“Simplify, then add lightness”

I had the pleasure of listening to the awesome Jason Gary from IBM presenting on an internal conference call this afternoon, and he quoted Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus (the car people, not the collaboration people):

"Simplify, then add lightness."

That resulted in a microblog discussion on Joe Baxter’s Board with the equally awesome Luis Suarez on the topic, where I wrote:

"Microblogging over blogging helps the simplification part. As does forwarding an e-mail and not including everyone on the original copy list "for completeness" – while adding a short precis of the key facts instead of expecting the recipient to read the whole thread adds lightness."

We’ve been trying to adopt the Web 2.0 a philosophy of "simple" ever since we started on the social collaboration journey with Lotus Connections, but it is a constant battle because:

  • Every user wants their one, favourite feature added.
  • Enterprise IT wants all the features of their existing, mature collaboration technologies carried over to the new one.
  • Strategists want you to integrate with everything they already have to leverage their investments, while architects want the same to justify their previous choices.
  • Marketing wants lots of new features to promote, in every new release.
  • and Developers just love developing stuff!

As systems evolve, they inevitably get more complex. The challenge is to make them continue to appear simply to the users and to make deployment simple when the use case is simple.

At IBM we are often accused of over-engineering stuff. But fundamentally that is often because we build for deployment in enterprises with hundreds of thousands of users, data that is measured in petabytes and networks with millions (or billions) of endpoints. Apple shows how very complex technology can appear simple to the user.

What interests me is how you lighten, so as to reduce maintenance costs and enhance evolution.

Many years ago, I learnt as a participant in the Internet Engineering Task Force that it is easier to add new capabilities at the edge of a complex system – and hard to change the core. This principle of providing a generic core that supported innovation at the edge (when they designed the Internet no-one expected it to be used for Skype, YouTube and Facebook) helps to manage that complexity (and the ongoing story of IPv6 shows how hard to is to significantly change the core without impacting what is at the edge).

This is the principle that the best development teams I have worked with try to adopt. Well architected, separable components built on well defined, open standards. Enable innovation at the edge, and minimise the size of the core. Manage complexity by layering architectures. Enable innovation by publishing all the interfaces (including all the ones you need internally, even if you do not know what external people are going to use them for). That way you can evolve complex organisms out of simple building blocks. Of course, that doesn’t make the final system simple – but if done well it should make complexity manageable.

Albert Einstein said:

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Causing Joe to respond on his Board: Now THAT’S a great quote. Streamlining without "dumbing down". Perfect.

The challenge is to figure out how simple it is possible to be, without either compromising its usefulness or compromising its ability to evolve at the edges to deliver even more value.

I can’t really influence that. But I can start implementing simplification and lightening in the way I collaborate every day.

This blog is a good example of the principle. The original microblog provided a simple discussion with some good sound bites for those who don’t want to dig into detail. But it can act as a "hook" to draw those that are interested into a blog post that investigates the topic in more detail.

But I have to go now … I want to catch up on the discussion on Joe’s Board – and post a link back to this post for those who want to think about it a little deeper.

Have CDs had their day? What are the lessons for Enterprise IT?

In the late 90s had dinner with Dave Crocker, the original author of RFC 822 and so a founding father of Internet Mail. He said it never ceased to irritate him when people said how amazed they were that e-mail had been adopted so quickly by companies, since RFC 822 had been published in 1982 and he had personally been working on getting e-mail established for over 20 years.

We see this model over and over again. Things seem to happen overnight with hindsight, but for those who have been paying attention they have been evolving for years. Mike Zisman, who used to lead Soft-Switch and then Lotus, once wrote a paper on “Timing is Everything” which discussed the frustration of having technology ready before the market is ready, and the magic that happens when everything lines up.

I was reminded of this when I saw the Which? Conversation survey Have CDs had their day? asking if people buy CDs in music shops, buy CDs online, mostly use free streaming services or buy digital downloads from online music stores. I didn’t feel that I could really respond to the survey, as the answer was “all of the above”. Here is the comment I posted:

“They are complementary. I still by a small number of CDs each year – less than I did in the last century, but it hasn’t changed so much in the last 10 years since I started using online services. The limiting factor is that I don’t want to store more CDs. I buy absolute favourites because of the pleasure of owning them. But I have to like many tracks off the album – the big difference now is I can get familiar with the whole CD before deciding whether to buy (I was frustrated by the number of CDs I have from the 80s and 90s from which I only really want to hear one or two tracks – but ripping fixes that).

 

When I buy, I do it from good record shops if I can – primarily to support them. The best I know is Ludwig Beck in Munich. The CDs are in the cases on display, and there are lots of players around so you can listen first. A great variety of music, quiet atmosphere, space. I will go out of my way to go there and find things to buy. The UK music chains don’t generate the same loyalty – it’s mostly “fast food” retail. I occasionally pick a CD up at the airport, but wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase there. So, unless I can get to a good record shop I purchase online.

 

Streaming: sure. A good way to find out if I like just the track, or the whole CD, and other stuff the artist does. But mostly for research – the majority of background listening is still Radio. In both cases, advertising supported seems to work (I love the BBC model, but more for speech, or the thinking behind it, than music). Online purchases: yes. As mostly I only want to own one or two tracks off an album. A lot of my listening is done on the iPod/iPad when travelling, so that’s my favourite way to access all my music (including ripped CDs). I just top up my collection with purchases – but over time that is going to become a significant proportion.

Which led me to think about technology adoption and how it changes consumer behaviour – since the users’ behaviour and the organisation’s ability to change the way they work are a key influence in the adoption of Social Business. The complexity of the intersecting technologies, each on their own timeline, made the changes in the music industry complex. The Internet came along. The mp3 standard came along. Music players came along. Web commerce came along. Streaming technologies came along. At some moment in time, Apple came along and did the right thing at the right time to change an industry. And now social networking is looking to influence how this ecosystem evolves. The users went for the mix of solutions that best met their needs at each specific moment in time – rather than just neatly adopting the next solution in the series as they had before (78, LP, CD, …). Meanwhile the industry spent all its efforts fighting the inevitable, instead of leading the way to the future.

IT teams that try to delay the adoption of Social Business in their organisations are going to suffer the same fate. If they don’t take a leadership position in explaining the value to the business, then they are going to suffer unpleasant consequences – whether that comes from losing their influence as more enlightened management is put in place above them, or even being rendered irrelevant by a move to commodity Cloud services by the business.
 

Cooking up a Story

A couple of people have asked what my last blog post had to do with collaboration. Well, to be honest, not a lot. But it illustrates something I often discuss. The difference between knowledge and information.

To me, knowledge is something that exists in someone’s head. Its about knowing something. The term “knowledge management” irritates me, because it is usually applied to techniques for managing information that happens to be sitting in a computer somewhere.

The difference between information and knowledge is the difference between having a recipe for a dish and knowing how to cook things.

Now, one could argue that they both lead to the same thing – a hopefully delicious meal.

But the Accidental Recipe post was all about cooking when you do not have a recipe. Using the knowledge that comes from the practical application of many recipes to create a delicious meal from ingredients that don’t make up a recipe possess. Innovation, not the application of a known process.

Knowledge workers could go and read all the information in all the information repositories, then practice applying them a lot and, hey presto, they can solve the business problems they face each day.

Where social software platforms differ is that they strive to provide access to knowledge, not to information. One way they do that is by letting you discover information in the context of the people who are sharing it. So you not only have access to the information, but also the people who can answer your questions, advise you and help you to apply the knowledge. “Knowledge on Demand.”

The second difference with social platforms is that they actively encourage users to share, not just information, but also experiences.

I am not sure that this blog post contains much useful information, but hopefully it imparts some useful knowledge to those who read it.