Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Re-Organizing the World

According to David Wienberger the old ways of organizing things don't apply in cyberspace as they do in the real material world. But more on Weinberger and his book Everything is Miscellaneous, later.

Progress seems to be based on our ability to move to increasing levels of abstraction.
The process of abstraction is at the root of progress itself. Let me try to explain.

From bare hands to tools and instruments, we constantly organize and reorganize our ability to do things better. A spear is an abstract projection (pardon the pun) of that which came before it - hurling a rock to bring down wild game. Before that, we probably needed to form in groups of collectives to chase down and corner wild game then with bare hands and objects, kill the beast for food and, at times, even lodging .

Beating the animal senseless with a rock was good but throwing a projectile was even better. The discovery of abstract concepts like projecting a rock (with bare hand, sling, or arrow) was simply a refinement over killing the beast with bare hand. Our minds, probably through accident, learned to create abstract extensions - extension of our selves out into what we recognized as reality.

We create and re-create at increased levels of abstraction our recipe for survival through progress and advancement.

For example, numbers are a form of abstraction. I can count the number of fingers on my hand by showing them to you one at a time or I can abstractly illustrate that number by having 10 pebbles represent that number. The pebbles are not that number, they are an abstract representation of that number. In a sense, the pebbles are data about the data - otherwise referred to as metadata.

Money is another example of abstraction. Exchanging 12 bushels of grain for a goat worked well. but what happened if I needed a goat but was not carrying any grain? Would you accept from me a promissory note as a symbolic abstraction of my commitment to pay you later... or better yet how if I gave you some tokens or coins of equal value to the goat? These are all abstract representations. When we take things to increasing levels of abstraction we stand a chance of advancement. But how to we do this, how does this work.

The nice thing about moving to increasing levels of abstraction is that material or physical limits get transcended. For example how could I use the number of fingers on my hand to represent the number 20? I know this sounds silly but look what happens once pebbles are used to abstractly represent fingers. Now I can easily gather 20 stones to abstractly represent or symbolize the number of digits on the hands of 2 people.

If we went to move to yet higher levels of abstraction, we'd probably end up inventing numbers as we know them today. Abstraction allows us to symbolically represent things in a non-material fashion and this is good because it is much easier to manipulate the symbols than it is the physical objects they represent.

We are really good at organizing the physical world at increasing levels of abstration. As a matter of fact, we call most important institutions ORGANIZATIONS.

Look, for example, at the way we have combine some simple rules to organize to create, for example, a library system. First a guy named Melvin Dewey came up with an abstract, rather arbitrary, library classification system. Next a rule was created that said a book needed to be classified and placed in a location that corresponded with its classification. The next rule specified that a book could be found in only one location in the library.

What we have in the example above is an abstract classification or codification system which when combined with simple rules forms a knowledge management system which revolutionized information access through the public library system. It even goes further than this. If we take each book and create an abstract representation of the library according to author on a 3 by 5 inch card, we can go to the card index and see a list of all the books or articles in that library written by a particular author. As many of us remember, a similar card index was organized by subject.

The interesting thing is that to make the system work, the consumer didn't need to know anything about the classification system or the associated business rules to make the library work for us. The same holds true of whenever we perform a web-search. We don't need to know how the internet is organized or the search algorithms (rules) used to locate content. By creating increasing levels of abstraction, our ability to locate information that is seemingly disorganized is actually increased. Most libraries are are organized around the Dewey Decimal System of categorization. By comparison the internet organizes or indexes almost every word on every web page. Next, companies look at which web pages get the most usage.

Think of the internet as a vast global library of information that is attaining new levels of virtualization or abstraction never thought possible before. Truly a remarkable feat. . . and all this is being done without a tidy decimal-based classification system like that developed by Dewey. By comparison the internet is an organizational mess but because it is organized at a higher level of abstraction it works very well. On the internet there is no need to know where, for example, a document is physically located or what it is physically called. When you think of it, this is a breakthrough.

Here are some video references you might find interesting. . . or better yet, go to the library and get Weinberger's book - Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the new Digital Disorder.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

OLPC - One Laptop Per Child - 2

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is an educational project not a laptop project according to founder — Nicholas Negroponte.

Nicholas Negroponte was the talk of Davos Switzerland when he unveiled his plan for a $100 Laptop - more.

This project has been highly controversial. Many people have argued with its choice of technologies (Open Source), business model (partnering with the United Nations and with national governments, rather than with private companies) was off target. Some people have questioned whether the computer itself is the critical resource bottleneck, citing Internet access as being an equally important and more difficult to solve problem. There is still a way to go.

There are still a few minor obstacles associated with a project attempting to ensure that every child on the planet not only has a computer but that it is connected to the World Wide Web of opportunities, information and possibility. Nevertheless the endeavour seems to be off to a good start and maybe Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might lend a hand. Bob are you listening?

For Nicholas Negroponte podcast - click here.

For technical discussion video (35min) - click here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

OLPC - One Laptop Per Child - I

The world is going through hyper-change mode, transforming before our eyes on a variety of fronts - largely enables by advances in telecommunication technology. As a result, we are entering a new phase of information management - one where personal productivity tools that recognized the power of the individual to one where information is recognized a something groups of people either utilize of produce in some kind of supply chain. Seldom is corporate information handled by a lone individual. It is the consequence of an as yet usually ill defined production cycle. First let me explain.

I'm referring to what is typically called unstructured information - documents and messages of one kind or another.
Merrill Lynch estimates that more than 85% of all business information is unstructured data – commonly appearing in e-mails, memos, notes from call centres and support operations, news, user groups, chats, reports, letters, surveys, white papers, marketing material,research, presentations and Web pages.

This unstructured content or what is being called UGC (User Generated Content) is beginning to move from enterprise drives
behind the fire wall to domains that are accessible via the internet. . .

But what does this all have to do with OLPC? As the knowledge of the world gets better reorganized and becomes more accessible and therefore made accessible to anyone on the planet with broadband access, one has to wonder what would happen if every child were given computer access to the knowledge of the world?

Did you know that less than half of the content contained in Wikipedia is in English. Did you know that the Google Boys are excited about advances in automated translation technologies. The world is shifting - if we could but perceive. Information is leaking from the hands of the few to the hands of the many - at exponential rates.

If this leakage is actually taking place, what would happen if OLPC took place. Most probably, concepts of Intellectual Property (IP) would attempt to limit who gets to learn and know what. That seems to be what IP rights do.

[1] DM Review Magazine, February 2003

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Two Views of Information

The traditional view holds that information or its derivative knowledge is power. Therefore it has value and needs to be protected against loss, corruption and misuse by others. Historically we have protected information because it was scarce or conversely, perhaps scarcity itself was created as a means of increasing value and associated power.

The traditional view, however, is giving way to the modern notion that information actually derives value through use and reuse. This decentralized view holds that substantial community benefit can be realized through the free flow of information from the hands of the few to the hands of the many. The more information is used by the community, the greater the return on the community investment. But who actually owns the information? What is the notion of intellectual property? If I invent a good idea, like the alphabet, should I be allowed to own it - forever? What would the world be like if numbers were intellectual property owned by a corporation, would I go to a distributer and have them fill up my spreadsheet to I can perform the next set of tasks? Consider the american company that received a US Paten on Bismati Rice - ref1, ref2.

In September 1997, a Texas company called RiceTec won a patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,663,484) on "basmati rice lines and grains." The patent secures lines of basmati and basmati-like rice and ways of analyzing that rice. RiceTec, owned by Prince Hans-Adam of Liechtenstein, faced international outrage over allegations of biopiracy. Both voluntarily and due to review decisions by the United States Patent Office, RiceTec has lost most of the claims of the patent, including, most importantly, the right to call their rice lines "basmati." This was a huge victory for India, whose farmers faced enormous economic losses from the patent - source, Wikipedia.

The view that information was the source of some power that can best be handled inside protective vaults or silos could be described as a contributing for vertical organizational designs intended to support differentiation and control balances based on who gets to see and do what with the information. The emerging view that as information becomes more readily available through the creation of horizontal structures like the internet or its variant the intranet, a natural consequence will be the discovery of new opportunities and possibilities. The basic idea is that as more information are given access to access or discover relevant information and the knowledge or literacy levels increase, the organization will be better able to make better plans and decisions. This premise was presented in 1945 by economist Friedrich Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society. In it, Hayek proposes that information sharing, which arises when diverse individuals interacting for their own varying goals, results serendipitously in order and universal benefit. He suggested that cooperation is an inevitable outcome of social interaction because of the benefits of distributed knowledge.

Modernization III

An environment required to support innovation is fundamentally different from one need to implement and sustain the innovation. In like innovation which benefits for participation and collaboration which can to some extent be self-organized and regulated, the implementation of the innovation must systematic – capable of being consistently repeated in a variety of situations and locations - over time. The notion of assembly line replication, though mechanistic in nature, appears to be a key ingredient to future success.

To accomplish this success, “systems” must be codified or thoroughly described before consistent implemented can occur. Without this codification, system replication is made difficult or impossible. Codification [1] could, for example, be expressed in several ways or at various levels of abstraction. That’s what codification is, a form of abstraction or virtualization or simulation. Written language is an abstraction of the spoken word and the alphabet is its codification. Written laws, business process definitions, computer programming scripts are abstract codifications intended to define, govern and regulate system behaviour. Codification is a critical component of the ongoing reformation or modernization process – including the way information is managed.

Some codifications, when put into place, are resilient – meant to last – intended to be impervious to change – strong and powerful. In a world of continuous change, however, where by the time the need for the change has been agreed to and an innovative response defined, tested and implemented, problems arise when the response is no longer appropriate to the external environment. In other words, what happens when the time it takes to conceive of and implement an innovation is so long that the circumstances that originally prompted that change no longer exist. In other words what happens when the time left to sustain change is reduced to zero? This is the zero point of entry - the point of continuous change. We are at this point where, for example, by the time the new product can be developed, it is no longer relevant.


[1] here codification refers to the identification and restating of a business rule or process in an organized and logical in order that it can be more easily interpreted.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Business of Information

I was writing a paper about managing content in the organization and wondered if people had an idea about what went on when one submits a web-search? I posed the question to my associate - Arlene, who paused and with a quizzical look responsed she had never really thought about it.

In brief I explained that these powerful search engines index every word (except words like a, an, the, but, to, ect.) on every webpage and essentially return to you the results. The Google boys, of course, made some enormous improvements on this search technology - that dates back to the 1960s - but that's essentially how it works. Anyway, we had an interesting chat and I found that Arlene was taking some courses and the information I passed to her was of some interest. So, I followed up with the following email.

Hi Arlene,
Thanks for your input yesterday. You were very helpful. Our ensuing conversation about information management was also interesting. As mentioned here are some pointers that may help you further explore the topic.

There are sectors of the Marketplace that are being transformed by ICT (Information and Communications Technology). At the core of this is the advent of a new global communications structure called the internet. What we call the internet consists of various layers of technology like physical wires and networks operating under a common standard called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol & Internet Protocol). As we move up the layers things start to look more familiar and we come to something called http:// (HyperText Transfer Protocol). This is where interfaces, links and user navigation takes place.

We have moved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 – a shift from web as massive bulletin board to a place were people go to interact and transact. The seemingly sudden emergence of massive social networking sites like YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook are testament to this. In 2006, Time Magazine declared “You” as “Person of the Year” in recognition that “You” can control and contribute to information on a world wide scale.

Underneath all this, another phenomenon was taking place – the emergence of Open Source (free) software. Highly customized Open Source software has been used to create many of the dynamic new sites that are emerging – like the ones mentioned above. One of the most phenomenal uses of Open Source was the emergence in 2001 of an online encyclopedia called Wikipedia – a vast compendium of information created by on free software by volunteers on a scale never seen before witnessed, in peacetime, on this planet. It is the 9th most used site in the world, it is controlled by a non-profit foundation and operated with a staff that has grown to seven, on a budget that will this year be between 2 and $3M. Wanna listen to the founder, Jimmy Wales? Still more. In the last link, Wales refers to Economist Friedrich Hayek and a paper her wrote in 1945 called “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” It’s tough reading so if you want a synopsis – go here.

I’ll bet you didn’t know the organization even supports an Open Source Product called Plone. Anyone with Managers approval can have it installed free of charge in order to set up collaboration environments where information can be created and managed by people in different branches, division and organizations. People can even have it configured to invite stakeholders from outside the firewall to collaborate. The product is known internally as The Collaboration Tool Service (CTS) - more. In the past 12 to 18 months 200+ CTS sites have sprung up with 5,000+ registered users.

Open Source Software exists legally through something called the GNU General Public License. If you’re interested in learning more about what that’s about in the attached WORD presentation by Eben Moglen else – click here.

More on free software.

So how does all this relate to business and economic models? Microsoft has become immensely wealthy by selling a product that costs little to manufacture. I suggest pharmaceutical companies live in a similar world where cost is essentially in the up front research and development. In other words, we actually purchase IP – intellectual property. Look what happened to the music industry when people got feed up paying $20 for an album that contained 1 or 2 good tunes. As a result, we now purchase music for $.99 per song. The movie industry didn’t experience the bootleg fate apparent in the music industry. Perhaps it was because this industry said pay $15 to come in and experience the movie in state-of-the-art comfort or wait for a month or 2 and watch the movie in the comfort of your home for $5 or even less. We rent movies and purchase music.

In essence, when we “purchase” software, we rental or licence the right to use the product – that is those of use who don’t use bootlegged or pirated software. The fact is that most of us are very 90% happy with our software and are not looking forward to paying several hundred dollars to upgrade to the latest version of MS Windows and MS Office – if that’s what you use. Certainly MS sits with billions in its reserves is not on the verge of bankruptcy but stockholders are looking and increasing their returns. So how will Microsoft, whose stocks have been declining of late, ensure profits and survival. No one on the outside can profess to answer this, however it could look down its products to ensure they can only be installed on one machine. But won’t that discourage people who don’t have enough cash from upgrading to new MSs products which will prevent illegal copying?

First it must be noted that Microsoft would probably not be in the position it is in today if it did not at one time passively promote the free distribution of its software. In the days when the computer operating system of the day was MS DOS, the predominant software products were Lotus 123, dBase and WordPerfect. Each product its product against unauthorized, bootleg distribution by digitally protecting its installation disks against unauthorized use – and this worked relatively well, that was until the company that made the operating system moved into the application software business and produced a product that could be readily copied and distributed between friends, family members and neighbours. This practice was contagious – viral in nature. One by one, the 3 great software industry leaders were brought to their knees.

The death knell occurred at the point the DOS based versions of MS WORD, EXCEL and Access were transformed into something new Рversions that would operate under what came to be called Windows. Of course only Microsoft had a full picture of this new operating system. The corporate that provided the operating system on which Lotus 123, dBase and WordPerfect depended and not only become competitor, it had rewritten the operating system. The 3 competitors of MS had a choice, invest in a total rewrite of their products or wait and watch to see if the new operating system would be adopted by consumers. Consumers loved MS Windows. In many cases, individuals had Windows operating at home long before it was adopted in the workplace. Why? MS continued to consumer market share by allowing people to copy and freely distribute its Windows operating system and integrated suite of products. This is not to say that the products were not good, they were consequently adopted widely in the workplace after receiving acceptance by everyone from the office managers teenage kids to the technician who was chomping to have MS Window Product Support replace DOS Technician on his or her resum̩. Has MS skilfully executed a well developed marketing plan or been involved in some predatory practices. A quick look to the other side of the pond shows MS contesting an EU court decision Рmore.

The other day, a colleague noted, “Other accelerators already in evidence that influence our ability to collaborate are our attitude to IP and our ability to 'waste' things. The entry phase of the new business model requires the establishment of 'reputation' which is gained by freely sharing IP; the latter phase (which can be quite small) involves conversion for commercial gain. When the cost of something virtually disappears (and it can therefore be 'wasted') and the leverage to be gained from sharing is apparent, then collaboration happens! That way be both gain confidence in our potential collaborations, are presented with the means to enable them, and maybe turn them into something worthwhile!”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This morning, one of my work colleagues asked about the difference between a Blog and a Wiki. Here's what IBM has to say.

What it is: A blog (short for “web log”) is a website that consists of a series of entries arranged in reverse chronological order. It may be the recorded ideas of an individual or a complex collaboration open to anyone. Blogs often focus on a particular subject, such as technology, politics or local news. A typical blog combines text, images and links to other media related to its topic. The “blogosphere” doubles in size every 6 months. 75,000 new blogs are started every day and 1.2 million new entries are posted daily — or about 50,000 blog updates every hour.

What it does: Because they can be updated in real-time and provide a sense of personal connection between readers and authors, blogs have become an increasingly influential form of communication. The role of blogs in breaking, shaping and spinning new stories has revolutionized communication tactics for a variety of activities including political campaigns, marketing efforts and business analysis.

What it is: A wiki is a type of website that allows users to add, remove or edit content, very quickly and easily. In essence, a wiki is a simplified way of creating web pages, that has been combined with a system to record each individual change over time. The most famous example of a wiki is Wikipedia. Started only five years ago, Wikipedia is already the world’s largest and most accurate encyclopedia, boasting more than 3.8 million articles and editions in 100+ languages — all produced through content contributed voluntarily by more than 360,000 people around the world.What it does: Because wikis are so easy to use, they’ve become an effective tool for collaborative writing and knowledge-management. Wikis are gaining recognition as valuable knowledge resources, helping to foster a sense that the recording of language and history belongs to a global community rather than a select group of academics.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Modernization II

To modernize successfully, “systems” must be codified or thoroughly described before consistent implementation can occur. Without codification, system replication is made difficult or impossible - therefore the system is simply not scalable.

Codification could, for example, be expressed in several ways or at various levels of abstraction. That’s what codification is, a form of abstraction or virtualization or simulation.

Written language, for example, is an abstraction of the spoken word and the alphabet is its codification or abstraction. Written laws, business process definitions, computer programming scripts are all abstract codifications intended to define, describe, govern and regulate system behaviour. Codification is a critical component of the ongoing reformation or modernization process – including the way information is managed.

Some codifications, when put into place, are resilient – meant to last – intended to be impervious to change – strong and powerful. In a world of continuous change, however, where by the time the need for the change has been recognized and an innovative response defined, tested and implemented, problems arise when the response is no longer appropriate to the external environment.

When the time it takes to conceive of and implement an innovation is so long that the circumstances that originally prompted the change no longer exist, then you're too late.

In other words when the time left to sustain change is reduced to is shorter than the time needed to innovate and create, you're shit out'a luck. If your ability to sustain an innovation exceeds the time required to create and implement it, you've created the dynamic of change. Isn't that what it's all about - modernization, change, development.

This is the zero point of entry - the point of contiguous change. We are at this point. The point where, for example, by the time the new product can be developed, it is no longer relevant to the marketplace. Conversely said, the market place responds best to products and services that are most responsive.

Here codification refers to the identification and restating of business rules or processes that exist in an organized and manner. This way, the codification can be more readily interpreted by others.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


The need to modernize the way work is performed and services delivered is agreed to and generally understood. Modernization is about keeping up with external environments – adapting and remaining relevant in a world of continuous change.
It is generally agreed that technology will play a central role in the modernization process. However, modernization is no simple task. It is an adaptive strategy that requires teamwork and innovation on one hand, as well as, discipline and rigour on the other – ingredients which don’t readily coexist.

To be sure, technology is an essential element to improving the way information is managed but as the award winning computer scientist E. W. Dijkstra said, “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”

Friday, February 8, 2008

Structure & Content

Working in IT is great. It allows me to see leading edge advancements as they begin to occur and sometimes I'm even able to anticipate them. Before one can really understand technology, however, one must understand that everything in the Universe is either Structure or Content and that what seems to be structure in some situations may actually be content waiting to occur in another universe. Think about it!

This much we know, the purpose of structure is to facilitate communication. Whether the structure is in the form of an organization chart or a network diagram, structure facilitates communication. Right?

Our job then is to build communication networks that work.

In technology, structures would include network cables, computers, routers etc. In the real world we're looking at roads, electrical grids and even sewage systems. Structure facilitates the passage of information or change states.

The value of information is derived from Structure. If the structure of the network is poorly designed, the content that contained therein will be affected. If the structure of this article is bad, the intended message will also suffer.

To understand information management one must see the world in terms of its Structure and Content.