These questions apply for all kinds of technology decisions including hardware, software, or even social media and social networking technologies.
Business people do not want to spend money on unnecessary or unhelpful technology, yet are often ill advised when they make technology acquisitions or expenditure.
I often see businesses, both large and small, acquire unnecessary or inappropriate technology for which they will never achieve the projected return on investment. Or, even worse, the ROI is based on the capital costs alone without factoring in other costs such as staff time.
New technology is often proposed by someone you know – a friend or family member, or a business acquaintance or sales person.
Here are a few questions I always ask about new technology before acting:
1) What is it and what does it do?
With this question you can find out how much the person recommending it actually understands. If someone can’t explain what the proposed technology is and what it does in plain English be very suspicious. Seek alternative perspectives if they are unable to answer this question in a way that makes sense. I always say – “if you can’t explain it to someone’s grandmother so she can understand what it is and does then you don’t understand it properly yourself”.
2) How does it work?
Don’t be afraid to openly ask “Can you explain to me how it works?” It is similar to the previous question but digs in more on the functions that it can perform and how it does so. Uncovering assumptions – such as that the proposed technology assumes access to high speed broadband – is critical. These assumptions generally add unanticipated cost to implementation of the solution.
This question also uncovers information about potential extra costs. For instance, if an application is hosted in the cloud (a.k.a. software-as-a-service or SaaS) then you will need likely need an extremely reliable and robust internet connection.
3) How does it make or save money for me?
This is an important question. Often the person suggesting technology for your business does not correctly understand its profit model. The revenue model for your business in relation to the new technology needs to be clear, otherwise calculating the payback period is impossible.
4) How long is that payback period?
Strong and confident off-the-cuff answers to this question are invariably wrong. A sensible answer to this question will depend upon a number of variables, some of which are particular to your business, time and place. I have seen more dodgy payback assertions than I’ve had baked dinners. It’s worth digging into this question and doing a proper ROI analysis.
5) What are the indirect costs of this technology?
Often the focus is on the capital cost of the technology and little consideration is given to the total cost of ownership during the life of the asset. Indirect costs include:
External costs: hardware and software maintenance (a good rule of thumb is 20% of original capital cost annually adjusted for CPI), additional support, ongoing minor enhancement requirements
Internal costs: this is usually the cost of time for staff to look after or use the technology; sometimes the technology adds new tasks that must be considered & often these tasks require some level of technical skill; also often overlooked is the possibility that you will need to take on new staff to run the technology
6) How updateable is this technology?
This is a big question. If there are improvements in the technology will you have to buy a new model or can the existing model be upgraded? Given how fast technology innovation cycles move these days, being able to upgrade or expand the technology is key to having a decent useful life for the asset.
7) Who else uses it & how do they use it?
If nobody else is using the technology yet then there needs to be compelling answers to all of the other questions. Further, if there are no other local users (i.e. in your country) then the support infrastructure might not be there ready to offer effective support. There is nothing worse than the support help phone line being in a timezone that is opposite to your own.
The few times that I have implemented either a beta version or version 1 of a technology in business there was a bad outcome due a variety of problems. Usually this manifested itself in the form of cost and time overruns on the project. Consequently, unless there is an extremely compelling business driver, I tend to avoid betas or version 1 of anything.
Just travelled back from Melbourne and sat next to an extremely spry gentleman of 71 years who spent the entire trip reading on his Kindle.
He told me how much he loved this new way of reading. That it can hold 1500 books and he only recharges it infrequently, less than once a month.
As a frequent traveller he enjoys the convenience of his great collection of books in a compact package and at a reasonable price per book. And he’s found that it’s good to read both indoors and outdoors.
I felt quite old-fashioned with a thick book on my lap next to this new-fangled gadget.
As this elderly gentleman said:
“the book industry is in real trouble, it’s not like we’ll stop reading but this will kill the book industry as we know it”
Thus we see again a change in the nature of our media of production is revolutionising existing industries.
We have already seen the changes sweep the music industry. Shifting us from physical objects that we bought and took home to virtual objects that we store on our mobile phones.
Now we are about to see the same kind of revolution sweep through our books.
Even this elderly gentlemen can see this. It will be interesting to see what futile rearguard actions the book industry puts up in resistance to this tide of change.
Of these I will concentrate on social computing and the next generation internet as they are driving a lot of change that is impacting on the education sector.
But probably the biggest change over the past thirty years is the rate of change. Once it was completely acceptable to wait a week for a letter to arrive, to ponder one’s response for a few days and then write and dispatch a letter by post. Then the fax machine changed all of that. Now we receive emails immediately followed by a phone call asking why we have not yet responded.
The pace of change is increasing and has increased substantially over the past 30 years. Look at the mobile phone as an example of this. From the time the telephone was invented until the mid-1980s it remained recognisably the same device. Now, to a person who last saw a telephone in 1980, the iPhone or SmartPhone would not even seem to be in the same family of devices. And, indeed they are not. The modern mobile phone is really converged computing, telecommunications and entertainment device. They even have more memory than my first server.
The next thing to consider is the revolution of the internet. Originally conceived as a bulwark against nuclear war and as a way for academic researchers to communicate it has reshaped the world. Now many people use the internet every day as an integral part of their lives – for sending email, chatting online, shopping, entertainment and business.
Along with this growth in the pragmatic use of the internet, social networks are also becoming mainstream; with Pew Research from 2009 showing 46% of US adults have used a social network at least once, and 27% used one yesterday.
This area of social computing has been the real area of growth and the data clearly shows how social computing is changing how ordinary people share, communicate and interact.
Some examples of these changes include:
In the past email and search engine internet traffic exceeded that of social networks. However, in December 2009 search traffic and social network traffic approached parity in Australia for the first time.
Also previously in late 2007, social network traffic surpassed that from email in the UK for the first time.
And adult website traffic was also overtaken by social networking traffic for the first time in late 2008.
The important thing to note here is that the behaviours of searching, sending emails or checking out p~rn did not change. What changed is the location in which it happens. Thus if you are in Facebook and so are all of your friends it simply does not make sense to leave the application to use another email client.
There has also been development of niche networks for different interest groups. For business there are LinkedIn and Plaxo (amongst many others) and Facebook is winning the war as the de facto social network for everyone else.
Another interesting characteristic of this landscape is that ordinary people are creating and participating online in ways that were once unthinkable. Without specialised technical assistance people are creating videos to share on YouTube or Viddler; they are creating blogs on WordPress, Blogger or Typepad; they are sharing photos on Facebook or Flickr. Remixing music or visual materials is rife –questions of provenance and copyright remain unanswered. Video downloads, online shopping, banking and travel arrangements are becoming the norm.
Against this backdrop various researchers have mapped the generations:
GI Generation aged 73+
Silent Generation aged 64-72
Older Boomers aged 55-63
Younger Boomer aged 45-54
Gen X aged 33-44
Gen Y aged 18-32
And, while the notion of dividing up the population on the basis of age cohorts is useful for analytical purposes, it ignores some simple facts about people. In each age cohort is a bell curve for change adoption – with some members as early adopters, the mass as early & late majority, followed by the laggards. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that mere membership of an age cohort determines a person’s relationship to technology or propensity to adopt change. Rather the determining factor will become one’s willingness to be connected.
This willingness and desire to be hyperconnected via technology will become the new generation gap. A great example of this is the loose confederation of people who meetup on Thursday mornings on the northside of Sydney for coffee. Most of them met originally on Twitter, decided that they liked each other and thought it would be good to catch up informally for coffee.
What has happened is that this has created a vibrant group of people who know each other in real life now. Business ideas are exchanged, family and social tips are shared and other connections are made and broadened. More can be seen at their Posterous site at www.nscm.posterous.com .There are now many similar groups all around Australia – I have attended them in Perth and Brisbane.
What is interesting here is that online and offline activities are blurring and the boundaries between public and private are no longer clear. The conflicts between the connected and the unconnected are already being seen in schools, colleges and workplaces around the world. Just try asking members of your class to turn off their mobile phones to test this hypothesis.
The social implications for all of this are astounding. They reverberate across all areas of life from business to education to socialising.
This technology and the way it is being used now is creating massive interconnections between people and enabling the creation of groups and communities. This kind of community building and collaboration is similar to that we experienced when living in smaller villages rather than in large cities.
But think on this – the children of today will stay in loose contact with every group of people the meet throughout their lives from kindergarten onwards. It is going to be a challenge to manage over a lifetime. The only way to manage these masses of loose connections is by chunking them up into niches. This is where richer technologies that enable this to happen seamlessly based on use rather than manually based on effort.
Another feature of this interconnected world we live in is that we no longer need to wait. Delayed gratification is becoming a thing of the past in many respects. For example in the area of entertainment we used to wait for a movie to come out or wait until our favourite television show was broadcast. But now with the advent of decent broadband and streaming video there is no more waiting. Anyone can watch what they want when they want. And they do exactly that, as anyone with teenagers in the house with a broadband connection knows all too well.
However, against the backdrop of this explosion in connections, information and entertainment at our fingertips we remain unreconstructed human beings. This remains similar to our cave dwelling days.
We still retain our tribal brains that work best in small groups the size of a basketball team. Our brains are wired to deal with small chunks of information – like the magic number seven, which is the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory.
Also we are constrained in our ability to handle a great many close relationships. Many cite Dunbar’s number which is the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person.
Imagine how many contacts you would have if everyone you had ever met since kindergarten was a friend on Facebook. This is precisely what is happening to our young people today.
This means that we need to chunk up all of those massive networks we collect so as to manage them over time. It also means that we are maintaining increasingly loose ties with larger numbers of people.
Ultimately we are social creatures and want to create social networks either on or offline. I often use the example of Facebook, where ordinary people of all ages are routinely creating affiliation groups. These online groups are even creating real life relationships – for example the Twitter community in Sydney often meets up physically with most of us having met online originally.
Another element to the mix is the amount of information we are required to process everyday – email, news, social networks, entertainment, etc. We can no longer store all of this information in our heads.
This is not merely a gratuitous picture of Brad Pitt. It harks back to a time in the past when our societies used epic poetry to store and transmit important information, but now it is all in nearline or online storage. For example, many of us no longer recall the phone numbers of our nearest and dearest since they are stored so handily in our mobile phones.
Also the question of how we are going to retrieve a lot of that information in the future is open to question. I’ve got a floppy disk at home with some interesting photos of a data centre I built a few years ago, but no longer have any technology to access that information.
So where does all of this put us as educators? There are some who talk of a nirvana where all students are self directed learners and we are coaches and facilitators. But I suspect that those people have not met some of my students.
Let’s look back to the web 2.0 meme map from O’Reilly’s Foo Camp a few years ago. It clearly talks about all of the things that have become part of social computing (and this includes social media and social networking).
The following is an overview of the Web 2.0 Design Patterns which will impact upon the future (in general and for education):
The Long Tail Small sites make up the bulk of the internet’s content; narrow niches make up the bulk of internet’s the possible applications. Therefore:Leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head.
Data is the Next Intel Inside Applications are increasingly data-driven. Therefore: For competitive advantage, seek to own a unique, hard-to-recreate source of data.
Users Add Value The key to competitive advantage in internet applications is the extent to which users add their own data to that which you provide. Therefore: Don’t restrict your “architecture of participation” to software development. Involve your users both implicitly and explicitly in adding value to your application.
Network Effects by Default Only a small percentage of users will go to the trouble of adding value to your application. Therefore: Set inclusive defaults for aggregating user data as a side-effect of their use of the application.
Some Rights Reserved Intellectual property protection limits re-use and prevents experimentation. Therefore: When benefits come from collective adoption, not private restriction, make sure that barriers to adoption are low. Follow existing standards, and use licenses with as few restrictions as possible. Design for “hackability” and “remixability.”
The Perpetual BetaWhen devices and programs are connected to the internet, applications are no longer software artifacts, they are ongoing services. Therefore: Don’t package up new features into monolithic releases, but instead add them on a regular basis as part of the normal user experience. Engage your users as real-time testers, and instrument the service so that you know how people use the new features.
Cooperate, Don’t Control Web 2.0 applications are built of a network of cooperating data services. Therefore: Offer web services interfaces and content syndication, and re-use the data services of others. Support lightweight programming models that allow for loosely-coupled systems.
Software Above the Level of a Single Device The PC is no longer the only access device for internet applications, and applications that are limited to a single device are less valuable than those that are connected. Therefore: Design your application from the get-go to integrate services across handheld devices, PCs, and internet servers.
The social web has developed a set of values based on that original web 2.0 meme map and this Wordle map shows some of those enacted in social computing at present.
But teaching has its own longstanding set of values. And today we are seeing a conflict between those two sets of values in classrooms and lecture halls around the world.
But first a few comments on the nature of these new tools. These tools are a great enabler for minority groups. It levels the playing field for them in many ways. However, it is well to note, as Grady Booch once said: “a fool with a tool is still a fool”.
Our learning institutions are sometimes slow to change and adapt to new ways. On the other hand teachers are often the ones in vanguard embracing change and pushing the boundaries. The institutions of learning in this country are pretty conservative and slow to adopt new fangled technology, usually quite sensibly on the basis of cost. But now with web 2.0 social computing and open source the main arguments against new technology adoption are being destroyed.
Individual teachers are embracing change, but sometimes when I meet these visionary folks they seem more like revolutionary cells of the vanguard than part of the institutional mainstream. But the learners will eventually force our hands by disengaging if we do not respond to the shifts in their cultural practices.
This leads into another area of contention, that of boundaries. These new tools are creating disputes about the appropriate times and places where it is appropriate to use the technology (for example, have you ever tried to get a Gen Y class to turn off their mobile phones?). Also questions about the content and authority of information created or shared. Think about the endless discussions about plagiarism and the appropriateness of Wikipedia as a research authority.
We are dealing with a radically different set of expectations – from our staff, administrators and students (or consumers). Many of these people were socialised in the old non-digital world; while others are digital natives.
As part of my preparation for this session I’ve been trying to distil my thoughts on the implications of new technology on culture and learning. And for me it has all come down to sensemaking as the purpose of education. Dan Russell provides a nice definition of sensemaking: “Sensemaking is in many ways a search for the right organization or the right way to represent what you know about a topic. It’s data collection, analysis, organization and performing the task.”
To a certain extent I think that these changes mean we need to become co-participants in the learning experience. Become facilitators of the process rather than the experts. This does not mean that our experience or empirical knowledge is not valuable. We need to establish mutual respect and open dialogue. And luckily now we have the technological tools to facilitate that dialogue.
It is going to be an interesting balancing act between those different sets of expectations. Defining boundaries in a hyperconnected world is a challenge, but it is worth remembering that interesting discoveries are made at the boundaries of the currently known world. Some of the tools to help with this sense-making process are to embrace the values of web 2.0 as part of classroom practice.
But the challenges to the authority of the teacher and of the institution are not only coming from students and society in general. They are also coming from competitors.
By this I mean the institutions that are subverting traditional ideas of the university or college and putting their intellectual property out online for free. The institutions doing this include the august (e.g. Stanford, MIT) as well as the ambitious (e.g. USQ) as Lifehacker so kindly lists.
Other challenges are coming because of the radical transparency that the web enables. Here I’m thinking of things like Rate My Teacher and Rate My Professor. No more hiding from bad appraisals by students it’s all out in the open now. But looking on the bright side it’s happening to kittens as well.
All of this brings us tremendous opportunities as both a society and as educators. It seems like we’re not in control any more. But I do question if the control we once had was merely an illusion. And I wonder if this new world might not be a healthier one for all of us?
The biggest shift is that we are dealing with connected individuals who are at the centre of a web of networks enabled and mediated by technology. This will give rise to power shifts that we will need to live through and embrace in order to survive.
Note: all data mentioned above is detailed in my slides here
What Is Web 2.0.: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software, by Tim O’Reilly, 09/30/2005
I really enjoyed the opportunity to present to the TAFE teachers of the Western Sydney Insititute recently about social computing and its implications for education. Slides follow and more detailed notes will be posted shortly.
It was a fascinating discussion – so many interesting ideas to consider:
What happens when our real and virtual worlds collide? And how will we live in this hyper-connected world? In part three of our “Future of” series, The Scoop is joined by Mark Pesce, futurist and ABC New Inventors judge; Kate Carruthers, a business and technology strategist; and Ross Dawson, futurist, author, speaker and chairman of Advanced Human Technologies.
Startup Barcamp Sydney was on yesterday and I managed to drop in. It was held at one of my favourite venues for unconferences – ATP Innovations– and it might possibly be the first barcamp to feature fresh coconut juice in the shell.
Due to other commitments I was only able to stay for the morning sessions – but saw some really good quality presentations from Brian Menzies (@BrianMenzies); Joseph Renzi (@josephrenzi) and Matt Jones (@socialalchemy).
Major kudos to the un-organisers – including @davidsoul & @ryancross – it was a good event. Reading through the Twitter stream made me wish I’d been able to stay for the afternoon sessions.
I also gave a little talk about Trade offs, balance, support and Startups. It came about through a realisation that most of my friends are startup junkies. Also I had come to notice the sheer number of broken relationships (across families, friendships and partnerships) in the startup community. Upon consideration, it seemed to me that startups are not so much about technology or the ideas – they are about people and relationships.
The slides are up on Slideshare. The key message was that startups don’t leave much room for work life balance & that people really need to weigh this up before they decide to undertake the startup journey.
Here’s a little quote from one of my Gen Y friends on my Facebook wall today:
“I won’t ever pay for normal news content ever again full stop. If i wanted to subscribe to something niche likes financial markets pieces etc, then potentially yes, but even then i would discerning. I think he needs to get with the program. Old empire = dead. “
Clearly a sample of one in this instance, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. Wonder how this is all going to work out for Rupert?
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
It is easy to look at a statement like this and poke fun. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!
But as I have said on many occasions – innovation always comes unexpectedly & from the periphery. Very often the innovation is not a completely new technology, rather it is a new way of using or applying existing technology. The iPhone is a good example of this phenomenon – it is still a mobile phone, yet it changes the very playing field for mobile phones & computers in important ways.
But Watson’s quote shares a common feature with many technology predictions. Based upon then current knowledge of existing business models, technology and applications those predictions are often right at the point in time they are made.
For example, how many people in the world really needed a computer at home that looked like this one?
When Thomas Watson made his comment regarding the number of computers in the world, he had no mental map of a world where a computer could fit into your pocket or be used on your lap while watching television.
For Watson the computer he referred to was something like the British Colossus computer or the American Harvard Mark 1 – these were physically huge machines that were designed to assist with decryption of coded messages during World War II. Machines of this kind were not needed in large numbers across the world, and their cost to build, use and maintain was very high. Thus Watson’s statement from1943 was apt for its time. And he was unable to imagine some of the future improvements in technology, like transistors, that enable us to have computers in every home (and soon in every pocket or handbag).
Predicting technology futures is a funny old thing to do. When an innovation is revealed it often seems obvious, except that it was not obvious until you saw it.
The other challenge with predicting technology futures is that people change in their expectations of what is helpful or desirable. If we had explained Facebook or Twitter to an ordinary person back 1997 they would probably have thought it a completely mad idea. And, with the technology available to us in 1997, it would likely have been a bad user experience too.
But in 2009 Facebook seems like a completely reasonable thing for many ordinary people to use on a regular basis. I keep wondering what the next big thing will be – I’ve got some ideas. But my suspicion remains, that like Twitter, when I hear of it first it will seem either stupid or irrelevant. Then, only gradually will it dawn that this new technology is changing the way we think and behave, or that it is shifting our expectations of technology and people in everyday life.
Any potential sponsors should get in touch with the the un-organisers and let them know via email.
One innovation that I’m really keen on for this Barcamp is the Think Tank room. The Think Tank room is a small room with no projector and no tech – just enough room for a small group of people discussing ideas. And what better ideas to discuss than ideas about the future. For some more background on this idea check out the Barcamp Sydney blog.