Networks Thinking: Adapting for Complexity

These are the notes, slides and suggested further reading for the lecture I’m giving today at Warwick Business School as part of its Complexity, Management & Network Thinking business module entitled Networks Thinking: Adapting for Complexity.

Introduction

Networks became a focus for me about seven years ago, as I began to look at the effect that social networks and the web were having on the industries I was working in, marketing communications and media. The more I learned about networks, the more it seemed to me that they were incredibly important in re-thinking how our business worked – the business of attracting attention, essentially – and that they were important both as the cause and context of disruption we were experiencing (and would continue to experience for some years to come).

When it came to media and marketing, channels were being replaced (displaced, disrupted) by networks as the dominant model. The implications were profound for industries that had been built on building big channels, for big audiences with big advertisements and big budgets attached.

At iCrossing, the digital agency which gave me a home and let me develop a social media and content practice, we started re-designing the whole process of brand communications, from research through to measurement, with three principles

  1. Understand your networks
  2. Be useful to your networks
  3. Be present in your networks

It became clear very quickly, that once you started to adapt your customer communications to the new reality of networks, you started to look at the rest of the business very differently and that the impact of networks, the need to adapt to the age of networks, was going to be felt throughout the organisation. Networks were disrupting the existing media and communications models so much that soon politics, commerce, culture and society as a whole would begin to feel its effects.

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Networks are a model for managing complexity

Some of the topics and themes addressed in the talk include…

  • Embracing complexity
  • Scales from individual, to team, to division to team…
  • Understand networks (& then your networks)
  • Develop organisational and personal networks literacy
  • Networks thinking: design for networks
  • Beginning to lay down principles
  • As well as understanding… your networks… principles…
  • Presence first, process second: more important to be in play and prepared…

Sources cited

Recommended reading (some already cited as sources):

Recommended blogs

 

 

 

The big lie of always-on, multi-tasking culture: “We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.”

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“We think we’re thinking faster, but actually we’re slowing down.” Caroline Webb, Partner at McKinsey & Co.

Following on from my last post, where I mentioned the brilliant “For Your Information” episode of Peter Day’s BBC series In Business in the context of advertising business models, I’d like to look at the other strand of the personal information theme in the programme.

Caroline Webb of McKinsey & Co, was introduced to discuss issues about information overload and its impact of personal productivity and executive teams, following on from the article she and Derek Dean wrote for McKinsey Quarterly, Recovering from Information Overload (free registration required):

In my talk  at TEDx Brighton on the skills we need to develop to use the web effectively, I started from the point of view that information overload and distraction were two symptoms of a syndrome of inefficiency and mis-use of the web in our work. We need to make sure the web is working for us, and to do that we need to develop an understanding of networks, better habits of sharing, a sense of when to use our focus and attention in different ways and design more effective work-flows that took advantage of the way the web works.

McKinsey’s raising of this issue adds authority to a meme that’s been growing for some time, with posts like Declaring Email Bankruptcy etc.

In fact it puts me in mind of hopeful posts like E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago from BusinessWeek in 2005, when web 2.0 was just becoming an idea with real currency. It reminds us that the a yet unrealised hope for the social web was to help us work smarter, not just generate new opportunities for advertising.

In 2011, email isn’t dead – in fact it is still the centre of many people’s working days –  and a range of other messaging options from Twitter to Basecamp updates can all add to rather solve the problems of overload and distraction. It isn’t even a case of us vs. the machines, it is a case that the culture we have evolved in using these things is corrosive and unproductive.

When Caroline Webb talks about an executive sending an email to a wide team and everyone leaping to reply on their BlackBerrys, whatever the hour, whether they are on holiday or in the car, the image that I can’t get out of my head is animals in cages reacting to a bell.

Like Pavlov’s dog we’ve allowed our reward centres and anxieties to be tuned to make us jump at the sound of a smartphone vibrating. The smartest, highest trained people we can get to run our companies are reduced to nervous monkeys.

Here’s a collection of insights from the BBC programme and from the McKinsey Quarterly article:

  • “Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy.” You know this if you have worked in these cultures – it is literally impossible to do your best work when you’re reacting to round robins and erratic requests at all hours.
  • “All the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation. These scourges hit CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite particularly hard because senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions.”
  • “[executives] disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.” This is reactive, piecemeal work, dictated by the flow of communications, not the needs of the organisation, the situation, or the opportunities.
  • “Leaders need to change how they feel good about themselves…” People feel good because via email they get instant responses, can be hands-on on a project the moment they think about it (micro-management, as it was once known). On the flip-side, people feel good because they have a reputation for being ultra-responsive, available all hours.
  • Just as with Caroline’s quote at the head of this article stating that we fool ourselves into thinking we are thinking faster, “One might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative. Here again, the opposite seems to be true.”
  • The strategy you need to get out of this state of affairs is a combination of personal and systems.”It requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, and we can’t do it alone: in our teams and across the whole organization, we need to establish a set of norms that support a more productive way of working.”
  • And, it seems, none of this is really new – Peter Drucker was talking about how knowledge workers and executives needed to behave in the 1960s: “some fairly basic strategies that aren’t very different in spirit from the ones Drucker described more than 40 years ago: some combination of focusing, filtering, and forgetting.”
  • Lastly there are three steps that are required to start to put this right, according to McKinsey:
  1. We need to acknowledge and challenge the mind-sets and current patterns of behaviour.
  2. Leaders need to delegate and resist the temptation to interfere…
  3. Leaders need to work with their teams to “redesign working norms”.

Naturally, as boardrooms tend to be McKinsey’s clients they are focusing on leaders and executive teams in this analysis, but in my experience these things apply to knowledge workers, in fact anyone who uses email, at every level in every type of organisation.

One insight we have now, though, after all these years of social web tools spreading, is that it is just important to think about the culture of working with the web and electronic communications as the tools themselves. As Dan McQuillan said at CityCamp Brighton about – and I echoed in a way – digital tools and networks can be used to loosen clogged bureaucracies and ways of working. But if we don’t think about how they are being used, don’t challenge unproductive and corrosive ways of working, they will establish new workplace tyrannies and inefficiencies…

When change comes (and it will come) it will need to come simultaneously in changes to how we work and how we think about organisations, how hierarchies and networks work together.

 

 

 

 

The flawed optimism of digital advertising models

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“Do you do any work on how annoying you are?” – Peter Day to an ad re-targeter…

In Business, the podcast by the BBC’s Peter Day, is something I have enjoyed for years. Every now and again he does a programme which is so exactly pertinent to things I’m working on that I listen to the whole thing with a broad grin, while a sort of Hallelujah chorus jangles about in the back of my mind while I am listening…

For Your Information was one of those. I’ll be coming back to some of the trains of thought that departed this particular station in some future blog posts, especially its focus on information overload’s effects on productivity and organisational effectiveness, which connects directly with the web superskills theme I talked about at TEDx in January.

For now, the thought I want to share is one sparked by a comment that Peter Day made to a online advertising re-targeter: “Do you do any work on how annoying you are?”

He was talking about the irritation he might feel when an ad for something he searched for days ago followed him around for days afterward.

The response wasn’t convincing. Of course you don’t want to annoy your potential customers, said the re-targeter, and they provide tools to help you not blitz people.

I wonder how many users of the system calibrate in that way?

Re-targeting is just the latest in a long line of advertising technologies and innovations – latterly mostly in digital – which promise – and often deliver – “uplift”, greater click-throughs, sales, awareness etc. than previous methods.

There are two broad responses to an ad following you around the web. The first is “Wow, that’s cool!” The second is a raised eyebrow, a suspicious sneer, a question: “Why is that happening? How do they know who I am? What elese do they know?”

Response one typically comes from, er, people in digital advertising. The second, in my experience, comes from anyone else.

The steady flow of privacy nightmare stories and Facebookphobia in the media and generally in people’s consciousness is raising a – probably healthy – scepticism about online media. The more digitally literate the average user becomes the more they question what is happening to their personal data and how it is being used.

Wishful thinking on the part of online media companies and digital agencies means that not enough work is going into thinking about this growing, fundamental user need.

Apart from the inconvenience of facing up to the possibility that people might not want to play exactly the role alloted for them in the great media/marketing ecosystem, the digital advertising industry is let down by a kind of fatal optimism. They only want to look at the good news in the data and not the bad.

The thing is, that the bad news might be as useful, even more useful than the bad.

To illustrate, take a look at “success” in a typical online display campaign. A clickthrough rate of  0.2%.

Doesn’t matter what happened to the other 99.8%, i.e. most people. They simply weren’t interessted enough to look.

When it comes to re-targeted ads, social ads, etc., the clickthrough rate improves over that of typical ads. I wonder if annoyance and negative feelings to brands using these techniques does too?

Clues about what people don’t like in ads – signals of dissatisfaction, if you like – abound, but it always the positive outcome on which paid media professionals are focused. Maybe there would be more use in looking at all the data, including the damage you may be doing your own cause?