Posts Tagged ‘wikipedia’
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Lift France 2011 conference. For me this was different than my usual conference experience. I have written before how Anglo-Saxon my perspective is, so to be at a conference where the majority of the audience is French was refreshing.
Although there was a track about learning, most of the conference approached the effects of digital technology on society from angles that were relatively new to me. In a pure learning conference, I am usually able to contextualize what I see immediately and do some real time reflecting. This time I had to stick to reporting on what I saw (all my #lift11 posts are listed here) and was forced to take a few days and reflect on what I had seen.
Below, in random order, an overview of what I would consider to be the big themes of the conference. Occasionally I will try to speculate on what these themes might mean for learning and for innovation.
Utilization of excess capacity empowered by collaborative platforms
Robin Chase gave the clearest explanation of this theme that many speakers kept referring back to:
This world has large amounts of excess capacity that isn’t used. In the past, the transaction costs of sharing (or renting out) this capacity was too high to make it worthwhile. The Internet has facilitated the creation of collaborative platforms that lower these transaction costs and make trust explicit. Chase’s most simple example is the couch surfing idea and her Zipcar and Buzzcar businesses are examples of this too.
Entangled with the idea of sharing capacity is the idea of access being more important than ownership. This will likely come with a change in the models for consumption: from owning a product to consuming a service. The importance of access shows why it is important to pay attention to the (legal) battles being fought on patents, copyrights, trademarks and licenses.
I had some good discussions with colleagues about this topic. Many facilities, like desks in offices, are underused and it would be good to try and find ways of getting the percentage of utilization up. One problem we saw is how to deal with peak demand. Rick Marriner made the valid suggestion that transparency about the demand (e.g. knowing how many cars are booked in the near future) will actually feed back into the demand and thus flatten the peaks.
A quick question that any (part of an) organization should ask itself is which assets and resources have excess capacity because in the past transaction costs for sharing them across the organization were too high. Would it now be possible to create platforms that allow the use of this extra capacity?
Another question to which I currently do not have an answer is whether we can translate this story to cognitive capacity. Do we have excess cognitive capacity and would there be a way of sharing this? Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and the Wikipedia project seem to suggest we do. Can organizations capture this value?
The idea of the Internet getting rid of intermediaries is very much related to the point above. Intermediaries were a big part of the transaction costs and they are disappearing everywhere. Travel agents are the canonical example, but at the conference, Paul Wicks talked about PatientsLikeMe, a site that partially tries to disintermediate doctors out of the patient-medicine relationship.
What candidates for disintermediation exist in learning? Is the Learning Management System the intermediary or the disintermediator? I think the former. What about the learning function itself? In the last years I have seen a shift where the learning function is moving away from designing learning programs into becoming a curator of content and service providers and a manager of logistics. These are exactly the type of activities that are not needed anymore in the networked world. Is this why the learning profession is in crisis? I certainly think so.
The primacy (and urgency) of design
Maybe it was the fact that the conference was full of French designeurs (with the characteristic Philippe Starck-ish eccentricities that I enjoy so much), but it really did put the urgency of design to the forefront once again for me. I would argue that design means you think about the effects that you would like to have in this world. As a creator it is your responsibility to think deeply and holistically. I will not say that you can always know the results of your design (product, service, building, city, organization, etc.), there will be externalities, but it is important that you leave nothing to chance (accident) or to convenience (laziness).
There is a wealth of productivity to be gained here. I am bombarded by bad (non-)design every single day. Large corporations are the worst offenders. The only design parameter that seems to be relevant for processes is whether they reduce risk enough, not whether they are usable for somebody trying to get something done. Most templates focus on completeness and not on aesthetics or ease of use. When last did you receive a PowerPoint deck that wasn’t full of superfluous elements that the author couldn’t be bothered to remove?
We can’t afford not to design. The company I work for is full of brilliant engineers. Where are the brilliant designers?
Distributed, federated and networked systems
Robin Chase used the image below and explicitly said that we now finally realize that distributed networks are the right model to overcome the problems of centralized and decentralized systems.
I have to admit that the distinction between decentralized and distributed eludes me for now (I guess I should read Baran’s paper), but I did notice at Fosdem earlier this year that the open source world is urgently trying to create alternatives to big centralized services like Twitter and Facebook. Moglen talked about the Freedombox as a small local computer that would do all the tasks that the cloud would normally do, there is StatusNet, unhosted and even talk of distributed redundant file systems and wireless mesh networking.
Can large organizations learn from this? I always see a tension between the need for central governance, standardization and uniformity on the one hand and the local and specific requirements on the other hand. More and more systems are now designed to allow for central governance and the advantages of interoperability and integration, while at the same time providing configurability away from the center. Call it organized customization or maybe even federation. I truly believe you should think deeply about this whenever you are implementing (or designing!) large scale information systems.
Blurring the distinction between the real and the virtual worlds
Lift also had an exhibitors section titled “the lift experience“, mostly a place for multimedia art (imagine a goldfish in a bowl sat atop an electric wheelchair, a camera captured the direction the fish swam in and the wheelchair would then move in the same direction). There were quite a few projects using the Arduino and even more that used “hacked” Kinects to enable new types of interaction languages.
Most projects tried, in some way, to negotiate a new way of working between the virtual and the real (or should I call it the visceral). As soon as those boundaries disappear designers will have an increased ability to shape reality. One of the projects that I engaged with the most was the UrbanMusicalGame: a set of gyroscopes and accelerometers hidden in soft balls. By playing with these balls you could make beautiful music while using an iPhone app to change the settings (unfortunately the algorithms were not yet optimized for my juggling). This type of project is the vanguard of what we will see in the near term.
Discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of technology
A surprising theme for me was the well articulated discomfort with the dehumanizing aspects of some of the emerging digital technologies. As Benkler says: technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice and not all practices that are becoming feasible now have positive societal impact.
One artist, Emmanuel Germond, seemed to be very much in touch with these feeling. His project, Exposition au Danger Psychologique, made fun of people’s inability to deal with all this information and provided some coy solutions. Alex Peng talked about contemplative computing, Chris de Decker showed examples of low-tech solutions from the past that can help solve our current problems and projects in the Lift Experience showed things like analog wooden interfaces for manipulating digital music.
This leads me to believe that both physical reality and being disconnected will come at a premium in the near future. People will be willing to pay for having real experiences versus the ubiquitous virtual experiences. Not being connected to the virtual world will become more expensive as it becomes more difficult. Imagine a retreat which markets itself as having no wifi and a giving you a free physical newspaper in the morning (places like this are starting to pop up, see this unplugged conference or this reporter’s unconnected weekend).
There will be consequences for Learning and HR at large. For the last couple of years we have been moving more and more of our learning interventions into the virtual space. Companies have set up virtual universities with virtual classrooms, thousands and thousands of hours of e-learning are produced every year and the virtual worlds that are used in serious games are getting more like reality every month.
Thinking about the premium of reality it is then only logical that allowing your staff to connect with each other in the real world and collaborate in face to face meetings will be a differentiator for acquiring and retaining talent.
Big data for innovation
I’ve done a lot of thinking about big data this year (see for example these learning analytics posts) and this was a tangential topic at the conference. The clearest example came from a carpool site which can use it’s data about future reservation to clearly predict how busy traffic will be on a particular day. PatientsLikeMe is of course another example of a company that uses data as a valuable asset.
Supercrunchers is full of examples of data-driven solutions to business problems. The ease of capturing data, combined with the increase in computing power and data storage has made doing randomized trials and regression analysis feasible where before it was impossible.
This means that the following question is now relevant for any business: How can we use the data that we capture to make our products, services and processes better? Any answers?
The need to overcome the open/closed dichotomy
In my circles, I usually only encounter people who believe that most things should be open. Geoff Mulgan spoke of ways to synthesize the open/closed dichotomy. I am not completely sure how he foresees doing this, but I do know that both sides have a lot to learn from each other.
Disruptive software innovations currently don’t seem to happen int the open source world, but open source does manage to innovate when it comes to their own processes. They manage to scale projects to thousands of participants, have figured out ways of pragmatically dealing with issues of intellectual property (in a way that doesn’t inhibit development) and have created their own tool sets to make them successful at working in dispersed teams (Git being my favorite example).
When we want to change the way we do innovation in a networked world, then we shouldn’t look at the open source world for the content of innovation or the thought leadership, instead we should look at their process.
A lot of the above is still very immature and incoherent thinking. I would therefore love to have a dialog with anybody who could help me deepen my thoughts on these topics.
Finally, to give a quick flavour of all my other posts about Lift 11, the following word cloud based on those posts:
I have been involved in organizing a workshop on capability building in organizations hosted on my employer‘s premises (to be held on October 20th). We have tried to get together an interesting group of professionals who will think about the future state of capability building and how to get there. All participants have done a little bit of pre-work by using a single page to answer the following question:
What/who inspires you in your vision/ideas for the future state of capability building in organizations?
Unfortunately I cannot publish the one-pagers (I haven’t asked their permission yet), but I have disaggregated all their input into a list of Delicious links, a YouTube playlist and a GoodReads list (for which your votes are welcome). My input was as follows:
We don’t understand ourselves well enough. If we did, the world would not be populated with bad design (and everything might look like Disney World). The principles that we use for designing our learning interventions are not derived from a deep understanding of the humand mind and its behavioural tendencies, instead it is often based on simplistic and unscientific methodologies. How can we change this? First, everybody should read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Next, we can look at Hans Monderman (accessible through the book Traffic) to understand the influence of our surroundings on our behaviour. Then we have to try and understand ourselves better by reading Medina’s Brain Rules (or check out the excellent site) and books on evolutionary psychology (maybe start with Pinker’s How the Mind Works). Finally we must never underestimate what we are capable of. Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment is a great reminder of this fact.
The mental model that 99% of the people in this world have for how people learn is still informed by an implied behaviourist learning theory. I like contrasting this with George Siemens’ connectivism and Papert’s constructionism (I love this definition). These theories are actually put into practice (the proof of the pudding is in the eating): Siemens and Stephen Downes (prime sense-maker and a must-read in the educational technology world) have been running multiple massive online distributed courses with fascinating results, whereas Papert’s thinking has inspired the work on Sugarlabs (a spinoff of the One Laptop per Child project).
Open and transparent
Through my work for Moodle I have come to deeply appreciate the free software philosophy. Richard Stallman‘s four freedoms are still relevant in this world of tethered appliances. Closely aligned to this thinking is the hacker mentality currently defended by organizations like the Free Software Foundation, the EFF, Xs4all and Bits of Freedom. Some of the open source work is truly inspirational. My favourite example is the Linux based operating system Ubuntu, which was started by Mark Shuttleworth and built on top of the giant Debian project. “Open” thinking is now spilling over into other domains (e.g. open content and open access). One of the core values in this thinking is transparency. I actually see huge potential for this concept as a business strategy.
Jay Cross knows how to adapt his personal business models on the basis of what technology can deliver. I love his concept of the unbook and think the way that the Internet Time Alliance is set up should enable him to have a sustainable portfolio lifestyle (see The Age of Unreason by the visionary Charles Handy). The people in the Internet Time Alliance keep amplifying each other and keep on tightening their thinking on Informal Learning, now mainly through their work on The Working Smarter Fieldbook.
Games for learning
We are starting to use games to change our lives. “Game mechanics” are showing up in Silicon Valley startups and will enter mainstream soon too. World Without Oil made me understand that playing a game can truly be a transformational experience and Metal Gear Solid showed me that you can be more engaged with a game than with any other medium. If you are interested to know more I would start by reading Jesse Schell’s wonderful The Art of Game Design, I would keep following Nintendo to be amazed by their creative take on the world and I would follow the work that Jane McConigal is doing.
The web as a driver of change
Yes, I am believer. I see that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people work and live together. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everybody is the best introduction to this new world that I have found so far. Benkler says that “technology creates feasibility spaces for social practice“. Projects like Wikipedia and Kiva would not be feasible without the current technology. Wired magazine is a great way to keep up with these developments and Kevin Kelly (incidentally one of Wired’s cofounders) is my go-to technology philosopher: Out of Control was an amazingly prescient book and I can’t wait for What Technology Wants to appear in my mailbox.
I would of course be interested in the things that I (we?) have missed. Your thoughts?
A couple of weeks back I was interviewed by Amir Elion who was a guest editor for an Israeli magazine on Human Resources. The interview has now been published (if you can read Hebrew it is available online for free). The publisher has kindly given me permission to publish the English version of the interview on my blog. It might give people a better idea of what I do every day.
Please tell us about yourself, what you do, and how you got there?
Basically I studied to be a philosopher and a physical education teacher. I taught high school children in a difficult neighborhood in Amsterdam. I got very interested in educational technology that I could use personally to support my teaching. This was for project based work, where children had to do real assignments for an external party. I needed educational technology to support the process. That’s when I got to know Moodle, an online course management system. I was one of the first people to use Moodle in the world, and the first one to use it in the Netherlands, for sure. I translated it into Dutch, and started consulting around Moodle. I got picked up by the Dutch Moodle Partner to work as a consultant. Shell was one of our clients, and I made a switch to Shell, to become a blended learning advisor. Blended learning is one of the core strategies of Shell HR. I did a lot of “evangelising” about the strategy, trying to give people a nuanced view of what blended learning really means, and that it’s not just a move from the classroom to an online system but slightly more complex than that. Following this, I moved to a new job as Innovation Manager in Shell’s Learning Technologies team.
And what does that mean?
I am actually not a part of the HR function, but of the global IT function. In the IT function that is responsible for HR applications, I work for what we call a Business Systems Manager (BSM). We have one for Learning, one for Talent, and one for Payments and Remuneration. And each of these BSMs has an Application Portfolio Manager, somebody who is aware of all the applications in their landscape and tries to manage these sensibly – usually by reducing the amount of applications, to rationalize. And learning is the only BSM that has an innovation role. Actually it makes sense, because in learning the tools that you use actually affect the process. My example is always Payments – the fact that we use a particular tool to process our payroll, doesn’t affect when and how much salary I receive, and how I get it. So what the systems do is protect the integrity, and the correctness, make sure things are automated and that costs a relatively low. But with learning – the applications that you have in your portfolio change the outcome of the learning. So they actually change the learning process, the learning events. The more the tools are on the delivery side of things, the more this is the case (less so for administrative things). That is why I have to keep abreast of new learning technologies, because they are so entwined with what you can do with the learning function itself and how you deliver your learning.
What is it I really do? – I manage an innovation funnel. We have an innovation process which takes ideas and develops them. This crosses each part of the business and includes innovation around drilling, refining and retailing, for example. It’s kind of a classic funnel idea, where on the one end of the funnel you have a lot of ideas that you investigate minimally, that other people can give to you. Then there are certain stage gates, with documentation and more research that you need to do for each opportunity to progress through the stages. It’s quite a structured way of doing things. A lot of stages in the funnel have to do with doing small Proofs of Concepts, pilots, in kind of “micro-ecologies” of the real situations. So you would always try something out before you do a global rollout. By doing it this way, when you are ready to implement in a larger fashion, you should have already answered the most difficult questions around implementation.
So you take this global innovation structure, with its stage gates, and apply it to learning technologies?
Correct. And my direct partner in doing this is the Learning Strategy and Innovation Manager. In the HR Learning function there is somebody who tries to do innovation from a learning perspective, more than from a technology perspective – and we share our funnel together. Of course, most learning innovations have a technology component, but there are innovations in there that are purely process innovations around learning that are also managed with the same process.
So looking at the structured Innovation processes at Shell, how do you encourage employees to support these efforts – to submit ideas, to participate in the pilots or gate reviews, to be positive towards change?
First of all, I have noticed personally that “Innovation” seems to be the current Buzzword in the business world. It’s all about innovation now – how to do it, how not to do it or whatever.
I have read a book a little while back, I think it was Innovation to The Core, that argued that with innovation we should reach a similar point which we reached with Quality management about 20-25 years ago. It started with the car manufacturers in Japan, that made quality management an integrated part of the company – and not something that you have a Quality Manager to do – but you make everybody’s responsibility. I agree with the sentiment that companies should be innovative, and should keep innovating, and like we as people should keep learning – companies should do the same. In that sense Learning and Innovating could become synonyms. It should be a lens that you put on everything. The fact that I have “Innovation Manager” in my title is actually not a good sign of how mature we are with innovating. If we were more mature it wouldn’t be the case. It is a good sign because it is better than what we had – we are moving in the right direction.
If you look in what is happening our company – first of all our CEO is driving a couple of behaviors very strongly, expecting everybody to take those behaviors on board – all his senior managers, etc. And one of those is innovation. Whenever we have a speech by the CEO, there are three things that he will always talk about – the first has always been for Shell – Safety (especially of course now – after the BP oil spill – but it didn’t really change because it was already a big part of the culture), and he nearly always talks about having an external focus and about innovation.
So that would be a top-down approach to innovation?
Yes – that is a top down approach to the innovation effort. At the same time, there are been some processes that have existed for a long time in Shell. One of them is called “Game Changer”. Anybody who has an idea which they think can change our business, can hand it in, in Game Changer. There is a committee who looks into these things and writes back to people. The committee has the authority to hand out an initial set of money to good ideas. These ideas can be developed further with that money, and perhaps make the next step. So that can be a grass-roots approach to innovation.
And what does the person who suggested the idea get from it?
Usually that person is very involved in the implementation. Often that person would be made free from their regular work and be able to work as a project lead or in developing these ideas. I don’t think there is any real monetary reward – it’s more that you can go in a direction that you’d like to go.
That’s interesting. And does it really happen?
Oh, it really happens. Because there is quite a significant budget, ands some really good ideas have come from it in the past. A lot of them are on the technical side of our business – around engineering, sustainable energies, etc. It gives people the chance to experiment in a sanctioned way
The other drivers are people like me – there are a lot more people like me dispersed throughout the business in different locations. I try to do two things – I try to first look outside – so I see what technologies are out there, in the learning technology world. I try to translate those into what would work for Shell. I noticed that there are lots of Web technologies out there that aren’t even developed with learning in mind, but if you “translate” them in a smart way, they can be very beneficial for learning. For example – the way that new companies do their customer support, or what universities are doing around their teaching – and try to adapt that into the business world. That’s the external focus of what I try to do. When I find something that I think has potential then my job is to find some stakeholder inside Shell who’s willing to experiment with it. I can’t experiment by myself because I don’t have the customers and I don’t have the resources. I need to find a partner somewhere in the business who’s willing to work with me.
A recent example is something relatively simple – the idea of capturing lectures. We still have a lot of face-to-face education, and we will continue you to have it. But none of it is captured (by video). So we’ve brought in this system which is widely used by universities to capture both the speaker with a camera, and their presentation – this allows you to playback both synchronized and skip to different slides. A thing like that – you find a customer inside Shell – in one learning center, who has a need for this kind of stuff. The other way around happens as well, where there are people inside the company that have technology related problems that they cannot solve with our current offerings of learning g landscape, and you try to find a solution that could help them. It goes both ways. You are in a kind of a broker role, and at the same time really look ahead. There is a bit of tension because I am supposed to look 3-5 years ahead of time, but my appraisal is annual.
So you have to find the mix of short term and long term things?
Yes. You have to be creative in how you deliver. You have to be creative in where you find budgets, in that sense quite challenging.
So this would be the other channel – innovation brokers throughout the organization each in their field (as you are in Learning Technologies), that drive innovation – connected of course with business needs, and with an outlook they see a few years ahead?
Do you have links with other innovation people in other fields in Shell?
I work with the general Information Technology innovation people as well. We have a new business. We used to have a downstream business and an upstream business, and a Gas business. What we’ve done is put the Gas into Upstream and we’ve created a new business that’s called “Projects and Technology” – that does our big projects. This allows our upstream and downstream businesses to leverage each others strong points. The head of Innovation of Shell is at this new business, and they have an innovation team. They have a larger budget so I am in touch with them to make sure we are aligned, and occasionally there are things that have a learning aspect but are bigger than just learning. One example would be the Serious Gaming where if we create 3D models of our plants, we can create learning scenarios in them using a gaming engine. But you can also imagine that a lot of other processes in the business could benefit from having this kind of information. For example – we’ve done some research into decommissioning plants using 3D models to see how to do it quickly and efficiently. That’s when we find them and ask them to co-sponsor some ideas or maybe even drive it a bit more than we drive it ourselves.
This is a general HR magazine. Your examples are related to Learning due to your role, but perhaps you can share some other HR stories of innovation – i.e. in recruiting, performance management, etc.
The one thing in which Shell is different perhaps from other global companies is in how global the rollout of our performance management is. I don’t know to what level that’s the case at Motorola, but in Shell literally everybody has the same goals and performance appraisal. The goals for your year are in a central system. From the top down you can see a complete overview. And it really flows down from the top. The first person every year to write their goals for the year is the CEO. Then the next level of management writes theirs. Then their people write something that reflects those. It gets more and more specified rolling down from the top. I think that’s quite an interesting way of doing it. I haven’t seen it globalized to that extent anywhere else (but maybe I haven’t looked a lot).
Another thing I like is that everybody has an individual development plan. This is really part of the manager’s responsibility that people fulfill their individual development plan. It goes even so far that you can use it like a leverage point with your manager to do the things that you want to do as an employee.
I think we also have some innovative things in the way that we set up our HR practices and services, but I am not sure how that is done.
Of course we have global competence profiles, and jobs match these competence profiles. In fact all learning should be geared towards filling competence gaps. Our learning framework is really based on a competence framework.
In my understanding, what you describe could be called an application of best practices in performance management, in learning management, in employee development, which is of course very difficult to achieve. It’s good to let others know that it does work if you really do it. Can you think of stories of going “beyond the best practices”? I mean – you have the organizational structures and the way you do things – but do you “shake” them a bit and make things work not only according to paradigms – when it is called for and it’s worthwhile?
If I am very honest – I think that’s a difficult point for a company like Shell. Because exactly as you are saying – we completely focus on best practice. So that means that in everything we do we look at external benchmarks, and we try to be top quartile – the best 25% in those categories. What that means is that it’s relatively hard to do something “out of the box” at a global level. Because whenever you want to do anything, the first questions will be – “What other companies have already done it?”, “Can we prove that’s it effective?”. In the learning technologies and knowledge management fields there have been certain practices that were innovative when they started but are now best practices. Shell is one of the first companies to have a truly global Wiki implementation. We have an internal Wikipedia, using the same software as Wikipedia – it has about 70,000 users and 30,000 articles – it’s a real big and incredibly useful Wiki that has a lot of business value into it.
The one thing that I think that Shell is innovative about is in its complete focus of alignment of learning and work. We focus more and more on On the Job Training, on learning events that are completely relevant to somebody’ s work. The way that learning events are designed – they always have work-related assignments to them, and most of the require supervisor involvement. You need to agree with your supervisor on what you need to do. Learning is often integrated with knowledge management – through the Wiki for example.
It’s not just a course. You have to think about application and about follow-up…
Yes. And it’s part of the standard knowledge management process. Not a course that stands in itself. A part of it is alive with the business.
That’s sound very good. Could you compare how things were 3 years ago, to something that’s happening today and how you see it in 3 years’ time? (Possibly in learning or learning technologies because that’s where your focus is).
If you look at learning 3 years ago, and is still the case a bit (but less so)…there are different ways of delivering learning. It could be face to face, fully virtual learning, a-synchronous, synchronous. We have email based courses where you automatically get a weekly email with an assignment and some reading to do, etc.
There’s really a broad spectrum in the delivery of learning, but everything is still delivered from a course paradigm and from the idea of competence profiles. What you are starting to see is the course paradigm is starting to crumble a bit. So it’s called informal learning or on the job learning. I think you will see (and we are starting to see it here in the way we are architecting our next steps in our learning landscape), is smaller, modular content pieces; A different perspective of what we consider to be a learning event, what things can be seen as a learning event. More of a “Pull” idea – learning when you need it, than a “Push” approach. Specific learning event interventions around very current direct business problems – instead of through competencies. Because competency based learning for me has two abstractions. First you have to make sure that your competence framework is a very good reflection of your business, the skills it requires, and their translation into competencies. You hope you’ve done that correctly. Then there’s another abstraction when you create learning that has to match these skills and competencies, and you hope that the learning that you create can produce these competencies. If one of those steps goes wrong so the learning is pointless. What you are seeing more and more is a very direct, shorter event interventions. They will also have a shorter lifespan. This has to translate into your development methodology. So I am really starting to see an increase in how fast the learning function is expected to deliver for less cost – so it has to be cheaper and faster! Those requirements are starting to drive change in the way things are done.
If we are moving away from the competency based model, can you predict or imagine what model we are heading towards?
Yes. I think we will go to a simplified competence model. Because a competence model with the amount of functions like Shell has is an incredibly complicated structure that offers room to be simplified. What we are really working on in the next years is a high quality learning typology. The different business-related things where learning interventions could be a good solution. And they are very different, because on the one end there is a big need for “Certified Knowledge” (for instance – airplane pilots that are assessed yearly, and have to prove that they have the right skills and knowledge). That kind of certification levels will be seen more and more in our business. I am sure there will be legislation after the BP oil disaster that will push us even more towards having certified geo-engineers. That’s an aspect learning will have to cover, and it requires a very different solution than helping people implement change in the business as quickly as possible. I think a lot of learning will be related to projects – and that’s a different part of the learning typology. If the learning function can help get a factory online in 4 years instead of in 5 years – that’s a massive cost savings and business results improvement for a company like us. I think there will be a lot of focus on that.
Thank you very much for this interview. It was really interesting to hear these things.
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”.