Monthly Archives: February 2011

Open Data might have failed, but Open Government is still going strong.

It would seem that the shine is starting to wear off the Open Government movement, with a recent report to the US congress challenging some of the assumptions which drove the dictate out of the U.S. Open Government Office1)The Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative: Issues for Congress [PDF], forcing U.S. departments to publish their data sets. The report found that simply pushing out data has negative outcomes as well as positive ones (which should be no surprise), and that often the cost of pushing out (and maintaining) a data set didn’t outweigh the benefits. Most importantly, it raised the question of whether or not publishing these data sets was a good use of the public’s money.

So, has the business case behind Open Government been found lacking in the harsh light of day? Or is this one of those cases where some faith is – similar as with the investment in the U.S. highway network – because the benefits of stepping into the unknown are not calculable with the crude mechanism of ROI. The truth seems to lie somewhere between the two.

I wouldn’t confuse the investment in the US road network post WWII (or AU’s current investment in a NBN) with Open Government. The former was an investment in an asset which the U.S. government of the time made largely on faith, an investment which is currently seen to be returning $14 billion to the U.S. economy annually. (Australia’s NBN might be heading on a similar journey2)The NBN wants to be free @ PEG.) The latter is actually a philosophical point of view about an approach to government.

The problem is that we confuse “Open Data” with “Open Government”. They’re related, but not the same. Open Government is a move to streamline service acquisition and delivery by exposing the bureaucracy of government and integrating it more tightly with other service providers, and has been progressing nicely for a decade or more now. Open Data is a desire to change the relationship between government and the population, reducing the government to a simple data conduit between the public (or corporations) providing services and the public consuming them.

Open Government has made government easier to deal with by making it easier to find and consume the services you need, and by fostering community. Everything from applying for the dole, getting a grant through to organising a council supported street party is orders of magnitude easier than it was a few decades ago, mainly due to increased transparency. This has been delivered via a range of means, from publishing information on line, through providing better explanations for the services offered and promoting multi-channel access and self service delivery. The latest wave of Open Government is seeing departments integrating external services with their own, putting even more data out in public in the process, as they move from a service-provider to a service-enabler. Ultimately though, if government (as separate from politics) is focused on keeping folk feed and feeling safe then it’s doing it’s job. It’s basic Maslow3)Maslow’s hierarchy of needs @ Changing Minds.

Open Data, though, is based on the view that government should do as little as possible, hand over the data, and let individuals in the public get on with doing what they want. It’s claimed that this will provide transparency (the public has all the data, after all) as well as fostering entrepreneurs to provide innovative solutions to the many problems that confront us today.

It’s quite possible to have transparency and Open Government without the need to publish all your data, and maintain these published versions, as claimed by the Open Data proponents. People need to understand how the wheels of government turn if they want to trust it, and the best way of doing this is usually through key figures and analysis which builds a story and names the important players. Drowning people in data has the opposite effect, hiding government operation behind a wall of impenetrable details. Wikileaks was a great study in this effect, as it was only when the traditional journalists became involved, with their traditional analysis and publication weaving together a narrative the broader public could consume, that the leaks started to have a real impact. (It’s also interesting that the combination of the anonymous drop boxes being created by conventional media, and Open Leaks‘ anonymous mass distribution to conventional media, looks to be a more potent tool than the ideologically pure Wikileaks.)

Nor is treating government as an integration medium the only way to solve the world’s problems. While entrepreneurs and VCs might be the darlings of the moment, there’s many other organisations and governments which are also successfully chipping away at these problems. For every VC backed Bloom Box{{5}} who has mastered marketing hype, there’s a more boring organisation that might have already overtaken them4)New Solid Oxide Fuel Cell System Provides Cheap Grid Energy From CNG and Biogas @ IB Time UK. The entrepreneur model will be part of the solution, but it’s not the silver bullet many claim it to be.

The problem is that Open Data is the result of a libertarian political mindset rather, rather than being a solution to a pressing need. Forcing government to publish all its data sets does not provide or guarantee transparency, nor does it have a direct impact on the services offered by the government. It can also consume significant government resources that might be better spent providing services that the community needs. Publish a data set of no obvious value, or build a homeless shelter? Invest in Semantic Web enabling another data set few use, or pay for disaster relief? These are the tradeoffs that people responsible for the day-to-day operation of government are forced to make. Claims by folk like Tim Berners-Lee that magic will happen once data is out there and ontology enabled have proven to be largely wrong.

However, Open Data does align with a particular political point view. Open Data assumes that we, as a population, want such a small government model, an assumption which is completely unjustified. Some people trust, and want, the government to take responsibility for a lot of these services. Some want to meet the government somewhere in the middle. Open Data tries to force a world that works in shades of grey into a black-or-white choice that driven by a particular world view.

Deciding what and how much the government should be responsible for is a political decision, and it’s one that we revisit every time we visit the ballot box. Each time we vote we evolve, by a small amount, the role government plays in our lives5)What is the role of Government in a Web 2.0 world? @ PEG. (Occasionally we avoid the ballot box and revolt instead.) Should government own the roads? The answer appears to still be yes. Should government own power stations? Generally, no. Should they own the dams? We’re still deciding that one.

It’s in the context of the incremental and ongoing evolution of government’s role in our lives that we can best understand Open Data. Forcing Open Data onto government through mandate (as Obama did) was a political act driven by a desire to force one group’s preferred mode of operation on everyone else. You might want Open Data, but other people have differing priorities. Just because they disagree doesn’t make them wrong. The U.S. congressional report is the mechanism of government responding by documenting the benefits Open Data brought, the problems it caused, and the cost. The benefits (or not) will now be debated, and its future decided at the ballot box.

Open Government is alive and well, and is driving the evolution of government as we know it. Services are being improved, governments are increasingly their integrating services with those of the private sector, and more data will be released to support this. The assumption that all government data should remain secret unless proven otherwise has been flipped, and many public servants now assume that data should be made public unless there’s a good reason not to publish. Government is investing in moving specific information assets online, were it makes sense, and departments are opening up to social media and much closer involvement (and scrutiny) with the public sector. The mechanism of government is evolving, and this is a good thing.

Open Data, though, as an expression of a political point of view, looks like it’s in trouble.

References   [ + ]

The north-south divide

Note: This is the third part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. You can find the earlier posts – The future of (knowledge) work and Knowledge Workers in the British Raj – and subsequent posts – Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

Developing and manufacturing a product, and delivering it to the waiting customer, has historically been a significant expedition. We would establish a series of camps – departments, containing the tools and skills needed – along the route from start to finish to support us as we ferried the materials we needed from their source to where they were required. However, the assumptions that drove this behaviour are no longer true. Where previously materials, skills and tools were all in short supply, today we can usually find what we need lying on the ground near where we stand. Developments such Strategic Sourcing{{2}}, Business Process Outsourcing{{3}} (BPO), and Social Media have removed the need for us to carry what we need with us, and has been the trigger for us to start dismantling those departments that we no longer need.

[[2]]Strategic Sourcing defined at Wikipedia[[2]]
[[3]]Business Process Outsourcing defined at Wikipedia[[3]]

The large bureaucracies companies have traditionally required are slowly being collapsed, hollowed out, as we find that we can achieve the same result more efficiently with smaller and more agile organisations. Companies are starting to use a more alpine style{{4}} of operation, leveraging a small carefully, chosen team with more flexible tooling, and relying their own wits to survive in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. This shift is pushing us to rethink the nature and organisation of our businesses, setting aside many of the specialised departments and resources we relied on in the past to find a new organising principle. The impact will be both subtle and dramatic, with business continuing to do what business does (constrained, as it is, by government and market regulation) while the roles we all play as individuals change dramatically in response.

[[4]]Alpine style climbing defined at Explore Himalaya[[4]]

An interesting thought experiment is to compare the companies we work in to the societies we inhabit. After all, companies are really just small (and some not so small) societies, with all the dynamics and politics of a community of a similar size. The nature of both societies and companies is largely determined by the tools they use{{5}}, as it is these tools that determine how the community functions. Agriculture, for example, requires a society to be stationary and drove the creation of property ownership, while the telegraph enabled the creation of new business models by separating, for the first time, the transmission of information from the carriage of goods, and gave the world Reuters{{6}}. The tools and technologies we use determine the nature of the societies and companies we inhabit.

[[5]]Timothy Taylor (2010), The Artificial Ape: How technology created humans, Palgrave Macmillan[[5]]
[[6]]The history of Thomson Reuters[[6]]

Historically, societies can be broken into two rough technological groups: equatorial and seasonal. Equatorial societies exist somewhere near the equator, living in a climate that varies little throughout the year, other than in the amount of rainfall they receive. Seasonal societies live some distance from the equator in a more temperate climate, a climate that provides them with distinct seasons over the length of the year. The further north or south you go from the equator, the more seasonal the climate becomes.

The climate a society lives in has a strong influence on the type and nature of technologies that it uses. The orthodox strategy in a seasonal climate is to tailor specific toolkits to the challenges faced in each season of the yearly cycle; jackets in winter and shorts in summer. When it becomes extremely cold, it’s wise to bring along the sleds, snowshoes and heavy clothing. However, when it’s warm these the tools in this toolkit are somewhat less useful. Many tools fulfil a specific, and important need at one point in the seasonal cycle, but this also means that we have little use for the tool in the remainder of the year.

Societies in more tropical climates typically adopt a different strategy. Their focus is on creating a single toolkit that has a smaller number of simpler, but more flexible tools. They have little need for specialised tools, as the climate they live in is relatively stable over the year, which means that their success (or failure) depends on their ability to adapt to unanticipated disturbances or unexpected opportunities as they present themselves. While they are not concerned about stockpiling food to survive through a cold winter, they do need to be able to adapt to the sudden appearance of a cyclone. When a cyclone strikes you rarely have time to go and grab a cyclone proof shelter, and you need to be ready to pick up and use the fallen coconuts once the wind had passed. You must to make do with what you have.

In the former, seasonal societies, the emphasis is on the gear. If the gear fails then you do too, often with fatal consequences. This drives you to invest a significant amount of your time and effort into ensuring that the gear can’t fail, striving to add enough nines to the end of that reliability measure to ensure that you’re not left out in the cold. The technologies you develop are complex and highly entailed, addressing specific needs and requiring a long a sophisticated chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

In the latter, equatorial societies, the emphasis is on skill. Your fate is determined by your ability to adapt the resources and tools found in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand. The tools you need are simple and flexible, either lightweight and compact enough to carry with you or based on technologies which enable you to manufacture them from whatever materials you have at hand. These technologies are only lightly entailed, addressing general needs and requiring a relatively short chain of skills, materials and tools to manufacture.

Companies have traditionally been organised along similar lines to the seasonal societies. The pulse of business beat slowly, and our main concern was to address the specific challenges that existed in each season of this regular cycle. These challenges were also complex and highly entailed, requiring large toolboxes with specialised tools and skills that are highly interdependent. Success depended on the quality of our assets and processes, and our focus was on mobilising enough people and technology to create and staff the processes we needed.

Take, for example, LEO (the Lyons Electronic Office), which may well be the first business computer. Unable to buy a beige box from the local electronics shop, the team at Lyons had to build their computer from scratch, requiring a large team with a number of specific and specialised skills, and three years of effort. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were forced to blow their own vacuum tubes. The result was a machine that, in 1953, could calculate a person’s pay in 1.5 seconds, rather than the eight minutes taken by an experienced clerk. LEO was a long and highly entailed investment.

LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951
LEO, the Lyon's Electronic Office, in 1951

However, since then the pulse of business has increased dramatically. Over the last few decades we’ve gone from worrying about decades to years, and more recently to months and weeks. Soon we might even be worrying about days. The seasons in business are changing so quickly that we are finding it difficult to keep up{{7}}. Our business environment is, in fact, starting to look more like the environment the equatorial societies inhabit rather than the more temperate climes of old: a relatively stable progression over the year, but with a pressing need to adapt to the unexpected disturbances and opportunities as they present themselves.

[[7]]Why we can’t keep up @ PEG[[7]]

At the same time, the nature of the environment our businesses function in has changed dramatically. Many of the skills and tools we fought hard to obtain can now be easily picked up where we stand. From global logistics providers and contract manufactures, through outsourcing, the various consultancies and software as a service, most of what we require can be easily picked off the ground when we need it. LEO doesn’t hold a candle to many of the bureau and SaaS payroll solutions that we can use on demand.

What we need is a more equatorial approach to organising our business, one more in line with reality of the business environment we operate in today. This means stocking our organisation with a small collection of flexible, but potent, people that can rapidly adapt to our changing needs, people who can use a small set of flexible tools to respond to the challenges and opportunities presented to us. It involves pulling down our highly entailed bureaucracies and connecting the C-level with the team at the front line. Overhead functions such as IT and HR will be torn down. (After all, if all our IT exists in the cloud and our company is hollowed out, removing the bulk of our bureaucracy, then we don’t need these departments anymore.) The old value producing functions (manufacturing and so on) will be externalised and bought as a service. More than anything, our success will depend on our ability to mobilise – both as an organisation and as individuals – and adapt the resources and tools in the immediate vicinity to the problem at hand.

This requires a huge shift in how we think about staffing our organisations. Deep specialisation is no longer the benefit it was in the past. While specialisation brings knowledge and insight, it also (typically) reduces flexibility and adaptability. Someone with a decade or more invested in being an IT architect, sales manager, change agent, human capital management expert, process wizard or (even a) social media guru, needs to protect that investment. Their value is in their specialisation; they will defend the status quo and resist being pulled away from what makes them valuable{{8}}. The people we need are sun-shaped{{9}}. They’re highly skilled (though not highly specialised), focused on solving a problem we have, and bring with them a diverse toolkit of simple but flexible tools.

[[8]]From doctrine to dogma @ PEG[[8]]
[[9]]The sun-shaped individual @ PEG[[9]]

Continued in Working in Hollywood.

The future of (knowledge) work

Note: This is the first part of a longer series on how social media is affecting management. I started writing the following to explore a vague idea and see where it might take me, and first stopped writing when it was roughly three thousand words. At that length it was quite a bit weightier than the average blog post – and far too long to read in a lunch break – so I’ve decided to break it into a number of smaller. The first is below, and you can find the other issues – Knowledge workers in the British Raj, The north-south divide, Working in Hollywood, World of Warcraft in the workplace and Problems and the people who solve them – elsewhere on this blog.

What impact will social media have on how you run your business? It’s being touted as everything from a better form of groupware or the next step in the evolution of work management — a new layer on the technology stack that’s starting to be called human interaction management{{1}} (HIM), sitting on top of, and bringing together, BPM, workflow and case management — through to a wholesale transformation of the way your business operates and is organized. Reality (as usual) rests somewhere between the two extremes.

[[1]]Human Interaction Management[[1]]

Are the inmates taking over the asylum?

Social media (Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Social Business Design, and so on) seem to be triggering a change in the command and control structures that we have traditionally used to manage our companies. There is an ongoing discussion within the human resources community concerning what form our future organizations will take{{2}}. The key drivers are streamlined communication from social media, both within and without the organization, and the empowerment of the frontline and delegation of authority due to the increasing need to solve problems promptly within a local context.

[[2]]“Social” is now HR’s baby (sorry Marketing Department) @ Fistful of Talent[[2]]

Old power structures seem – in some cases – to be in the process of being inverted as the people at the front line find that they are now better informed and equipped than their management to solve the majority of the problems confronting the business. If people are your most important asset, then we might just be standing at the start of a revolution as the workers realize that they really do control the means of production.

Wholesale revolution is unlikely though. While employees might be an important asset, and one that has a significant impact on the overall performance of your organization, they are not the asset a business is built to support{{3}}. For many organizations the best result is usually to remove the people, such as with lights-out factories, or some of the new SaaS plays which are replacing people-driven BPO with automated self-service solutions. The dirty secret of Enterprise 2.0 is that it’s being used the same way as every other technology to date: it’s being used to remove people from the equation.

[[3]]Why Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business Design might be of marginal utility for most of us @ PEG[[3]]

On the other hand, it has become obvious that social media is having an effect on our organizations. A key assumption behind most organizational structures is that information is rare and expensive to obtain, pushing us to create organizations that gather information from the front line and aggregate it up to the CEO. This also means that information is the currency of company politics. However, with social media and the Internet information is now – on the whole – cheap and easily obtainable. Controlling the flow of information is no longer possible, leading us to think some amount of disruption of the current order is inevitable as the old power dynamics are destroyed and new ones formed.

One thing is clear though: we need to think about work – and the teams and organizations we construct to support it – differently. The formal, siloed structures we find in many organizations don’t map well to the more dynamic environment that social media is bringing to business. Many businesses now have more in common with the British Civil Service in India – flat structures where the people at the coal face work largely under their own direction, collaborating with others as required – than the vertically integrated titans of industry from recent time.

Computer: an electronic device for storing and processing data

Companies have changed dramatically since the days when the term computer referred to someone who manually computed mathematical functions. Technology has slashed the number of people required to support most, if not all, tasks in the enterprise, making today’s companies dramatically smaller and more agile than their forebears. What used to take rooms full of people now needs – at the most – a small team. This is true across the full depth and breadth of our organizations, from the mailroom and typing pool, finance calculating the payroll through to the production floor in the factory.

Williamina Fleming (standing) with her computers in the late 1800s
Williamina Fleming (May 15, 1857 – May 21, 1911, standing) with her computers in the astronomy department at Harvard in the late 1800s, hired to carry out the mathematical calculations required to classify stars.

Not only has the volume of manual work changed, but the nature of that work has also changed with it. We used to deploy our employees to run the business, focused on the carrying out the plethora of operational tasks required to keep the wheels of commerce turning. Automation through technology has largely taken care of this.

With payroll and the shop floor dealt with, our employees are now more concerned with improving and guiding the business. For many companies the center of gravity of their workforce has shifted away from operations, moving to roles more concerned with the performance of the business: supervisory, design, business improvement and customer engagement.

Supermarkets, for example, have been hollowed out by modern management practices. In the past, store managers were masters of their own domain, held accountable for profit-and-loss and not much else. Today, the only real freedom many store managers have is in hiring the team who staff the checkouts, and keeping them motivated. The vast majority of decisions required to run the store have either been pulled up to head office (such as store layout and pricing moving to a centralized category management team{{4}}) or delegated to suppliers or the staff at the front line{{5}} (determining when to restock, for example).

[[4]]What is Category Management @ Category Management Association[[4]]
[[5]]What we’re doing today is not what we did yesterday @ PEG[[5]]

This makes projects the focus of many modern workplaces: projects to improve systems and processes, projects to bring new products to market, projects to expand into new territories, projects to optimize our product portfolio, and so on. One of the main short-term drivers for adopting social media in the enterprise is supporting work in these projects by providing the workers within them with a better way collaborating and searching for answers to the problems they have.

However, while the demand for work on projects has grown, the size of the teams required to deliver our projects has shrunk. Initiatives which required one hundred people and a billion dollar investments in the fifties, sixties and seventies, can now be delivered by team sizes in the low double digits, if not less than ten people.

The number and variety of careers – the professional community – supported by these projects has shrunk in response. This started with the specialists, but soon moved on to more general disciplines. For example IT platforms and frameworks used in the enterprise today have eliminated much of the need for specific technical specialists (there’s not much requirement for a distributed transaction specialist on most projects now). Some of the new frameworks eliminate the need for even quite common skills, as with databases and Ruby on Rails.

Flat, but not quite flat as it could be

Social media – as with many of the technologies preceding it – streamlines previously manual tasks by capturing knowledge in a form where it is easily reusable, shareable and transferable. What is different this time is that social media is focused on the communication between individuals, rather than the tasks these individuals work on. By simplifying the process of staying in touch and collaborating with a large number of people it enables us to flatten our organizations even further, putting the C-suite directly in contact with the front line.

This is having the obvious effect on companies, eliminating the need for many of the bureaucrats in our organizations; people whose main role is to manage communication (or communication, command and control, C3, in military parlance{{6}}). The big winners from social media will not be, as we first thought, those white-collar knowledge workers who spend their days herding those at the coalface, crafting policies, and worrying about organizational dynamics. The winners will be the team at the frontline and C-suite, as they both bypass the (soon to be removed) mid-level functionaries and engage with each other directly{{7}}.

[[6]]C3 defined @ Wikipedia[[6]]
[[7]]Rise of the task-worker 2.0 @ PEG[[7]]

The net effect of all this is that our organizations and teams are being hollowed out as the middle layers are replaced with software{{8}}. To some extent the chickens have come home to roost; technologies that replaced the people at the operational coalface are now being used to replace the people in the project teams that brought these technologies to the enterprise in the first instance.

[[8]]The IT department we have today is not the IT department we’ll have tomorrow @ PEG[[8]]

Continued in Knowledge workers in the British Raj.