The Lightbulb and Social Business


Can you spot the difference between the two photos?

There are probably quite a few you can identify, but the thing I want to highlight is the use of electric light in the second, modern factory example.

Its interesting to reflect on this and the perceived hype around social business and how different experiences point to the need for practical and pragmatic use cases. The main argument is that we need to integrate social tools into existing workflow.

Back in the early phase of the industrial revolution, factories were messy, dark places because the physical work environment was built around the constraints of their belt and pulley driven mechanised systems. There was no prior model of employment to set expectations on the impact on the workers themselves either!

So, my question:

Was it the lightbulb that revolutionised the industrial workplace or electricity?

My observations:

  • At the moment I get the impression we are focused on the lightbulb. The social media activitists are crying, “Install lightbulbs!” Its no surprise we will expect confused reactions and failure.
  • If that’s the case then you need to be pragmatic. However, don’t ignore the lesson that the electric lightbulb had a broader impact than just lighting the shopfloor – can you leverage that instead?
  • Finally, retro fitting electricity had less of an impact (and take up) than on the businesses that converted entirely to electricity – but this didn’t happen all at once across industry, because it wasn’t economic.

BTW This isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this historical comparison, but for a quick overview of the broader impact of the electric light see this micro-site from the Smithsonian.

Image Credits: Colt’s armory complex – East armory workers CC-BY-NC-SA and Seagate Wuxi China Factory Tour CC-BY.

From HBR Blogs: John Kotter on Hierarchy and Network

The hierarchical organization that we see today was invented in the last century, and it is an incredible invention. It can direct and coordinate the actions of thousands of people making and selling thousands of products or services across thousands of miles, and do so effectively, efficiently, and profitably, week after week after week. If you had told an average citizen in the year 1900 what this structure and those sets of processes were accomplishing everywhere today, they would have thought you daft.

But 20th-century, capital “H” Hierarchy (a sort of hardware) and the managerial processes that run on it (a sort of software) do not handle transformation well. And in a world with an ever-increasing rate of change, it is impossible to thrive without timely transformations. The data, case studies, and personal anecdotes to this effect abound

I’ve written about the history of the hierarchical-organising model and organisational chart the before. Wikipedia has a brief overview of the historical development of management. This is important background for the social business design conversation.

Hat tip to Samuel.

Aleks Krotoski: Parallels between old and new social technologies

Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet was a revelation when I read it. As a cub academic, one of my colleagues in the psychology department – a woman who’s been doing fascinating research on smart homes – recommended it as an “airport read”. I’m very glad I did (although my book group didn’t find it nearly as fascinating and worthy as I did). It felt like stepping into an Infinite Perspective Machine: the hubris that we experience during the hysteria over a contemporary “new” technology often has parallels with previous periods of innovation. Standage places the Internet and the Web in this context.

Briefly, it describes the social changes that we attribute to the online environment, but as they were observed and practiced during the era of the telegraph. One of the phenomena he examines is love “over the wires”.

“During quiet periods… the online interaction really got going, with stories, jokes and local gossip circulated over the wires. According to one account, ‘stories are told, opinions exchanged, and laughs enjoyed, just as if the participants were sitting together at a club.’” (p. 124)

The Victorian Internet is one of my favourite books too (I can’t quite remember when I read it) and this quote that Aleks Krotoski highlights is one I’ve reflected on a bit over the years. I often mention it in presentations about social technology and society.

  • Firstly, the telegraph users were utilising slack in the system to communicate with each other. Remember that the telegraph was charged by the letter and its primary purpose was to transmit information that was delivered to other people, not as an n-way communication channel.
  • Secondly, despite what people say, even just using morse code people were able to create deep and meaningful relationships ‘online’.
  • Thirdly, the community (and particularly the bosses of the telegraph operators) were worried how this technology was corrupting employees.

If this interests you, also think about the humble postcard as a social technology.

Jack Dorsey: The Birth of Twitter

Straight from the horses mouth, how Twitter came about. Love the fact they were sitting on a slide at a kids playing, eating Mexican food, when Jack first pitched the idea to his team (and I never realised the 140 character limit was imposed to reduced their SMS bill).

Also from the past, Michael Arrington wrote at that time:

“There is also a privacy issue with Twttr. Every user has a public page that shows all of their messages. Messages from that person’s extended network are also public. I imagine most users are not going to want to have all of their Twttr messages published on a public website.”

Really…? 😉

Hat tip to Jordan Willms.

From Der Spiegel – Video calling, not so far fetched after all

When Danny Canal starts to speak, conversations at other café tables around him fall silent. Canal, a young man in his early twenties, is doing something that looks almost like magic — he’s talking on the phone without even opening his mouth… Canal, a shipbuilding student from Hamburg, is deaf and he’s currently experiencing a revelation. Since he communicates with his friends mostly in sign language, until recently he didn’t have much use for mobile phones, unless it was for sending text messages.

Even the most skeptical are starting to recognize the magic of video interactions. Grandparents play with faraway grandchildren; divorced fathers do homework with kids who live with their mothers; long-distance couples check in before they go to bed, read to each other or fall asleep with their laptops next to them on the bed.

We’re still not quite at a utopian moment for video calling and video conferencing, but we’ve clearly crossed a chasm. Video calling as a technology is (almost) getting boring, which means for society its about to get interesting.

Of course, as this article highlights, we shouldn’t underplay the importance of technology convergence – such as the Internet, mobile networks, mobile computing and software, like Skype and FaceTime. This explains why its taken more than 70 years for video calling to get anyway near going mainstream.

Hat tip to the Putting People First blog.

“Mostly Harmless” – Wikipedia’s first 10,000 edits (from Boing Boing)

Joseph Reagle, author of the excellent history of Wikipedia, Good Faith Collaboration (review coming soon) sez, “When I wrote my book on Wikipedia’s culture and history, many sources, such as emails from founders, Nupedia-l archives, and (most sadly) the early days of Wikipedia contributions were lost to bit rot. But thanks to a recent discovery of some old log files by Tim Starling, I’ve been able to roughly reconstruct the first 10,000 edits to Wikipedia (about 6 weeks).”

There is probably some good behaviour data to mine here, for those wanting to kick off their own encyclopaedia-style or knowledgebase wiki to imagine what their first 10,000 edits might look like.

Looking at the entry for Australia I was reminded of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

To wiki is obviously human.