Category: Social

Grinding Times, Turbulence and the Death of Stocks

The problem with our times is that it doesn’t give us any clear clues about what will happen or what will need to happen so that all of us can finally relax and go to the beach. But when was the last time it did? Most probably never. I asked a friend of mine who has worked for the same company for over twenty-three years what he thinks about changes in his organisation and industry in general and after a thoughtful pause he said “I prefer the old times”. Always for people who lived long enough to be able to claim they reached the controversial middle age, the old times have an irresistible appeal.

If things don’t look good now, some of us may suspect this is just plain winging. If you really dig into the issues, the good ol’ times, aren’t that good and actually the present is as bright as it can be. It is in our nature, some would say, that we like the old times because we were young then and the experiences as we remember them are thrilling, surprising and full-on. And yet, our history hasn’t been a linear script. It is easy to look in the past and say “oh, those times were terrible because so and so” and even feel a bit baffled thinking why those people could not figure out the issues from the beginning, but when you are in the middle of that time, it is difficult to recognise the type of period you are in. However, the history it giving us clues and some of them are telling us that the present may be one of those grinding, nerve-racking, and turbulent periods.

Bill Gross, the PIMCO investment manager who oversees the world largest bond fund, describes the economic outlook as the “new normal” when growth is sluggish and spectacular returns are a thing of the past. Last week he went even further and declared that stocks are dead. People will have to work much longer to maintain their standard of living.

When times are tougher the contrast between the left and right sides of the political spectrum becomes sharper. This is could be an indicator that we are entering into turbulence. Deresiewicz wrote in his column at The American Scholar (“In League”) about a similar period preceding the New Deal marred by vicious confrontation between political sides supported by bankers, industrialists and businessmen promoting a Darwinian system and liberal politics represented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow. The bad news is that great ideas and daring reforms do not come quickly and they are not designed by the mind of one hero. It takes time and public impetus to drive the change. Progressive steps are taken under the socio-economic pressures and they may look random and imperfect, but then over many years of public exhausting debates, loss of hope, arguments and confusion, a moment will come when everybody throws the towel into the ring and declare ready for a big change. Thus, the New Deal came at the right time only after many years of preparation.

Deresiewicz concludes that we are only beginning the grinding progressive period. We are comparatively in the year of 1882 which was the start of a process that culminated with the New Deal.

Will it take the same time to arrive at a new beginning for prosperous times? The chilling detail in the grinding period that gave birth to the New Deal is that we had to go through two worldwide wars before we settled.

Today, the political landscape is different. US political culture and socio-economic institutions are only a part of the global scene which all of us are part of now. Europe needs time to settle, Asian countries have to come to terms with new trading conditions that dampen their traditional export enthusiasm. The demographic forces are in full swing worldwide. Will migration patterns remain the same? This is a key question because when migration stops, a new order needs to be installed, and when that happens everything is on the table for negotiation.

We are in for a long soul-searching period. As Deresiewicz put it “for now, there is only blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

The New Bing Adds Social Component

Microsoft is about to releas a ‘new’ Bing which promises “Transforming Search from Finding to Doing”. It will be rollout in US in early June over the course of few weeks. There is no word if these features will be made available to the rest of the world. Microsoft calls this the most significant upgrade since the Bing launch three years ago. It may be one of the most significant changes in the online search industry.

What is so different with the new Bing this time?

The page layout is changed. The left bar where you have Related Searches, Search History and Narrow by Region is gone. Instead the page has now three columns: the search results, the snapshot and the social. Microsoft says that the search engine will return more quality results which will be less cluttered by irrelevant data. That remains to be seen, but while it is not clear how much of the engine was changed, the two new columns are interesting.

The snapshot is meant to display right there in the middle essential information, the most pertinent response to your query, packaged in a way that describe the findings from multiple angles. I don’t know how they do this because it could be that they re-packaged the old Bing with a different appearance or it may be they went deeper and changed the rational side of the Bing’s brain by adding a brand new semantic map builder. The example given by Microsoft is a classic case of a user who wants to find a hotel. Bing tries to build in the snapshot a story around this subject, so it displays a map, room rate, some links to related services, and traveller recommendations collected from various web sites. This sounds like the old Bing. However, if beneath the hood the software ‘thinks’ about the meaning of the hotel and uses a semantic graph to pull in related information, the prospects are completely different. This is how I read into what Derrick Connell, the Bing Corporate Vice President, said when he referred to a new scalable technology. Connell says that Microsoft will expand the snapshot to include more and more attributes around searched subjects. I guess that when a search command is issued, parallel searches are run automatically based on the semantic graph, even if the user doesn’t mention any of the inferred attributes. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

The most interesting bit though is the social bar. I am very pleased to see this. My research on knowledge behaviour around adoption of innovation indicates that people rely a lot on social networks, even when they don’t call on friends for help explicitly for help or advice. When information is not searched but stumbled upon, that is a case of serendipity. This type of accidental finding has been ignored most of the time in the past, but it is increasingly obvious that it has a key role in knowledge behaviour.

Where is Microsoft going with this is not clear yet. I am not sure if this is a Facebook only feature or if it is a social aggregator. But the fact that you could ask your friends about what you are looking for combined with serendipity (the lower part of the social screen has that role) is a very interesting development.

Certainly this looks very good for Facebook. It is very good for Microsoft because it suddenly it creates a social opportunity in response to Google’s ambitions in social networks.

Microsoft did something clever here: it removes the social content from the search results going in an opposite direction from Google. I think this is a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, the relevance could be a problem if the results include your social status updates, and secondly, people are a bit off about the idea of mixing social activities with search. The reaction to Google’s decision to mix Google with Google Plus and Gmail was not enthusiastic to say the least. But if you have two separate areas that work side by side and you are the one that decides when to use the social features, it looks more appealing.

The snapshot and the social bar have the potential to change the face of online search. One hint is the appearance of ‘Like’ in the social bar. The synergy between search and social activities could take many forms here with profound consequences, because each of these two represent aspects of our persona that until now have been separated. Facebook does not have a search engine and Bing does not have a social network. On the new page they are still separated, but you can make the connection. The ‘Like’ is about your friends and their preferences. In the future other social signals could be used: location, recommendations, photos, music, etc. The possibilities are barely visible at this stage.

Need for Skills: Unrabble-ing The Temptation of the Perfect Resume

To cut costs, a job needs to be standard and be aimed at standard workers, so that recruiters can look for candidates using keywords and quick screening methods. As one job ad attracts huge number of responses, standardisation means less time is spent on filtering. As a consequence, the role of recruiters is reduced to simple clerical work, which is the code for it-can-be-automated.

Unrabble.com does exactly that: take the pain out of recruitment process into the pleasure of ticking online boxes. Recruiting now is fun. Or, is it?

Like many fresh innovative and promising start-ups the solution looks really good. The data entry screens, the filtering algorithms, the graphs & charts are bliss. It’s a pleasure! You have evaluation tools, collaboration tools and productivity tools. You have everything.

Unrabble looks really great. It is online, it’s clean and it is clear. The problem starts when it comes to translation. Not to be too negative, but this is a bit like the Heidelberg theory of uncertainty which says that you cannot measure simultaneously space and time with precision. The equivalent theory of recruitment uncertainty is that you could not simultaneously be precise about activities and personal skills in the same time. If you focus on activities using exact measures, then you lose clarity about what the real skills are. If you focus on personal skills, you lose clarity on activities, which is the problem with resumes that have “fluffy” narrative. Personal skills could be described by putting together activities and outcomes presented in a certain light. Same activities could determine the formation of multiple skills. By using precise time based descriptors, only one picture can emerge, which is eventually quite inaccurate impression of who you are, or what you can do. This prevents the candidates from highlighting the skills used during the experience that are relevant to the job.

I mentioned in a previous post that employers are increasingly looking at prospective employees as actors joining a crew in a movie set. How will Unrabble help employers recruit the people that really fit with their business culture and work style?

It seems that we are induced to cultivate a set of standard quantifiable skills that could be easily employed in freelance/crowdsourcing model, in which project teams are assembled based on these quantifiable skills. We are becoming virtual characters with digital attributes, measured, manipulated and moved around in a huge real-life Moneyball movie set. The ugly side of crowdsourcing is that we become numbers. The good news is that this is not the whole story. Innovation needs creativity and creativity needs human skills that are hard to quantify, free flowing individual expression, knowledge and intuition, and human relatedness that are essential in creating great teams.

If I had a crystal ball, and I was a good reader, I would say the future employment is a combination of the two. We will need to be able to find short term opportunities for which our skills are a perfect match and which are discoverable over Internet using standard definitions and indicators, but we also need to explore opportunities based on personal relationships in which we work as part of a team creating new products in a start-up style. This may lead to the creation of other jobs, and if the venture succeeds it will either become large or it will be assimilated by a larger organisation. Growth will lead to clear labour division and the future employees will be the ones hired on the basis of standard skill set.

How would employers evaluate your suitability of the traditional resume structure is too rigid to be used as a good measure? The answer is your online identity, your personal brand that is being created over the years through layers of interactions, contributions to discussions, publications, opinions and associations. This will trump the resume as an indicator of who you are. A perfect resume can be written in one day, but the identity takes a life time to build.

Your online expressions are gradually painting a complete picture of you, a much more comprehensive description of your skills as a potential cast member in a creative project. Employers will use virtual identity that to evaluate your suitability. Is that scary? Maybe not, because of the variety of needs and circumstances, there will always be something out there that suits our personal expression and ability to solve problems in a creative way.

What happens if you don’t have a public online identity? I suspect that over the next decades the answer to that question will be: you don’t exist.

The world scene is a playground for mobile players

Big moves are made by Apple and Nokia in trying to set the path for long-term domination in the Chinese market. The way Tim Cook’s visit in China, was presented by the media you would think he is actually a head of a large state than the CEO of Apple. But if you think about it, Apple IS like a country as it has a market cap that makes it larger than many countries and the European Union’s officials would kill to have its cash reserves. During his tour, He visited Foxconn’s iPhone production line, which employs 120,000 people, just after it was revealed that Foxconn bought a 10% stake in Sharp, he met with Beijing’s mayor, and he had long discussion with the Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang who may be the next China leader.

Meanwhile, Nokia worked out an exceptional arrangement with AT&T. The carrier will start selling Lumia 900 at a price that defies gravity, $99, and its device head Jeff Bradley promised the biggest smartphone launch ever.

But this is nothing. Nokia has a very stronghold in China. To protect that advantage, while attacking Apple’s strong base in US, Nokia has accelerated its work in China as well. China Telecom will launch Lumia 800C and Lumia 610 with other carriers lined-up to do the same. Let’s not forget, in China Nokia is the largest smartphone maker. Stephen Elop, the CEO of Nokia has been pressing flesh in China recently working hard to support and grow Nokia’s relationship with the local partners.

Nokia also recruited Adam Guli to help Nokia in its race against Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone. The US market is big and key to success, but as China will become the largest smartphone market in the world at the end of this year with over 140 million handsets estimated to be sold this year, conquering the Chinese market is vital in the quest for the world domination. The exciting part is that China is far from being done yet.

This is almost like a diplomatic battle with scenes cut from historic movies. And then, somewhere, barely noticed, Mark Zuckerberg, casually dressed, walks through Chinese cities claiming he is on holidays. Yeah, right! There are 460 million reasons why he shouldn’t be just a tourist. Besides, in these smartphone wars, Mark is not really a 100% neutral observer. He needs to pick a winner and have Facebook show up on as many smartphone screens as possible. I would not be surprised he will do something with Nokia, since Facebook has a slight affinity with Microsoft and tensed relationships with the other two.

Who else is missing in China? Steve Balmer? He is too quiet. Something is going on there.

This year will be a huge year in mobile computing. And Windows 8 hasn’t been launched yet! The stakes are high. A lot of commentators have already concluded who the winners are in the mobile phones market. However, I am not so sure. The Asian market has not matured yet, and the Android platform is too fragmented. Nokia new Lumia handset line based on Windows Phone operating system looks superb. Nokia is one of the finest operators in this market and it is perfectly capable to challenge both iPhone and Android systems.  Almost everyone has written off Microsoft. Does Apple or Google think the same? That would be a serious mistake. These action packed visits in China are a strong indicator that the fight in this market hasn’t revealed the long-term winners yet.

How Relevant Is Gartner’s Magic Quadrant?

One of the bloggers at Microsoft TechNet happily reported in 2010 that SharePoint is the leader of the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Horizontal Portals. Competing against IBM, Oracle and SAP, Microsoft was the clear winner in that race. At the time 70% of Gartner portal inquiries were directed at SharePoint.

As I explained in my previous post I believe SharePoint is representing a technology that it is slipping past its peak and into sustainable innovation mode; solid, useful, effective, but increasingly leaving some of its current customers and its non-customers with unanswered questions. It lacks emotional features which are so vital for social engagement.

Source: Gartner, September 2010

I recognise that it is a long shot and that I don’t have the data to back it up, other than observations of one single product and a theory of social adoption of innovation, but I have a hunch that Gartner’s Magic Quadrant is old news. A leader in the quadrant is something that has already picked. The product or service must have gone already past the late majority in the adoption of innovation cycle on Roger’s diagram. From that point on a long sunset follows with a string of sustainable innovations which are very much about “perfecting” the product.

In the case of SharePoint, it is too difficult now to embed social networking features. It is much easier to start something new and maybe have that platform SharePoint-friendly. Maybe something that could come out from Microsoft’s so.cl?

Why In the World Do We Share?

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman analysed about 7000 New York Times articles to examine which articles made it to “the most e-mailed” list. The conclusion of the research was the emotional intensity evoked by the articles was a major factor in determining their virality. Thus a change in the article characteristic by one standard deviation causes the following changes in the probability of making it to the most e-mailed list:

The articles have higher virality (more shared) if they stir up emotions. Some emotions have higher impact than others, but the one outstanding aspect is that anger and awe have a higher influence than the practical value or the interest of the article. The research shows that the low-arousal emotions (like sadness) dampen our enthusiasm for sharing. This is also interesting. My reading into this is that sadness has lower social value and it is not looked upon favourably by our peers. I dare say this is in line with behaviour linked to depression when people tend to suffer in silence.

Do we have the same appetite for sharing in other social situations, such as Facebook or Twitter?

Ben Elowitz wrote an interesting post on his blog, where he shared (!) a few thoughts about emotions that drive sharing. He analysed the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 and discovered that the emotional drivers have a different pattern of influence on. Number one factor is emotionality at 23%, followed by negativity (18%), interest (15%), surprise (13%) and positivity (13%). The practical value is way down to 3%!

Sure, the emotional patterns differ from one sharing environment to another, but clearly sharing is an emotional act. As Berger and Milkman noted in What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal”. I guess spiritual/intellectual emotions would count as low-arousal – there is not one word about that in that study.

Harvard Business Review published research on the same topic. In The New Science of Viral Ads, Tales Teixeira describes five ways of increasing the chances of people sharing video ads:

  • Utilise brand pulsing: don’t put your logo straight in the middle, but show it only from time to time. This increases the chance of sharing by 20%
  • Open with joy: right at the opening do something that causes positive, joyful reaction. This prevents boredom.
  • Create a roller coaster: keep coming up with surprises and joyful experiences: this prevents the drop in interest
  • Surprise but not shock: if the shock is negative, embarrassing or venturing into taboo territories, people may feel inhibited about sharing
  • Use all of the above: joyful opening, show the brand here and there, keep people hooked, don’t shock.

The methods of measuring the emotion, the type of sharing medium and the type of content are different, but the role of the emotion in the decision to share something is undeniable

This may explain why sharing in formal circumstances doesn’t work. When you get the emotion out of the content, sharing is not that attractive, lacking the virality we see in informal social situations. By contrary, as the Berger and Milkman’s research shows, the low-arousal emotions have an inhibiting factor.

We share more when we feel that emotional impulse in the content. However, emotion is involved not only before but also in the act of sharing. What do people feel when they share? Unfortunately the research is mostly focused on the correlation between the emotion triggered by the content and the decision to share ignoring the emotion of sharing.

Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content. These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.

Our sharing behaviour must be influenced also by the kind of environment we use and the type of human network we are part of. For example, people are never going to share funny videos on LinkedIn. Why because there is an expectation you need to look “professional” there. You can’t take the risk of broadcasting on LinkedIn a prank video of the Pope dancing with Madonna at Mardi Gras festival even if you think is really funny. You will be frowned upon by all the HR departments.

This is why I think we should be looking on not only what makes the content viral, which is a marketing problem, but also about what makes people share, which is a social communication problem. Formal network environments miss the opportunity to engage and get people become more creative, curious and motivated because they lack of emotion, inhibiting the social communication.

As an example, SharePoint is a very good product, but it is too formal, too boring to capture the imagination of people making the information sharing less effective. The SharePoint 2010 My Profile feature is a typical corporate “search to find information” strategy. Even the voice describing the features is emotionless. The product design is all about information, fields, tags, skills and projects. There is very little about socio-emotional features, a comprehensive anti how to make information viral strategy. I dare challenge you to listen to that video describing My Profile feature until the end of it. If,  as research shows, people are far more likely to share in a state of arousal, this sleep inducing video, has close to zero chance of being share. Oh, except for me. I just did it! I guess we can put this in the category “interest” or “practical value” basket. Anyway, it needs to add a socio-emotional dimension to it to really become an effective information sharing tool; let’s say a combination of Facebook/Google Plus and SharePoint would do much better.

Social games are derided by some as being too superficial, something for de-stress therapy in the weekend. But modern games are really getting better at engaging our internal emotions which defines us who we are. Gamifying the sharing experience works because it adds emotional value to the act of sharing. If the sharing environment adds features that tap into these emotions such as giving rewards, showing your approval/disapproval for shared content, follow and be followed, all these increase the chances content will be shared. This could mean that specialised social networks will spread and gradually replace the formal sharing environments and put more colour into our virtual office lives.

The Data Flood

We mostly think of data as something we put in into the systems using electronic forms. Human operators pour in data all around the world. There is also data about data, which is what mostly computers do with their invisible algorithms, and then there is data generated by machines equipped with sensors that measure all sorts of parameters. Referred to as the Internet of Things, this network of devices collects data incessantly streaming them into large databases. This data stream is about to explode, dwarfing the data collected by human operators.

Take the healthcare for example. Traditionally, the data collection occurs at healthcare facilities. You go there, a friendly nurse plugs into you a device that measures your blood, your heart, whatever is needed to help doctors produce a diagnostic. Once you are done, the data stream stops. On exceptional occasions you are given a device to carry with you for data sampling. As the sensors become cheaper and smaller, when it comes to data collection the healthcare industry starts to blur the boundaries between the inside and the outside of their facilities. Carrying monitoring devices will become normal creating a huge amount of data.

Everything that touches our lives will be equipped with sensors: the house, the office, the cars, the roads, you name it. With IPv6, the number of connectable devices is practically unlimited. Someone calculated that 1038 IP addresses will be available. Imagine how that world will look like.

WiTricity, a company that invented a system of charging a battery wirelessly, is considering the idea of powering the cars through mini generators planted into the road. This is an incredible idea. Cars flowing (driverlessly?) through the highway absorbing power from the road as they roll smoothly to their destination will be in constant dialogue with a huge network of small devices designed to identify them, and measure the energy consumption and other parameters. This is a data flood alright.

Who or what is going to handle all this data? Who/what is going to make sense out of all this? Forget about privacy – that will go away anyway – there is no place to hide, but handling this data will be a huge challenge.

On one hand we will use analytical tools to examine data and make decisions. This is a slow process that suits us, humans, to have time to figure out things. On the other hand you need faster decision systems that will respond to situations. Large financial institutions in US are already going through a huge redesign of their organisations by replacing human traders with ultra-fast machines that could execute optimised trades at lightning speed. We will have that adopted in healthcare, in transportation and other areas.

A good question is what are the system design principles we need to adopt in a world of fast computers and of an infinity of networked devices? Do we need to learn completely new skills that allow us to handle the increased cognitive load and to interact with computer systems in radically different ways, skills that are not taught in schools or elsewhere? At the moment, there is a growing disconnect between a schooling system obsessed with assessing numeracy and literacy skills and the transformed world in which we live in. Perhaps the technical system design needs to be merged into a social system design so that we don’t rely on highly skilled analysts and machines for making decisions, but integrate the computer network within higher order social networks.