Because it’s Friday: “A visual history of human knowledge” by Manuel Lima

This TED talk looks at the different metaphors that we use to visualise  knowledge.

According to Lima, we used to map knowledge as trees with trunks and branches, but increasingly we are moving towards using the network as the metaphor with many-to-many connections.

Sometimes things are obvious when they are pointed out, and this is one of them. Whilst I love mind-maps, which tend to follow a tree structure, they are so often inadequate for visualising the multitude of connections that exist:

I’m reading… “Hit Refresh” by Satya Nadella

How do you bring significant change to an organisation? Particularly a large, multi-national organisation?

Where do you start once you’ve decided what it is that you want to change? How do you make change that is sustainable?

This is no ordinary organisation either, this is Microsoft, an organisation that has some huge fans, but also massive detractors. It’s an organisation that has made some very public missteps and become regarded as arrogant, but is also one of the most valuable organisations in the world.

How do you revive a giant?

Microsoft has, for a long time, had a reputation for being an organisation with an interesting way of working. This is something that Nadella refers to early on in the book by using a cartoon from Bonkers World that depicts Microsoft’s organisation structure as being one of a set of warring factions:

While it’s a cartoon, it has meaning because it is based in a truth. Moving away from this situation required a significant change of culture and to use Satya’s words for Microsoft to find its soul.

This book is partly an autobiographical telling of how Nadella got to be Microsoft CEO, it’s partly an outline vision for the future of Microsoft and partly a discussion on some of the opportunities and challenges currently facing the wider technology industry.

I found the autobiographical parts the most interesting, but I like biography. These sections give some insights into how someone born in Hyderabad becomes the CEO of an organisation that has had a dramatic impact on the world that we know. There are part of these sections that are very personal, particularly when he is talking about his son Zain who suffered in-utero asphyxiation during his birth which caused severe brain damage and left him with cerebral palsy. This isn’t one of those management books where someone tells you how brilliant they, there’s more humility than that.

Nadella describes the role of CEO as “curator of culture” and it’s clearly culture that he regards as the primary change required. Speaking as someone who works in the technology industry, Microsoft is an organisation that divides opinion, and it takes people a long time to change an opinion. Nadella took over as Microsoft CEO in 2014, since then Microsoft has sought to show a very different culture, embracing many things that previously would have been regarded as red-lines. Two words that Nadella uses several times in the book are listen and empathy neither of them words you would have associated with the Microsoft of the Steve Ballmer era.

The CEO is the curator of an organization’s culture. Anything is possible for a company when its culture is about listening, learning, and harnessing individual passions and talents to the company’s mission. Creating that kind of culture is my chief job as CEO.

The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Still, many responses to the recently announced purchase of GitHub reflected suspicions of the arrogant Microsoft. I suppose it just goes to show that 4 years isn’t a very long time in people’s memories.

The third section, on some of the opportunities and challenges facing the technology sector are also interesting, but for a different reason.  These sections aren’t as insightful into Nadella’s thinking on a particular subject, but feel more like the thinking of the broader Microsoft organisation. There wasn’t, for me, any particular revelation here.

Summarising: Nadella is an interesting character with an interesting background. He seems to me to be taking Microsoft in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see where he gets put when the history of the current age is written.

I’m Reading… “The Diary of a Bookseller” by Shaun Bythell

I didn’t actually read this book, I listened to it on Audible, which is deeply ironic, but I didn’t realise that at the time.

The Diary of a BooksellerShaun Bythell’s diary is an autobiographical look at his life running a bookshop in the Scottish market town of Wigtown which is Scotland’s national book town and home to the Wigtown Book Festival.

In choosing this book I seem to have cemented myself into a series of autobiographical books about people and their occupations for which I present as evidence:

This is not a complaint, just an observation about a genre of books which I have loved, much to my surprise.

Anyway, back to the irony of listening to this book on Audible. Bookshops have been closing across the UK, including the obliteration of at least one major chain. What’s the primary driver behind this shift in our buying habit – Amazon. The number of books that we buy has been about the same for a number of years, the difference is that we no longer buy them on the high street, we either order them from Amazon, or download them to our Kindles. Shaun Bythell loves the Kindle so much that he has one which he peppered with a shotgun mounted as a trophy on a wall in the shop.

Embed from Getty Images

For those of you still looking for the irony, I should point out that Audible is also owned by Amazon.

This Diary of a Bookseller is partly about the daily interactions between a bookshop and the Amazon gorilla, and partly about the daily interactions with visitors to the bookshop. One is strangely faceless and bleak, the other portrays the British public in their eclectic and eccentric diversity.

Amazon has become so pervasive that there’s no way of avoiding it and Shaun is no exception listing many of his books there. This puts him at the mercy of the Amazon algorithms and creates a constant need for good reviews and high fulfilment ratios.

Sometimes the eccentricities of the British public are wonderful, at other times they make you want to scream. From the people who expect to pay the sleeve price for a book that is labelled in shillings and pence, to the people who are delighted to have found a book for which they have been on a long search. From the people who order books from a secondhand bookshop who complain that the book was indeed secondhand, to the people who sit by the fire in the shop building a pile of books which they then buy. This books is about a bookshop but, for me, it was primarily about these interactions.

I liked this book, a lot.

Three Days to Become Normal – A Story About Shorts

It’s been a remarkable year for weather here in the UK. We are currently experiencing something that other nations regard as normal. Outside it is sunny, it has been sunny for weeks, and the weather forecast says that it is going to be sunny for the foreseeable future.

We obsess about the weather here because it is different every hour, or part of an hour. It’s extremely rare for it to be so stable for so long. We are normally inappropriately dressed for at least part of every day but regard that as the consequence of living somewhere with such fickle weather.

It’s been sunny, and hot, for so long now that it seems daft to go into an office, where there is no air conditioning, dressed in trousers and a long-sleeve shirt. My normal attire is long trousers and long-sleeve shirt; but our corporate policy on clothing does include “smart” shorts in our definition of “business casual”.

(“Business casual” is a term that everyone hates because it include such a diverse set of clothing as to be meaningless. What it really means for most people is: “dress in a way that doesn’t get you noticed”.)

I decided, on Monday, that it was time to move over to shorts. I’m wise enough to know that I would get some reaction to this, but decided to do it anyway. There were a number of reactions on the first day, a few looks and some comments about the knobbliness of my knees.

On Tuesday the shorts were, again, my chosen attire. This time there were very few looks and only one comment, from someone who hadn’t been in on the Monday.

Today is Wednesday and no one has said anything about the shorts.

It took less than three days for the shorts to become normal.

We talk about change being difficult, and often it is, but sometimes it only takes three days for the change to become normal.

UPDATE: On day four the number of people wearing shorts has increased dramatically, perhaps that’s because people are happier being a follower.

Unintended Consequences and Perverse Outcomes

There’s a management saying:

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

It’s often attributed to Peter Drucker, but according to the Drucker Institute, he never said it. Sounds sensible though?

Another management saying is:

“You’ll get what you measure.”

Which sounds axiomatic, I think?

Eliyahu M. Goldratt said:

“Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave”

Measurement and behaviour are closely linked, but that’s not always in a good way.

We are surrounded by situations where measurements and targets result in illogical behaviour, unintended consequences and perverse outcomes.

Give manufacturers an environmental test to pass and they will pass it, but may do so by changing the way the product works in the test conditions.

Give hospital administrators a target for certain diseases and that target will be met, but also, the care of other diseases will decrease.

Give teachers a set of measures that need to be met and tohse measures will be met, but teaching as a whole will be narrowed.

Give financial advisors a bonus for selling certain products and they will sell that product, even if it’s not appropriate for the person buying it.

Give policymakers a target to build houses and they will build houses, wherever they can, even if they aren’t needed where they are built.

Implement a policy of closely monitoring people’s working hours and they will work the hours that they are expected to work, but they won’t work any more than those hours.

Give policymakers a target for reducing the amount of household waste that goes to landfill and restrictions on access to landfill will meet the target, but also, the amount of flytipping will increase.

The list goes on and there are many specific examples in the Wikipedia article on unintended consequences. My favourite is this one:

The British government, concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, offered a bounty for every dead cobra. This was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward.

Eventually, enterprising people began breeding cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, they scrapped the reward program, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free.

As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse, becoming known as the Cobra effect.

We have to be very careful when we are setting a target that the reverse of that target is desirable. Sometimes that’s why the counter-intuitive response is the most effective. Sometimes not measuring something is the best approach.

Related: I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

DaaS or DaaS, or even DaaS?

We love acronyms in IT, see, we even define ourselves by one.

Sometimes we try to be cute with them and make words out of them: RADIUS – Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service.

Sometimes we create acronyms that enter the popular lexicon as words without people realising that they are acronyms:

  • LAN –  Local area network
  • RAM – Random Access Memory

Sometimes we get all wrapped up using the same acronym for multiple meanings.

In recent weeks I’ve found myself involved in multiple conversations about DaaS, which is pronounced “DAS”, generally with a hard-“A” (like the detergent), but sometimes with a kind of confused stutter as people try to pronounce both “A”s.

(This is one of those acronyms where saying the letters – D-a-a-S – is nearly as long as saying the meanings, and neither is very comfortable to say.)

Anyway, getting back to the point, DaaS, what does it mean? Well, it depends. It has a different meaning in different contexts, which, personally I find infuriating, especially as a couple of the contexts are quite similar.

DaaS #1 – Desktop-as-a-Service

I think that this one can claim to have been around the longest. It refers to the provision of virtual desktops as a pay-per-use service.

Lots of organisations use virtual desktop service, what makes this as-a-Service is that it’s delivered by a cloud infrastructure. AWS, Microsoft and VMware all have Desktop-as-a-Service offerings which you can purchase and use without the need for any internal capabilities.

DaaS #2 – Device-as-a-Service

Really, yes, “Device-as-a-Service” is different to “Desktop-as-a-Service”.

Device-as-a-Service has absolutely nothing to do with virtual desktops, it’s all about physical devices. If you’ve had a mobile phone contract which included the phone hardware then you’ve used something similar to Device-as-a-Service, you paid a monthly fee for the device in the expectation of certain services. Managing a large estate of devices is a complicated thing to do and adds little value to most organisations. Creating an arrangement with a third party to lease devices and let them manage the inventory gives them the problem, but also, potentially, allows your organisation more flexibility.

DaaS #3 – Data-as-a-Service

Once upon a time Microsoft produced an interactive encyclopedia application called Encarta, it shipped on a set of CDs and later DVDs. To get access to the data you needed to buy and use the application, the two were bundled together. The internet changed all of that and Encarta became obsolete in 2009.

The internet as a data source also made obsolete the need for applications to own the embedded data.  Lots of applications now use data that comes from other sources, sometimes that data is given away, sometimes it’s provided on an as-a-Service basis where people pay to use it. In some industries bureau have been set up to provide this data to the people willing to pay for it, one example of this is the credit check agencies who take the various sources of data about our financial situation, analyse it, and provide the results back to the financial institutions.

So there you have it, the same four letters, three different meanings.

I suppose that I ought to go now and use my DaaS provided equipment to access a DaaS so that I can use my application that gets its data from a DaaS source.