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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Growth as a Global Cancer 

Pollution, resource depletion, hesitating economy, war, drug and the likes are parts of what makes today’s reality. We are getting used to be going nowhere but are at the same time hoping that things will get better. For my part, I like to believe that there is an economic model somewhere that can help humanity evolve in terms of interconnectedness and long-term sustainability. Idealism being something that I am slowly accepting to live with, I often read exploratory texts that expose big fat visions of what could be a better world. One of my last findings (even though the text was published in 2002) is worth discussing a bit today.

EGaia, Growing a peaceful, sustainable Earth through communications (intro, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) by Gary Alexander definitely had the title to grab my attention. Part 1 (the only one I read so far) describes humanity as a global cancer with many of today’s woes linked to the relentless pursuit of growth.

“Instead of being constrained and controlled by the needs of humanity, much less the natural world, our modern globalised monetary system has taken on a life of its own. Flows of money have become relatively isolated from physical constraints. In 1995, only 2 or 3% of money flows were to do with trade or investment. The rest were speculative – buying and selling currencies.”

“Sustained economic growth, that hallowed goal of politicians, central bankers and business people, appears sensible only in the context of an economy following local goals which are disconnected from physical reality. No natural process can ever grow indefinitely. It will always find some natural limit. A recession may actually be good for the environment because production and consumption are lower.”

I was hooked. For me the fact that money is created from growth instead of value creation in stock markets has always been a systemic problem. Just think of what makes up the value of stocks:
- The market value of current assets
- The actualization of future profits
- Speculation
No profit growth, no value growth. There is indeed a limit to growth and this limit is often reminded to us through crisis (economic, ecological, humanitarian). Yes, I was hooked.

Alexander obviously offers a vision of what would be is “ideal”, which I would describe as a network of hippie-like communities using IT as communication core structure. A bit far-fetched but I am open to bold ideas. But what I was really looking for was an alternative to the growth-driven economy. That came in the form of eliminating money and replacing it with a “footprint” system. Individuals would be paid footprints, instead of money, for their contribution to the community. Which would allow them to “buy” goods and services.

Unhooked (only for the economic aspect)! That is still money to me. Whether you call it dollar, euro, yen or footprint, that is still money. Even in a hippie-like community, there is always someone looking to get more footprints who is ready to lend footprints to those in need (at an interest rate) and who would speculate on how many footprints another individual or organization will get next year.

I am still looking for this sustainable economic model but I recommend Alexander’s text to those interested by finding a way to cure this world’s illnesses. I will probably comment on parts 2 to 4 shortly.

Via George Por

Monday, August 23, 2004

Clusters Theory: Is Geography Relevant? 

I know that most people who read this weblog are involved in some way in R&D. I then assume that you have heard about the Clusters Theory, which is now supporting a large part of the R&D funding structures in Western countries.

An oversimplification of clusters:
A region needs basic components to become internationally competitive in a given industry: internal demand, supporting industries, favorable conditions and internal rivalry. One of the most spectacular examples of a cluster is the IT industry in Silicon Valley. Governments see clusters as the best strategy for creating prosperity in a region and are trying to supply to 2 basic components through R&D : supporting industries and favorable conditions.

A cluster is about creating a critical mass for an industry in a region, which explains the popularity of business incubators and all sorts of regional associations. Good first steps! We are acting on the geographical limitations. There is however a growing debate as to determine if clusters can be constructed or if they just happen by accident. I don’t have an answer for that but I know that if clusters can be made, it takes many years (decades?) to do so.

The question I want to ask today is: should we focus on the geographical concentration of an industry or on creating strong links among many competitors irrespectively of their location? In New Brunswick for instance, we have finally understood that it’s better for the NB e-learning industry to cooperate in order to become more competitive externally. This is indeed an interesting first step. But wouldn’t the NB e-learning industry be better off to also start to cooperate with foreign competitors in order to become even more competitive? A cluster doesn’t necessarily have to be geographically bound. I am not fond of frontiers anyway. I don’t care about New Brunswickers, Canadians or Americans. But I do care about the people who live in these places. Walls exist around countries too.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Follow Up on Weblogs and Competitive Intelligence 

In one of my first posts I was discussing the use that can be made of weblogs in competitive intelligence activities. I promised to follow up on this topic so here we go, in a very non-scientific and non-academic way:

Topics:
1) Does it sell?
I discovered that senior managers don’t pay much attention to the sources used in a competitive intelligence report as long as it makes sense. Then, if the logic is good, the report sells well. “Academic” references are not necessarily seen as being of higher quality. A poor paper containing numerous academic references remains a poor paper. Furthermore, senior managers barely read reports. They prefer by far to get an executive summary or a short presentation. In these cases, the references are not even mentioned.

2) Does it contribute to a higher quality?
My last reports have been (I think) more provocative than they used to be and they are selling well. The ideas proposed are more on the edge and are supported by thoughtful arguments provided by inspired individuals. Quality here is hard to measure but I think my competitive intelligence reports are much better now.

3) Does it allow cost savings?
Competitive intelligence costs have 3 components: search costs, content costs and time costs.
· Search costs seem higher when I am looking for a well-defined topic but much lower when looking at larger topics and trends. In the first case, the need is more punctual, in the latter, more continuous.
· I never pay for content so this cost is not relevant for me.
· Weblogging is time-consuming. But the point is that I consider much of this time to be related to my personal learning and not only related to my competitive intelligence tasks. So yes it takes more time, but the outcome goes well beyond only fulfilling a competitive intelligence mandate.

Reverse Engineering of Public Relations 

As you know, every “serious” action in the corporate world is tagged as being “strategic”, i.e. it is intended to contribute to a corporate vision. A strategic action is then the product of the following process:
1) Environmental scan (a SWOT analysis most of the time)
2) Strategic planning
3) Operational planning
4) Action

This process is usually well documented in large corporations but is most of the time kept secret because of its competitive value. It is even kept secret inside the corporation and employees are only told what they must know. The same is true for stakeholders and clients. The secrecy of strategic planning creates an illusion of control and value for something that does not have value in itself. What corporations don’t seem to realize is that it is very easy to deduce their strategic goals only by looking at the corporate images they are trying to create.

Public relations and marketing are obviously produced by the strategic planning process mentioned above. Then, only by looking at the values and identity a corporation is trying to create in its TV ads for instance, we can easily identify its critical weaknesses and concerns because they are what the corporation is trying to overcome with the ads. When, for example, a large Canadian bank’s advertisement is presenting 3 or 4 employees and name them by their first names, I think we can deduce that it has a serious problem of service depersonalization. Simple enough. But if you ask that same bank if it has a depersonalization problem, the answer will likely be a rhetoric about how important are customer relationships at bank X.

Why don’t corporations just tell it as it is instead of trying to lure the public and themselves with an illusion of control? I have confidence that the public is smart enough to decipher corporations’ public relations and really understand, past the ads, the true nature of the corporations they are doing business with.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Cross-fertilization: Creating New Innovation Species 

Belonging to a community essentially means sharing a number of common values and being able to communicate with other individuals within that community. Humans are social creatures so they have always been trying to:
a) belong to communities to which they can individually identify
b) create new communities when necessary.
Acting within and through a group is both reassuring and empowering. Through a community we can indeed reinforce certain behaviors by approbation and then act more forcefully.

Metaphors are often useful for simplifying complex concepts such as communities. Here are 2 metaphors that I like to use in understanding communities:
· Filtering system: By approving certain behaviors and inhibiting some others, communities produce a purified output that is then being used as input. This output is made of contributions, beliefs and behaviors and constitutes the common ground of the community. The evolution of a community consists in the evolution of its common ground over time. A closed community is more likely to be constant in its evolution and follow a well-defined direction. An open one is more likely to behave chaotically both in evolution and direction.
· Organism: A common mistake is to look at communities in isolation. Like living organisms, communities interact with their environment by sharing information and members, by merging, by being born and by dying. Hence, societies are ecosystems in which communities interact, fight for survival, and evolve.

Understanding communities is difficult because of their level of complexity, which brings us to try to study them in isolation. This Cartesian approach certainly has value at a micro level but remains incomplete unless we study the macro level as well. It is like trying to understand the human body only by looking at the structure of cells.

I see cross-fertilization as representing the interaction between communities, as being this percentage of “alien” input that keeps a community from stagnation. I think that if we could better understand interaction between communities, it would be much easier to “manage” innovation. I see this field of study as a key to so many social and economical issues that I am amazed to see how little information is available on the subject.

Please let me know if you have some readings to suggest.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Tear Down The Walls 

Have you ever wondered why we often keep working the same way but with new tools? Just think of a new technology, no matter which one (Customer Relationship Management, Object Oriented Language Programming, LMS/LCMS, handhelds, transactional websites…). It is usually built around the need to be better at something. Then, when it’s mature enough, people start adopting it and using it. They almost always use it without changing the way they used to work before its introduction. Then, after a while, they realize they are not fully taking advantage of available features and start adapting their work processes. This is where the gains become reality. The use of ITC (e-learning) in educational contexts has not yet been through the last phase…

Management of educational institutions has always been designed around the notion of physical site (be it a building or a campus). We are used to having principals, directors, teachers and support staff being assigned functions within such well-defined physical sites. The walls are then not only serving as protection against elements, but also as organizational boundaries.

E-learning, by allowing distributed collaboration in course design, offers the promise of making physical constraints irrelevant in education. Distributed workflow and project management are now common features in most advanced LMS. Have educational institutions gained from these new features? Not significantly. We are still working between walls. The new features are being used, but people still have to use them within existing wall-derived management structures. Workflow and project management is indeed distributed, within the same building. Great gain: people can now spend a bit less time in meetings and more time in front of the computer.

Walls are in some way comforting, a workplace golden prison. Physical walls have less importance now than they used to, but educational institutions have replaced them with virtual ones. Today I want to send a message to the managers of institutions involved in or considering e-learning: Tear down the walls. There is no need for me today to sell you the advantages of distributed collaborative work. Software representatives have already done that. Just really challenge your organization to use e-learning to its full potential.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

An Interesting Aggregator Feature? 

In a recent post I expressed my concern that recommendation systems, by recommending things that we like, might not be helping us create new knowledge because they don’t bring us out of the comfort zone. Well, today I feel like proposing the contrary. Let me warn you that I might well change my point of view again tomorrow.

Effective weblog readers have to be good blogroll managers. The reading of a selected list of weblogs obviously influences our present and future thinking. Choosing which weblogs to read is then a critical and even creative responsibility. That would be nice to see Bloglines proposing us new weblogs by comparing what people with comparable interest (expressed through their subscriptions) like.

Again, I am not sure that would be really beneficial. Not much cross-fertilization here. Swimmers attending the Olympic Games would never have made it if they had always kept swimming in their backyard pool.

The Stephen Effect 

Stephen’s 0 Links from 0 Sources: Breaking the Power Law post is a suggestion list of weblogs that return 0 references in Technorati. Technorati has the habit of returning weird results for my site. It returned up to 10 references only a month ago but was returning 0 references before the publication of Stephen’s post. Good for me! I am now a witness of the Stephen Effect. Yan know what stats have been exploding since August 1 (a record). I experienced a comparable increase in visits when Seb referenced the site. Harold’s references have also impacted significantly. Thanks Stephen.

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