Archive for the ‘Parallax’ Category
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. Nowadays IT is as ubiquitous in a working environment as water, electricity and a toilet. Unfortunately, this is why many managers interpret IT as a utility and often see it as a liability. For this post we studied 3 organograms which popped up after a Google search and describe in 500 words what is (probably) wrong or right with them in terms of the role and place of the IT department. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
Peter Hinssen has written a book titled Business/IT Fusion. In it, he attacks the current focus on aligning IT and the business and proposes to truly integrate IT into the business: a fusion. In his introduction he writes:
So, cost reduction in IT typically enhances the stereotype of IT being a commoditized, non-differentiating function. [..] Alignment is like a slow-acting poison that initially shows no signs of having a negative effect, but which paralyzes an IT organization by inducting servant like behavior.
His website shows the transformation that he is advocating:
Drucker wrote in The Practice of Management:
Because the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer, the business enterprise has two -and only two – basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs.
I am a strong believer in IT as one of the drivers of innovation. Hinssen references a 2005 Harvard Business Review article by Nolan and McFarlan, Information Technology and the Board of Directors, in which they publish a IT strategic impact grid:
If you believe that IT should be playing on the offensive side of the grid, then this should be reflected in your organizational structure. So let’s look at the following three randomly chosen organograms and see whether the organizations consider themselves to be in factory mode, support mode, turnaround mode or strategic mode and whether they show signs of fusion. One way of doing this is to try and see whether there is a separate IT branch or not and whether IT and business processes are in the same box.
First Hibernia college, an online college in Ireland:
IT seems to reside under the Chief Knowledge Officer (who reports into the director of Operations). An online course seems to need development, instructional design and learning technology (each has their own manager) and it seems pretty clear that technology is part of the core operations. This organization probably considers itself to be in strategic mode (makes sense for an online college!).
Next ONGC India, an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation:
This one is a bit of mystery to me. There is a chief “Infocom” who reports into a role that is called “…To be filled…”. I imagine that this company will have multiple IT perspectives. The director of Tech & Field Services will have to steer a lot of technology and will be well integrated with the business. The infocom chief will likely have a much harder time playing in the offensive space.
Finally Uniex Ghana Limited, a trading company and consultancy:
This is very traditional organogram. There does not seem to be a high level IT role (no CIO). There are two layers of organization between the Marketing & IT manager (one of the most important roles if we agree with Drucker and the CEO). I wouldn’t be surprised if this organization would consider itself in support mode.
My main conclusion from this exercise is that an organizational diagram is not a good indicator for the role that IT plays in a business. I do not seem to be able to parse these diagrams in such a way that I can really understand how IT is seen in the company. Is that my lack of competence? I do now realize I need to do some more thinking in this area.
Looking at your own organization, what mode do you seem to be operating in?
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This month we write about how the constant flux of new apps and platforms influences your workflow. We do this by (re-)viewing our workflow from different perspectives. After a general introduction we write a paragraph of 200 words each from the perspective of 1. apps, 2. platform and 3. workflow itself. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
To me a workflow is about two things mainly: the ability to capture things and the ability to time-shift. Both of these need to be done effectively and efficiently. So let’s take a look at three separate processes and see how they currently work for me: task/todo management, sharing with others and reading news and interesting articles (not books). So how do I work nowadays for each of these three things?
I use Toodledo for my task/todo management. Whenever I “take an action” or think of something that I need to do at some point in the future I fire up Toodledo and jot it down. Each item is put in a folder (private, work, etc.), gets a due date (sometimes with a timed reminder to email if I really cannot forget to do it) and is given a priority (which I usually ignore). At the beginning and end of every day I run through all the tasks and decide in my head what will get done.
For me it important to share what I encounter on the web and my thoughts about that with the rest of the world. I do this in a couple of different ways: explicitly through Twitter, through Twitter by using a Bit.ly sidebar in my Browser, in Yammer if it is purely for work, on this WordPress.com blog, through public bookmarks on Diigo, by sending a direct email or by clicking the share button in Google Reader.
I have subscribed to 300+ RSS feeds and often when I am scanning them and find something interesting and I don’t have the opportunity to read it at that time. I use Instapaper to capture these articles and make them available for easy reading later on. Instapaper doesn’t work with PDF based articles so I send those to a special email address so that I can pick them up with my iPad and save them to GoodReader when it is convenient.
“Platform” can have multiple meanings. The operating system was often called a platform. When you heavily invested into one platform it would become difficult to do any of your workflows with a different platform (at my employer this has been the case for many years with Microsoft and Exchange: hard to use anything else). Rich web applications have now turned the Internet itself into a workflow platform. This makes the choice for an operating system nearly, if not totally, irrelevant. I regularly use Ubuntu (10.04, too lazy to upgrade so far), Windows Vista (at work) and iOS (both on the iPhone and the iPad). All of the products and services mentioned either have specialised applications for the platform or are usable through any modern web browser. The model I prefer right now is one where there is transparent two-way synching between a central server/service and the different local apps, allowing me access to my latest information even if I am not online (Dropbox for example uses this model and is wonderful).
What I have noticed though, is that I have strong preferences for using a particular platform (actually a particular device) for doing certain tasks. The iPad is my preference for any reading of news or of articles: the “paginate” option on Instapaper is beautiful. Sharing is best done with something that has a decent keyboard and Toodledo is probably used the most with my iPhone because that is usually closest at hand.
Sharing is a good example of something where the app drives my behaviour very much: the app where I initially encounter the thing I want to share needs to support the sharing means of choice. This isn’t optimal at all: if I read something interesting in MobileRSS on the iPad that I want to share on Yammer, then I usually email the link from MobileRSS to my work email address, once at work I copy it from my mail client into the Browser version of Yammer and add my comments. This is mainly because Yammer (necessarily) has to be a closed off to the rest of the world with its APIs.
Services that create the least hickups in my workflow are those that have a large separation between the content/data of the service and the interface. Google Reader and Toodledo both provide very complete APIs that allow anybody to create an app that accesses the data and displays it in a smart way. The disadvantage of these services is that I am usually dependent on a single provider for the data. In the long term this is probably not sustainable. Things like Unhosted are already pointing to the future: an even stricter separation between data and app. Maybe in that future, the workflow can start driving the app instead of the other way around.
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. In our previous post we tried to argue whether you could engineer serendipity. The conclusion was: no, you cannot engineer serendipity (on the web). In this post we use the same recipe to investigate the corollary: the (social) web is hindering serendipity by clustering and clumping similar information around our web presence based on our online behaviour (e.g. the social graph). You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
In my teens I went to a Montessori high school in Amsterdam Zuid. The school is known for its liberal and cultural approach to education. My friends and I all thought we were free thinkers and radicals. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I learned at the college for PE teacher education that not all people had the “VPRO gids” at home and read the “Volkskrant”. It suddenly dawned on me how silo-ed my experience at high school had been and how similar we all were in our drive to be different. Occasionally I get the feeling that I am in a very similar position in my current educational technology profession.
The current toolset on the web helps us find people that are like ourselves, recommends us books that are similar to the ones we have already read and amplifies our existing opinions by aligning them to people who think the same as us. There are no tools to do the opposite: find people who are very different from you or content that gives new perspectives. In this post I would like to give a couple of examples of how the web helps in turning us into mussels (sessile animals that like being close to each other).
Example 1: The concept of RSS and Google Reader
Every day I spent 30 to 60 minutes reading my news feeds through Google Reader. I have subscribed to over 300 feeds and try to not miss any news items from about 100 of them. These feeds are very specific (one of the affordances of RSS is that it can easily be generated based on tags or search words). None of them carry general world news. Instead of reading the Guardian’s most important world news, I read the Guardian news that is tagged with Royal Dutch Shell. Instead of general feeds about the state of education and learning I read the posts of certain learning gurus. This means that on my Google Reader news from the last couple of days there was no way for me to encounter the release of Aung San Suu Kyi (I only learned about it by looking it up just now), whereas I read about Facebook’s new messaging system at least three different times (here, here and here) with very similar perspectives each time.
Google is also willing to suggest some new feeds for me to subscribe to. As of today the first four suggested sources that Google gives me are as follows:
More of the same! Wouldn’t it be way more beneficial for me to be confronted with people, opinions and news that is very different from the things I already know? It seems like there isn’t enough semantic understanding of the things that I am reading to be able to tell me: “You always read news about Shell on the Guardian, the Financial Times usually has a very different perspective”. How far off do you think we are before that becomes a reality?
Example 2: Amazon suggestions
Amazon was one of the first companies that made use of its customer’s behaviour to improve the service to that same customer. When you browse at Amazon they track everything, not just your purchases, but also your browsing history, the links you click, the reviews you read and write, the books you don’t buy and probably how much time you spend doing each of these things. They use this data and correlate it with other people’s data to be able to suggest a couple of books that should interest you.
I haven’t bought at Amazon for a while (I now buy my books at Book Depository as they ship for free), but my current suggestions do include titles like Drive (which I am reading right now), Free and Growing Up Digital (and many other similar titles that I have already read). These books increase my specialization in the field of Internet and educational technology. There is no way for me to try and find books on Amazon that can function as a bridge to other genres.
There also is no way to really browse serendipitously. Like RSS, the categorization of the books is incredibly specific. Much more than in a traditional book store. On Amazon I would be able to go to one of my favourite subjects cognitive psychology (finding more than 8000 titles), whereas in a book store I would have to go to “popular science”. The latter forces me to run into books in fields of science that I wouldn’t usually look at. A book shelve also has a nicer (and faster!) browsing experience: running with a finger past all the books, taking one out and quickly scanning its contents all do not work on Amazon.
Example 3: Anglo-Saxon focus through the English language and through Silicon Valley based innovation
Silicon valley seems to be a village. I listen to Leo Laporte’s podcasts (e.g. This Week in Tech), read TechCrunch, Mashable and ReadWriteWeb and am inundated with news about Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and mobile phone carriers in the US. A lot of the web technology innovation is indeed driven by companies in Silicon valley and innovative start-ups from all over the world flock to California to be successful (see here for an example). But it does leave me wondering whether I am not missing out on a large part of the technium by not being able to read Japanese, Mandarin, German, etc. Through Western (English) media I have learned that Japan has a very specific mobile phone culture. But in all ways I am completely disconnected from it.
To experience how true this is, I would like you to do the following assignment: Use Google to try and find three sites in Japanese about technology culture. Let me know in the comments how that went…
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to write about how disaggregation will affect our (your) jobs. This post is a remix of existing content on the web. We were not allowed to write any original content but had to compose our post from at least 5 different sources on the web. Any web content could be used. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
Content sources are disaggregating. Courses, albums, newspapers, and even TV programs (i.e. the 5 min YouTube video) are fragmenting into smaller pieces. Which, of course, increases options for re-creating/remixing (smaller the size, greater the opportunities for repurposing). (source)
Librarians and publishers are familiar with the term “the least publishable unit,” which referred to e-journal articles at the time they came into vogue. Now, “microcontent” is generally used to describe even smaller units of content that come from some larger whole. [..] E-learning disaggregates the learning process from the institution as students avail themselves of the “least unit”: a course can possibly be independent of place and time—tied to the parent institution in name only. Banking online reduces “the bank” to a series of activities, and the ordered presentation of a library’s physical collection of content and its highly structured services can be irrelevant and even inhibitory in a digital world. A nine-year-old’s Web page about spiders coexists with a presentation at a conference by the world’s expert on spiders and may be deemed more useful to a nine-year-old searcher than the expert’s paper. It’s about more than just content. It’s about context. (source)
Reuse, remix, mashup open learning:
Today while more data is reaching us faster, our capacity to absorb and process this information has limitations. Rather than reading long passages of information, users merely “scan” for information, prompting web writers to group chunk information into smaller, consumable portions. According to Wikipedia, chunking is a method of presenting information which splits concepts into small pieces or “chunks” of information to make reading and understanding faster and easier. Chunked content usually contains bullet lists and shortened paragraphs with increased usage of subheads and scannable text, and bold key phrases. [..] Today our expectations for information equals our need immediate gratification. We want to-the-minute updated information and content, in an easily consumable form. It is therefore not surprising to see new forms of information consumption (and disbursal) have evolved to keep pace. [..] Examples of this type of microlearning include reading a paragraph of text, listening to a podcast or educational video-clip, viewing a flashcard, memorizing a word, vocabulary, definition or formula, selecting an answer to a question, answering questions in quizzes etc. By delivering learning content in small, consumable portions, mobile learning enables educators to supplement mainstream education through a method of quick review and research. (source)
As an instructional technology, microlearning focuses on the design of micro learning activities through micro steps in digital media environments, which already is a daily reality for today’s knowledge workers. These activities can be incorporated in learner’s daily routines and tasks. Unlike “traditional” elearning approaches, microlearning often tends towards push technology through push media, which reduces the cognitive load on the learners. Therefore, the selection of micro learning objects and also pace and timing of micro learning activities are of importance for didactical designs. (source)
New “tagging” technologies and practices, creating “soft” metadata, show a possible way to new kinds of collaborative knowledge environments. It will be shown that is not only microcontent itself, but also its contextualization through learner-centered approaches, discussion through trackbacks or commentaries, and “soft” object metadata which contribute to an understanding of microlearning and provide insights for implementing personal publishing systems in (educational) institutions. Until now, most of these conceptions are emergent on the web, so future research would have to identify possible uses and integration into learning environments and didactical applications. (source)
Arjen Vrielink and I write a monthly series titled: Parallax. We both agree on a title for the post and on some other arbitrary restrictions to induce our creative process. This time we decided to write about what makes Goodreads a great website. First we sat together for an hour and used Gobby to collaboratively write a rough draft of the text. Each of us then edited the draft and published the post separately. You can read Arjen’s post with the same title here.
What is Goodreads?
Goodreads is Facebook and Wikipedia for readers: a social network of people that love to read books, full of features that readers might like. It allows you to keep many “shelves” with books that can be shared with other people on the site.
Here are some of the features (in no particular order) that make Goodreads work so well:
- The site is not only useful when you are a member. Even if you are not logged in it still is a pleasant site to read and browse for book lovers.
- It allows you to keep track of your own, yout friends and “the crowds” books. If you see an interesting book you can put it on your to-read shelf, if a friend reads an interesting book than he or she can recommend it to you.
- Statistics can suggest recommendations based on my shelves, reviews and friends.
- There is a distinction between friends (a symmetric relationship) and followers (an assymetric relationship).
- There is a book comparison feature: it finds the books you have both read and compares the scores you have given to those books.
- It is very easy to invite your friends into the site. You can put in their email address, or you can give Goodreads access to your webmail contacts (sometimes this is a questionable thing, but Goodreads isn’t to pushy (it doesn’t send out Tweets without you knowing it for example)).
- They have a great “universal” search box where you can search books on author, title or isbn from the same field.
- It makes use of Ajax in the right locations, allowing you to update small things (“liking” a review, noting what page you’ve reached, handing out stars to a book) without having to reload the page.
- The user profile page is related to the contents of the webservice: for example, it allows you to say who your favourite authors are.
- The site supports many different ways of viewing and sorting your shelves. You can look at covers or at titles and sort by author, by score, by last update and more.
- Before building a great iPhone app, Goodreads made sure their website had a great mobile version of their website. When you access the website with a mobile browser it automatically redirects to a mobile version of the website, so even if you are accessing the site with your Windows Mobile device you have a great experience.
- Not only is it very easy to put data into the Goodreads ecosystem, it is also very easy to get your data out again. You can download a CSV file with all your books (including the data you added like reviews, date read, your rating and the metadata about the book that Goodreads has added like the ISBN or the average rating). The smart import feature looks at an HTML page (e.g. an Amazon wishlist page) and imports all the ISBNs it can find in the source code of the page. Like any good webservice it imports files that are exported from their competition (Shelfari, Librarything and Delicious library).
- There seems to be an evolving business model. Initially there were only (onubtrusive) adds, but now they are starting to sell e-books, integrating this into the social network.
- Often when you read a book there are sentences or passages which really impress or inspire. Most of the times you then forgot these. Goodreads allows you to favourite and rank (and thus collect) quotes easily by author or by book. You can add and export quotes as well.
- Sharing your Goodreads activity to other important webservices is built in. There are integrations with Facebook, Twitter, WordPress Blogs and MySpace. Goodreads also provides embeddable widgets that you can put on another website (e.g. a box with the most recent books you have read). A simple integration allows you to instantly find a book that you are looking at in Goodreads in your favourite online bookstore. And of course there is the ubiquitous RSS.
- A site like Goodreads get is value from the data that its users put in. Goodreads allows this at many levels. There are trivial ways of adding information (i.e. saying you like a review by clicking a single link, allowing Goodreads to display useful reviews first), but there are also ways of adding information that take slightly more effort. For example, it is fairly easy to get “librarian” status which shows the site trusts their users. As a librarian you can edit existing book entries. A low entrance level is key to crowd sourcing. Another way to involve people is to allow them to add their own trivia that other users can try and answer in trivia games.
- It allows users to flag objectionable content.
- Goodreads has its own blog, keeping you up to date about the latest features and their direction.
- It has an element of competition, you can see how many books are on your shelf and how many books are on other people’s shelf, but there are more metrics: you can see who has written the most popular reviews, your rank among this week’s reviewers, or who has the most followers
- It has a great and open API. This allows other people to build services on top of Goodreads. The potential for this is huge (the very first Goodreads iPhone app was not made by Goodreads itself, but was made by a Goodreads enthousiast) and I don’t think we have seen what will be possible with this yet. A lot of the data that Goodreads collects is accesible through the API in a structured and aggregated form. It should be very easy for other book related sites to incorporate average ratings from Goodreads on their own pages for example.
- It is in continual beta and their design process seems to be iterative: it keeps evolving and adding new features at a high frequency like the recently added stats feature.
- It is easy to delete your account, deleting all your data in the process. This makes for complete transparancy about data ownership, an issue that other sites (Facebook!) have been struggling with lately.
- It has a kind of update stream which let’s you easily keep up to date with your friends, groups and favourite authors status.
- The service has ambitious and lofty goals: “Goodreads’ mission is to get people excited about reading. Along the way, we plan to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” (see here). I do believe that this clear mission has led to many features that wouldn’t have been there otherwise. For example, there is a book swap economy built into the site allowing people to say that they own the book and are willing to swap it for other books. Another book lovers feature are the lists. Anybody can start a list and people can then vote to get books on the list. Examples of list are The Movie was better than the Book or Science books you loved. Another feature are the book events. You can find author appearance, book club meetings, book swaps and other events based on how many miles away you want these to be from a certain city or in a certain country. Of course you can add events yourself, next to the ones that Goodreads imports from other sites, and you can say which events you will attend, plus invite friends to these events.
How Goodreads could improve
As said, Goodreads is continuously changing, there are still some things that require some change in the right direction:
- Ocassionally the site feels a bit buggy. I have had a lot of grief updating the shelves of books using the mobile site with it not doing the things I wanted it do.
- It is not always clear what kind of updates are triggered by an user action. I am not sure what my friends see. Sometimes you find your Facebook Wall flooded with Goodreads updates because your friend found a box of long lost books in the attic which he entered in an update frenzy.
- Usability: Some features are hard to find. Like the new stats feature discussed above, you can only find it hidden away on the bottom left of a page in some obscure menu. Other features are hard to use, requiring many more clicks than are actually necessary.
- They could improve on localisation and on the translations of books. In your profile settings you can select your country, but you cannot select in which languages you are able to read books.
- The graphic design of the site isn’t top notch. When people initially see Shelfari, it might have more appeal just because it looks a tad better.
- In-app mailing or messaging systems are always beyond me. Goodreads also has an “inbox” where you can send mail to and receive mail from your Goodreads friends. I would much rather use my regular mail and use Goodreads as a broker so email addresses can be private.
Some thoughts on the process of writing this post
Gobby is a multi-platform text editor that allows multiple people to work on the same text file in realtime. It uses colours to denote who has written what.
This was an experiment to see how it would feel to work like this and whether it would be an efficient and effective way of working together. I thought it was quite successful as we produced a lot of material and helped eachother think: building on the point of the other person. It was helpful to do an initial draft, but it does require some significant editing afterwards. I thought it was interesting to see that you feel no compunction to change the other person’s spelling mistake, but that you feel less free to change the contents of what they are writing.
This time we were sitting opposite each other while writing. In the future it would be interesting (firewalls permitting) to try and do this over a longer distance. Then the unused chat-window might become more useful and important.
You can download the original Gobby file here (it requires Gobby to make sense).
Hopefully this post about Goodreads is an inspiration to anybody who tries to build a social network around a certain theme and remember: if I know you I would love nothing more than to be your Goodreads “friend”.