Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Breaking System Constraints

During a class discussion this week the idea of ‘constraint’ came up- how we’re constrained by elements of our environment and the systems within which we work. I think we’re coming to an interesting point in the cycle of development for those systems. For hundreds of years, we’ve  worked to make processes more efficient and to make life easier. We’ve developed systems to accomplish this. But as these systems have grown, they’ve become so efficient that, in many cases, we’ve placed constraints on our ability for organic innovation. This is especially true in business systems.

What I find extremely interesting is how current technologies are beginning to explore this tension between business systems and innovation- and are trying to use systems to push innovation rather than stifle it. Social media is a great example of this, per my summer experience at NewsGator. NewsGator’s solution echoes informal online interactions that are a part of our personal lives – and transfers that form of communication to a company setting. The goal is to allow firms to leverage the speed and sharing capabilities of online systems like Facebook, thereby driving communication and innovation throughout the company.

So while Facebook turned informal in-person chats into a system of online communication, new technologies are turning that system of personal online communication into a system of business communication. What organizations that adopt NewsGator (like Citi, the US Air Force, etc.) realize are that the typical business systems they use are placing constraints on innovation and that something needs to change. By leveraging communication that allows faster sharing of information, greater informality in brainstorming, additional freedom in visual expression and the ability to create teams, NewsGator (and like companies) provide a system through which companies can replicate the informal interactions that can lead to fertile ideas while managing the process of that creation in a searchable, repeatable way.

This construct (using next-generation technology to take systems to another level of human interaction replication) becomes really interesting what you consider what companies like Oblong are doing (watch the awesome video below):

Once our operating systems begin to visually replicate how our minds and bodies work, we’re breaking a big constraint in a very cool way.

Growing the Soil

My “Corporate Innovation & Design” class is one I’m pretty excited about (taught by Professor Jeanne Liedtka) and in our first week’s reading, a quote jumped out that blew me away. It was from a VP of Innovation at a big pharma company who said:

“It’s not just about the seed, but it’s about the soil…You know, it’s not just about having the idea or the project or the initiative, but it’s also about the conditions in the organization that enable that idea to actually flourish and get to market successfully.”

As I thought through that idea, I realized- that’s why I came to business school! That’s why I like entrepreneurship! That’s why I want to work in technology! Throughout my life and career, and in my first year at Darden, I have never worried about the ‘idea.’ I’ve never sat there and said, I really need to think of something killer- of the right idea. I’m not saying that’s not important (it obviously is)- it’s just that the idea has never been as interesting to me as what you do with it. The jobs I’ve loved, the clubs I’ve had fun in, the friends I have- these are all grown from the enjoyment I have in the soil. I like the growth, I like the development, I like the J-curve.

What is most interesting to me, and most inspiring, is how that idea becomes a thing. How that idea grows and succeeds (or fails!).

Luckily for me, I’ve always been able to find an ‘idea’ that’s interesting enough that I can jump in and try to do what I love more- build something with that idea.

What I need to learn is how to be the best at fertilizing the soil- that’s why I’m here. I couldn’t think of any awesome metaphor, but basically, I need to know finance, decision analysis, marketing, strategy, leadership, ethics, innovation, operations. I need to be even better at the soil; I’ll find a seed to grow somewhere.

UPDATE***It’s not an awesome metaphor, but I did think of a way to express it- it’s the South Park Gnome episode! I’m in school to get better at Phase 2. The underpants I care less about.

AdoptUSKids gets it right

I’m always impressed when a company manages to pair a good ad campaign with a crisp online presence. When it’s not a company, but a government agency, I’m floored. And “Adopt US Kids”* has done an absolutely amazing job of this by staying funny, keeping it simple and staying on message- “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Their Twitter team tells quick but compelling stories (“It’d take less than 1% of the US population to find a forever family for every child in foster-care available for adoption”) and no spam.

In other words, they have a pretty straightforward recipe for success:

One of the most surprising things about working at NewsGator this summer was realizing just how many government agencies are actively trying to figure out social media and how to best exercise it (click here for a cool case study on how the Air Force uses a NewsGator platform).

Initiatives like Adopt US Kids offer an exciting, and very unique opportunity for the government to speak directly to the people, and it’s fun to watch them figure out how they’re going to use that opportunity. Especially when it’s for something as important as this.

 

*AdoptUSKids is a cooperative agreement with the Adoption Exchange Association, Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children & Families, and the US Department of Health & Human Services. I don’t know the details on which agency/NGO manages which part of the campaign, but regardless, they’ve split the work/outsourced it well. Other agencies should take note.

Is my iPhone fueling war in Africa?

“Only after the last tree has been cut down
Only after the last fish has been caught
Only after the last river has been poisoned
Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”

That’s a Cree Indian prophecy I read for the first time today on the “Travels With a Nine Year Old” blog (it’s seriously awe-inspiring; a mother traveling round the world with her 9 year old son).

While not directly related to my post, the quote convinced me to write about an issue I don’t have a clear opinion on. The issue is  “conflict minerals” and their use in consumer electronics (the below Mac/PC video gives some background).

(I offer several article links in the below; if you’re only going to read one, make it Jason Stearns’)

It’s an issue that strikes especially close to home given my fascination with tech, and off the bat, it seems extremely clear – if buying minerals assists a group or government in fueling conflict, genocide, murder, rape, etc, then we should stop allowing the companies to buy them. That’s the point of the US legislation passed in July. But critics of the bill are pointing out that sensationalism may cloud the fact that legislation will not stop these conflicts – and in fact, may make it more dangerous because we think  it’s going to (Laura Seay at Texas In Africa posts very clearly on this). Jason Stearns (as mentioned above) responds to that here.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this isn’t a question I have an answer to. I am against conflict minerals. I don’t think the legislation can hurt as long as we’re honest about what the impact of it can (and cannot) be. But I also don’t believe it offers a clear solution; nor do I think we can ignore the economic ramifications for these countries and the U.S.were we to immediately halt all purchases of these goods.

What I do know is that this is a cautionary tale.

The proliferation of stories/photos/blogs in the Age of Information we live in has definite negatives- we’ve all seen and commented on this (why is Lindsey Lohan in the news? why is CNN telling me this non-news? etc.). Because we live in an age of instant information, we expect instant answers and solutions. And so we draft bills, issue statements, and build committees that may not actually solve the problem- but they quickly appease the ravenous news cycle of the moment. So the machine churns on to the next story, leaving problems half-solved, partially addressed, but believed to be finished. Whether a bill will or will not help this problem is a question. What will help answer that question is our ability to provide continued pressure and examination of the issue as we implement this and other laws. It is the danger of our times that information moves so fast.

As our continued use of mineral resources ravages the planet and we are forced to make tradeoffs, speed of information will continue to become a double-edged sword. On one hand, we are lucky to live in an age where information is this available- we are more informed about issues than ever before. On the other, speed can result in poor decisions, half-executed plans, and the abandonment of yesterdays crisis for the story du jour.

The class I am most grateful to have taken this year at Darden is Ethics, because I learned very quickly that I am like most people- I default to a given position without truly thinking it through and then defend it out of sheer ego. I was lucky to have a class setting in which to realize this, and lucky to have a professor that helped us develop our own frameworks for preventing this (creating the focus and patience to think through and challenge the position I was defending). Without that class, though, I don’t know if I would have realized how often I fall into that trap, and how restricting that trap is when faced with complex and challenging problems – like conflict minerals.

Challenging one’s own beliefs is a skill that is not only valuable in the careers/hobbies/relationships/lives we each build, but is also one that is absolutely necessary if we want our actions and decisions to make a true and sustained difference in the world.

Education Needs More Chinese Resturants

Charles Leadbeater’s TED presentation “Education Innovation in the Slums” blew me away; I’ve been thinking about it since I saw it a week ago.

The man spent years researching innovation in education (and the need for it) and his speech is drawn from the innovation and change he saw happen in places as challenging as Rio and Kibera slums. What was most striking to me is how important innovation and change in education is for not only the developing world, but for first world countries as well. From his presentation:

  • Motivation: The challenge, as Leadbeater points out, is that education in the developing world can’t afford the luxury of time in motivating students- “Education in these settings works by pull, not push.” Curriculum and compulsory education won’t motivate students to learn, because they offer rewards that don’t apply in the developing world.
    • In the developed world, info was pushed on us and we tried to learn it well so we could move on. We did so because the motivations fit (or we thought they did).
      • Extrinsically there was a payoff 10 years down the road (do well now, get into good college, get high-paying job later).
      • Intrinsically there was a payoff- our self worth (and the value we see others put on us) was linked to performance.
    • In the slums of Rio and Kibera, though, that doesn’t work! Payoff for education 10 years down the road doesn’t apply when you have no food or both your parents have died of AIDS.
      • Motivation must therefore be different- education must contain information that is necessary and useful now, in this moment, and it must be engaging. Education that succeeds in the slums begins with the premise that you must engage students before they will learn.
  • Chinese Restaurants: To accomplish this on a worldwide scale, a “Chinese-restaurant” model of education is necessary. Schools shouldn’t follow the McDonalds franchise model (exactly the same, precise and dependable everywhere) but rather the Chinese-restaurant model of growth.
    • Leadbeater talks about Madhav Chavan, who helped found Pratham, and how he came up with this model. Typically you don’t see Chinese chains, but you see restaurants everywhere. And yet, despite that they are not chains, everyone knows what to expect inside, although there will be subtle differences. Schools will feature new and different ways of learning that will catch on and spread across to other cultures, in slightly different ways.
    • He points out we spend a lot of money on sustaining the model of education we have in places like the U.S. (trying to improve it by sinking billions of dollars into it.) What we need is innovation in how we do it.
    • “We need a global wave of social entrepreneurship to create highly motivating, low cost ways to scale in the developing world.”

I thought this was an amazing speech and it is frightening in how it applies even to countries like the U.S. I won’t go into details to argue about for education in the U.S. and how it’s failing- suffice it to say that I think most of us can agree it needs to change. Not only does it need to change because it’s not working, but it needs to change because the world that students are entering is vastly different as well. Extrinsic motivation in the United States must change to mirror our circumstances. Seth Godin writes in his excellent and inspiring new book “Linchpin” that we have been indoctrinated in a system that has failed us. We went to school believing that if we did well, we would find good jobs. If we found good jobs, those companies would take care of us. We would rise through the company, be rewarded and have a pension.

None of that is true anymore. You don’t get paid for showing up, you aren’t sure of a promotion, and your company won’t take care of you in the future. The world has changed; if it weren’t already dead, this recession killed it. And if that extrinsic motivation no longer exists, then why should we learn?

Just as the developing countries need to change their method of teaching, so do we. Seth Godin thinks we need to teach two things: (1) solve interesting problems (2) lead. I think it may be a few more (Cameron Herold gives an interesting TED talk about teaching kids to be entrepreneurs) but regardless of what it is, it has to change.

The world is no longer the same- why do we continue to reward educational achievements that don’t connect to reality? Shouldn’t these things align? Don’t we need them to?

Barcode scanners and digital content? What iPhone app is that?

Did the update to iOS4 on June 21st, although I can’t afford to invest in the iPhone4 right now. Enjoying the upgrade and the features, but more than that even, lately I’ve had time to enjoy some apps I’ve been playing with- thought I’d share some.

  1. The “not used daily but too friggin awesome to not mention” award goes to the StickyBits app. StickyBits lets you attach digital content to real world items by scanning it (you hold a product in front of your iPhone until the camera captures the UPC), attaching a text/photo/message to it online and uploading that. So the next time someone else scans that product (not the actual item but a product with that UPC), they can see what you uploaded! While right now this is just a “for fun” item, imagine the possibilities for viral marketing?
  2. The “must have on the bus” award goes to Instapaper. This is easily one of my top everyday apps- a Read Later bookmark for the internet. When you find an article but don’t have time to read, open Bookmarks and click on the Instapaper bookmark you’ve installed. Then go to your Instapaper app, open it up, and voila the article is there. I use this very specifically to ward off frustration from my constantly absent AT&T service in downtown Denver. I use Instapaper to pick a couple articles, mark them for read later, then open up the app right there and load the articles (it needs an initial internet connection to sync). Then I close it. Later on, when AT&T inevitably fails on the bus and I can’t access my RSS reader, I open Instatpaper and read those pre-loaded articles.
  3. The “wouldn’t read/know half as much without it” award goes to NewsGator’s NetNewsWire. I do love my RSS reader…seriously. FeedDemon for Windows is my absolute favorite thing in the world, but NetNewsWire is easy to use and star. It’s my everyday on-the-go fix.
  4. The “keeps me out of a lotta trouble” award goes to the extremely useful and always accessible Evernote, which keeps me from forgetting important things. I like it better than the original iPhone notes for a couple reasons. Having the option of text, pictures, voice notes is great but my absolute favorite part is that I can email things directly to my notes that are then saved remotely.
  5. The “just for fun” game of the month- Scribattle. Check it out; the graphics are so much fun because they make you feel like you’re cutting 5th grade history class to play; it’s just old skool like that.

Anyone have any other sexy apps I may be missing?

How will Darden help me at NewsGator?

So here I am in Colorado! Excited to be here…and to drum up a little jealousy, this is view from deck of the Boulder apartment I’ll be living at (thank you to my lovely [soon to be] in-laws!!).

I start my summer internship at NewsGator tomorrow – as I’ve mentioned a few times, NewsGator is a cool Denver company that creates social computing and collaboration solutions for businesses. Think of it like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc….for your company. Information can include user feeds (like twitter updates), collaborative docs, news stories, etc.

Note: I may be waaaaay off on my understanding of some things, which I’m sure they’ll tell me pretty quickly when I get there 🙂

What’s going to be most interesting is how I apply what I learned in my first year to the real world. B-school’s been great; I love my classes, professors, colleagues and friends. And I’ve learned a ton. But I’m intrigued to see how I actually apply any of it. The Darden case-study method hopefully gives a leg up over some MBA programs in ‘application’ of MBA concepts, but we’ll see. I’m excited look back at the end of the summer and see what I’ve used from different classes- marketing, operations, decision analysis (stats), finance, etc. If I have to build complex statistical models, I assure you my professors will be getting some heavy email traffic….

At the end of the summer I’ll post what I used, but I will definitely be depending on two truly valuable skills that Darden taught me- skills that are valuable no matter what the job:

  • Ask questions: Darden teaches you to question your own answers as well as others’ answers. If there’s one thing the case study method forces, it’s how to challenge a thought and drive down deeper until you understand (as well as how to respond to someone else’s challenge of you!). I truly believe that questioning is a learned skill and one that requires practice and dedication. We’re all reactive to what we hear and see; it takes practice to hold your own opinion up to the test when your gut reaction says “this way”.
  • Look at it from different perspectives: It’s funny how much of an expensive education comes down to the kindergarten maxim of “walking in someone else’s shoes,” but it’s a valuable perspective and one that was drilled into us in multiple courses. Looking at a decision or problem from multiple angles often sheds light on an issue- and surfaces assumptions that would otherwise go unnoticed. If you’re a finance whiz, try looking at a problem from an HR perspective. If you’re down in the weeds, try looking at it from a 50,000 ft view instead. Every person in every position makes assumptions; failure to step out of your perspective means greater risk of not identifying the possibly dangerous assumptions you’ve made.

So wish me luck! I’m looking forward to a great and amazing summer.