowd on the Mall today. Obama is truly a President reflective of the larger whole of the American people. To be fair, he's not going to single-handedly going to fix the financial environment, the global ecological environment, or the economic situation. But if we're encouraged, empowered, and enabled to create change, the fixes can emerge. Obama's inauguration is an historic day, and I'm hoping it's only a leading indicator of the history to be written.

Saturday Jan 17, 2009

Neal Stephenson's "Anathem"

Finished Neal Stephenson's latest multi-pound work Anathem over the holiday break, and I'm still mulling over bits and pieces. It was that good. My enjoyment of all 900+ pages of the book was enhanced by having read Danny Hillis' Clock of the Long Now and Cory Doctorow's The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away. I think they're both pre-requisite (Hillis gets a mention in the credits, as the clock imagery in Anathem is not only strong and central but is the most reasonable - if sci-fi conducts "reason" - interpretation of Hillis' idea in print).

The questions I find myself coming back to: At what point do science and religion separate themselves, or are forced to be separated? When is sustainability about science and not culture, and if it veers into culture, does it, too, border on religion? Why didn't I pay better attention in astrophysics class when we were discussing potential multi-verses? It was a hard book on which to get started, but after the first 100 pages, I didn't put it down. I've thought (for years) it would be hard to top Cryptonomicon (the "Baroque Cycle" didn't capture me, although I'm about to restart it), but Stephenson raised the bar with his latest. It even has a solid and comforting conclusion, rather than a fade out in words.

Sunday Jan 04, 2009

New Year's Optimism

In any market environment, you have to be careful not to take current events and extrapolate ad infinitum, assuming that nothing else will change. I distinctly remember being in a meeting of a university student organization with its board, hearing one of the senior board members say "We can safely assume we'll make no less than 8% on this money in the future." To be fair, interest rates at the time were north of 12%, and a drop of that magnitude seemed outrageous. That was 25 years ago, but the lesson stuck with me: don't extrapolate, and don't assume conditions are fixed.

So Paul Farrell's running inanity on CBS's MarketWatch site deserves a closer look. How can anyone predict 100 years into the future, when nobody could have predicted the Internet, wireless communications, touch screen personal devices, or the convulsions in the financial markets only a quarter century ago? At the time I was hearing interest rate assurance, Sony's Akio Morita was writing The Japan That Can Say No, largely based on the premise that the world would be dependent on Japanese DRAM supplies. Morita missed the rise of Korea. Ten years before that, those of us in the Tri-State area watched with trepidation as New York City flirted with bankruptcy, only bailed out (then) through Big Macs of a different notional type and amount that you see advertised today.

Here are three potential disruptions that violate the extrapolation premises that seem to crowd out rational thought in the financial press:

1. Transportation efficiency. Electric, hybrid, fuel cell, alternative fuel cars, improved public transportation, more efficient transportation modes, and simply utilizing less transportation all add up. Example of a more efficient mode: Google's commuter van, complete with WiFi. I'm betting that true breakthroughs in automobile transportation come from outside the US -- most likely from countries with no natural oil resources of their own. But the drive for efficiency -- not just alternatives -- also means that the transportation consumer will have choices and be able to participate in a market of available providers. Felix Rohatyn, orchestrator of the Big Apple's recovery in the 70s, sees an alternative energy economy in a New Deal vein.

2. Micro finance on a macro scale. Organizations like Kiva match micro loans to micro-scale businesses that use the cash to bootstrap themselves. There's no reason this has to be restricted to business loans - why not create a market for making small scale investments in mortgages? Not everybody can be a real estate magnate, but if you get visibility, aggregation of demand, and broad participation, you can create some powerful investment vehicles. I'll go so far as to argue that giving US citizens a tax credit for funding shares of mortgages is a significantly more efficient mechanism than taxing them, using the tax revenue to bail out banks who are then restructing mortgages, all the while borrowing ever-increasing sums to float the mortgage market. Direct, local involvement is always more efficient. If there are micro exchanges for professional athletes, why not one for regional pools of mortgages? It represents an immense deleveraging of the big money players by leveraging immense numbers of small money players.

3. Patient-centric health care. I'll skip the saga of my health care claim that's been open for 5 months, while Sun's provider argues over the doctor's address, then a missing code, then the wrong modifier for the code, all the while happily paying one of the two doctors involved but not the other. Bottom line is that to an increasing extent, the drug business is a mash up of biology, chemistry and telemetry data, putting the health care consumer right in the middle of situation, rather than as an often-ignored edge participant.

Cory Doctorow put things very well in his 2008 calendar closing thought:

But I just keep on remembering that we live in the best time in the history of the world to have a worst time: the time when collective action is cheaper and easier than ever, the time when more information and better access to tools, ideas and communities are at our fingertips than they’ve ever been.

Recent events have given us less trust in "big" anything - government, business, power, money. Recent financial market events have demonstrated, clearly, that "financial engineering" is neither financial nor engineering. Engineering implies an understanding of failure modes and how to recover from them; Financial implies a well understood market with risk, futures, and market agents in specific roles. Right now, I'm less inclined to trust opaque institutions claiming to be watching out for my safety.

My confidence lies with the people who, in the words of Mark Cuban, "do the work" -- engineers -- the people who brought you iPods, Google, Java, Amazon.com, the internet, wireless networks, and really cool digital cameras. And those people -- people who build things, things you can use and touch and not just enter into a spreadsheet -- benefit from the widespread diffusion of intellectual property. That was going to be my "fourth disruption," but I don't think it's a prediction -- it's already happening. When that community driven view of intellectual property spills over from the software (and hardware) world into pharmaceuticals, financial products, and transportation engineering, we'll see true disruption in those arenas as well.

The common thread in all three areas above is that the user is at the center of the effort, not marginalized. And "user" means a direct consumer of or beneficiary of a product or service. User also doesn't mean a person in isolation, an island cut off from all other data in the torrents; a "user" is someone who makes choices, set priorities and allocates resources as part of a myriad, intersecting set of social networks - friends, co-workers, co-risk sharers, communities (real, virtual, local, global) and strangers with influence.

Why am I optimistic - cautious, but optimistic - enough to smile going into 2009? First, because all of the above requires significant network infrastructure, more in a highly virtualized, "cloud like" data center -- and that's a nutshell summary of Sun's business. Second, technology has helped engineer recovery in tough economic times, whether it was New Deal era investments in public infrastructure or the dot com boom fueling growth in the mid-90s (and what I hope the Obama administration will stimulate). Finally, increased networking (social or otherwise), finer grain economic participation and diffusion of intellectual property all drive increased transparency - you simply get to see how the pieces fit together. That drives trust, and trust recreates confidence in institutions - new or old - that we count on for shepharding global economies through this mess.

Wednesday Dec 31, 2008

The 2008 List

As human beings we tend to like things that happen in multiples of 5 or 10; something to do with our (body's) digits and the fact that decades make a fairly interesting yardstick for measuring life. So -- this is the fifth time I've made a list of things I found memorable in the year gone past; it joins previous entries in the closest thing to a repetitive theme dating back to my first attempts to find an on-line voice that "worked."

This was a nasty year. But -- for every thing that made me shake my head, there was something else that made me smile, whether at work, home or riding the subway in NYC.

Work moment. Tough call, because there were a few of them this year, but two stand out: Glenn Brunette and his security team winning the Innovation Award, and the highlight of a staff meeting we held in Korea when the newest systems engineers greeted us with a song. The Korea team gets a slight edge, because their abundant enthusiasm for Sun, for their roles, and for the market as a whole was infectious.

Family moment. Trivially easy to pick this one: Celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary with my wife Toby and our kids, enjoying some overly rich desserts and laughing the whole time.

Nerd toy. Shazam iPhone application. Shazam has been responsible for as many music purchase decisions this year as friend recommendations. I tend to associate songs with specific events and locations, and now with Shazam I'm able to discover the whole under the musical snippets that provide background for in-game sports breaks, dinners, or long drives in rental cars.

T-shirt. The "crew" shirt from the 12-meter challenge. It was one of those 2008 events that I look back on with a solid smile.

Reading. Finished everything Neal Peart has written this year, which was a fascinating insight into how he dealt with tragedy, grief, and the rigors of a literal rock star life. Seeing him (along with the rest of Rush) twice this summer re-inforced the depth of his work. If all goes well, I'll finish Neal Stephenson's Anathem before this extended New Year's weekend is over -- so far it's one of the best reads I've had in a while. While those heavy doses of written an-neal-ing shaped a bunch of thoughts, the best "read" of the year was hearing Cory Doctorow read from Little Brother in New York City, with my son and some of his friends in tow. They all read the book; it was passed around and educated others in their circles of friends.

Email. Perhaps I should call this "message" because it derives from my Facebook inbox rather than one accessed through IMAP. Got a note from an old grade school friend telling me to go see Defiance, because two of the heroes in the movie were at our (shared) Bar Mitzvah back in 1975. It was a great way to reconnect. Second place: a note from Jack Falla himself, commenting on a blog entry I had written about one of his books. The hockey world lost one of its best vox populi with Falla's passing this year.

Thoughts for 2009: More reading, more writing, more punctuality (in everything from email responses to hockey practices), and more focus on things my friends, family, and I enjoy. Sometimes it takes making a list of those things to remind you of their importance.

Sunday Dec 21, 2008

Wil Wheaton on Life Without DRM

Wil Weaton, known to some as Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, has gained more publicity in the last decade as a writer giving voice to geek culture. His latest work is available as an audiobook available only directly from Wheaton's website, not Amazon's Audible service.

Read Wheaton's comments about Audible and DRM, and how he's willing to trade off lack of control over bit copying for more control over pricing and profit. Seems that most of the arguments about DRM have focused on preserving the profit slice of a shrinking pie, rather than finding ways to make the pie bigger.

Punchline: I discovered this via Wheaton's Twitter feed, where I'm one of about 27,000 people who are making that pie bigger.

Tuesday Nov 25, 2008

Facebook and the Wrong Definition of Productivity

I'm convinced that "productivity" is a dumb word. It presumes some magic metric for how people create value in the workplace, and that metric is usually, inexorably tied to a clocking problem. Work faster, work harder, work more hours - and my favorite - waste fewer hours! I hear Tock's admonishments ringing in the back of my head every time I see the red flag of Facebook notifications. The open question: is Facebook the new Solitaire?

In short, Facebook is a valuable business tool provided you treat it as a context creation vehicle and not actual work product (for most people; Sun has people whose primary work product is created via Facebook and that's because they're primarily recharging employee workplaces). If you spend hours a day creating goofy groups and inviting random friends, or searching for the transitive closure of your friend(friend(cousin(high school buddy))) relationships, then you probably do have a time management problem. But the problem with casting any activity as a "bad use of hours" infers that there's some sorting and prioritization of hours that belong to your employer versus your friends, family or co-workers. Whose hours are they, anyway? The subject is at the heart of what is typically called "work/life balance", but I've more recently heard simplified to "life balance". That's the right emphasis -- when you're always connected, always thinking, frequently Tweeting to inform your e-crew (and self-selected marketing bots), there's no thick-drawn line separating the two. While Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and their social relatives are heavily colored by non-work relationships and content, they can improve rather than impair productivity.

How?

Productivity is about reducing problems of time, geography, and knowledge. Who can help me with a problem, where is the information (or the expert) that I need, how quickly can I find the best answer? There's a negative side the scale as well - what's impairing progress, what if I take the first answer that later creates a myriad of issues, what if I follow a bad link (people, website, or driving directions)? Building -- and maintaining -- relationships drives the positive side of productivity, because they help you navigate to a suitable win more quickly. Actually paying attention to the content traversing those social graphs sometimes addresses the productivity impairments.

This was brought home, literally, last week when I twittered that I was "pissed off." Immediate Facebook status comments echoed Journalism 101: What upset me? Why? When? My status wasn't work-derived, only the after effects of a bad conversation with someone who sent me a very incorrect bill, but without the context it was an attention-grabber. I even got a ping from my boss, who readily admits that he follows me on Facebook as a way of managing me. There's probably some obtuse managerial treatise in that statement, but his outreach kind of snapped me to attention and quite honestly -- got me back to work. Well within the usual hour long damping factor needed to get productive again after such aggravation. Whose hour was it? No need to debate ownership: it was a useful chunk of time.

About

Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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