Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ My Future in Hardcover

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 21, 1999

Posted on NwsTrolls 21 April 1999

Those of you who follow my career - however few and stalwart you may be - will have noticed that I started a new position in the beginning of April. I left Assiniboine Community College, where I was a distance education and new instructional media design specialist, and joined the University of Alberta's Advanced Technologies for Learning, where I am now an Information Architect.

One of the advantages of working in a university environment is that I have more time to step back and catch up on my reading. And catch up I needed to do. Assiniboine had become a production line environment, stalled at 1997 technology, and I was losing ground. A three-month lag on the internet is like a couple of years in the real world. It was not a good situation.

I have been taking advantage of my new situation and have hit the books with some vengeance. Of course there are the many web sites and mailing lists, not to mention a daily dose of the Trolls. But my days have also included some trips to the bookstore to pick up the latest and greatest.

In my position as an Information Architect, my job is to produce web sites, or more accurately, web based communities. This is rather more than slapping a few good web pages onto a server, setting up a discussion list, and calling it home. Today's online communities involve much more, from user agents to E-Commerce to customized interfaces.

But more on all that in other columns. Today, my purpose is to catch up on my reading. Here is what has been on my bookshelf this April.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville
O'Reilly and Associates: 1998

It is indicative of my position that I started with a book that was published a year ago. Even so, a lot of the content remains relevant, and as the book that defined my position, I considered it a must-read. And you have to love an author who says, in the second paragraph, "Just this evening, I spent time in a dark, smoky bar with original tin ceilings and exposed brick wallsÂ…"

The book is about designing large web sites. When authors are working with hundreds or perhaps thousands of pages, new issues arise. You want, for example, to get users to whichever of those hundred pages they wish to see as efficiently as possible. You also want to guide them a bit and perhaps entice them into lingering for a while.

Topics covered include information organization, baleling systems, searching systems, conceptual design, production and organization. A couple of case studies round out the offering.

It's a slim book, especially for O'Reilly, and it's not an especially technical book. It has a polar bear on the front cover and makes a fine companion to the Camel Book and the Rhino Book.

The Infinite Resource: Creating and Leading the Knowledge Enterprise
William E. Halal, ed.
Jossey-Bass Publishers: 1998

The Infinite Resource talks about corporate organization in the information age and is probably worth a column on its own. It's not going to get one. But it's worth it.

The book is composed of a series of sixteen articles written by some of the larger names in the industry: Gerald Taylor, CEO of MCI Communications, Raymond Smith, CEO of Bell Atlantic Corporation, and Robert Kuperman, CEO of Chiat/Day Advertising Agency, to name a few.

Three major themes are covered: creating the 'internal enterprise system', forming a network of cooperative alliances, and using an intelligent infrastructure.

The idea of 'internal enterprises' is the dismantling of the old hierarchal system of corporate organization. This is necessary in order to adapt to an information economy; executives cannot keep up with the pace of change. As Gary Hamel wrote in the Harvard Business Review (1996), "The bottleneck is at the top". The emergent model is to view an organization as a set of self-managing units, each working as a separate enterprise in cooperation - and sometimes competition - with the others.

While perhaps not the stunning new innovation that the Halal depicts, alliance networks are nonetheless natural consequences of the internal enterprise model and are bing used increasingly in corporate enterprise. In a particularly useful article, The Networking Institute's Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps outline five major principles of 'teamnets'. Just as a shared vision, independence and voluntary links characterize an internal enterprise system, so also these same principles apply to inter-corporate networks.

The most difficult part of adapting to the information age is using your increased capabilities to full advantage. How often have we seen corporate computers with high speed internet access sitting idle on the desk while the accounts clerk fills out paper-based reports? The idea here is to plug staff into an on-demand and learning network, increasing both their skills and their capacities, and to connect staff with each other, increasing communication and cooperation.

The Future and its Enemies
Virginia Postrel
Free Press: 1998

Postrel rewrites the political map, abandoning the old left-right division and dividing politicians and leaders into 'dynamist' and 'stasist' camps. It makes sense; we see fairly clearly that new alliances are being formed by, say, anti-technology activist Jeremy Rifkin and World Future Society president Ed Cornish.

In a word, Postrel's division forms the line between 'control' and 'anarchy'. Stasists - aka technocrats - want to manage and control the future. Dynamists embrace the future in its many flavours and shapes. Dynamists see the future as something which is grown, or which evolves, while stasists see the future as something which is created or built.

It's pretty easy - coming from Postrel's unabashedly dynamist position - to provide examples where technocracy fails. Any effort to predict the behaviour of large multi-state systems is going to contain an element of risk. But Postrel's whole-hearted embrace of dynamism cannot be completely endorsed. Some things - like road construction, airline schedules, or internet protocols - need to be designed.

But closer to the heart of her argument - and to my own point of view - is the idea that the future must be freely chosen by those who must live in it. It is one thing to work together and plan. It is quite another to have the plan imposed by an unknowing technocrat at the top.

The Future and Its Enemies is a good read and again almost became a column. But it didn't, and that's why it's here.

Hosting Web Communities
Cliff Figallo
Wiley Computer Publishing: 1998

There is no doubt that Cliff Figallo knows his web communities, and even if I expressed displeasure with his work at Salon, you have to respect the weight of experience earned from his years at the WELL.

Some of the book is about the mechanics of building online communities, including a thorough discussion of chat servers, discussion board software, and other tools and toys. Figallo also has useful tips to offer about user interface and site design.

But the strength of this book is in Figallo's understanding of the human element of online communities, and by the time you've read up to Chapter Four of Thirteen you have read the heart of his book.

Figallo takes pains to define different types of online communities, drawing on a wide range of examples (though, sadly, not the old Hotwired community). From this, he drafts a set of 'defining element' of web-based communities: a distinctive focus, a capacity to integrate content and communication, an appreciation of member-generated content, access to competing vendors, and commercial orientation (well, the last probably reflects his current employment).

But different sites focus on different elements of this list. Some sites place more weight on content, while others place more weight on conversation. Using these weightings, Figallo defines major types of community: for example, when looking at interactivity we can identify the 'shrine', which minimizes interaction, 'theatres' where audience participation is expected but limited, and the 'café', where audience participation is everything.

Figallo's best work comes when he describes the role of the host or relationship manager in an online community. He recognizes the key role of trust and the importance of valuing community members' sense of ownership. He encourages hosts to maintain an active presence in the community (something Hotwired never learned), to take the community's pulse, to contribute and establish credibility, and to fit site content into the conversation.

Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy
Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian
Harvard Business School Press: 1999

Beware, my philosophy professors told me, of any book written by economists. Their major purpose is not to inform or to predict, but rather, to convince you that the economists were right all along.

Cynical, perhaps, but such is the premise of Shapiro and Varian's very valuable book, Information Rules. Their primary thesis is that the economic rules which governed the development of emerging technologies - such as the railroad, telephone, and television - in the past are the same rules governing the emergence of today's information-based technology.

It's a good read and the advice - if perhaps biased from a corporate point of view - is spot on.

The authors want to show readers how to make money from information-based products and launch right in by describing the popular tricks used by software vendors (and for that matter, by McDonalds and by General Motors): market analysis, versioning, differential pricing, and the like.

They then breeze through a very intelligent description of rights management, including especially a cogent analysis of the distinction between open source and proprietary software. While open source is viewed on our side of the fence as a movement, Shapiro and Varian depict the two as alternative strategies for maximizing gain.

Like any product, an established user base is a key asset. Microsoft is certainly aware of this fact, and has worked hard to establish a user base for its flagship Windows platform and for new applications such as Internet Explorer. Open Source is useful for those products which do not yet have an established user base, or which would benefit from the development of complementary products (such as plug-ins) which would expand the user base.

Moreover, open source and aggressive pricing can lead to wide adoption of a certain type of technology or standard. This leads to what Shapiro and Vrian call 'lock-in', a situation in which the cost of switching technologies exceeds the savings provided by alternative technologies. Lock-in is more than merely a price-tag calculation; the authors factor such intangibles as familiarity, inconvenience, and compatibility.

The development of open standards and the manufacture of complementary products also gives rise to two major sets of issues in the information industry: the creation, maintenance and dissolution of networks, and the control and maintenance of standards governing those networks. Because internet and information technology is so dependent of connectivity, products are particularly vulnerable to vicious cycles, where one technology will be adopted by the entire community while a competing technology will decline rapidly.

You will want to read this one slowly and carefully.

When I look at these five books, I see in capsule form the reasons why I left Assiniboine and came to the University of Alberta. It's not simply that I didn't have a chance to read the books while employed at the college (though I was in rapid descent into wage-slavery), it's that the college didn't - or wouldn't - get the concepts presented in their pages.

In the development of online courses, it is necessary to do much more than develop a set of web pages. What is necessary is the development of an online community, for education is in large part a social activity, and so net-based education needs a social milieu.

But this means turning over a significant part of the content and control of the website to those who use it - the instructors, and especially, the students. Not so at Assiniboine, where all had to fit into one management-controlled template, the distance education model formed by many years of experience in a different field.

Assiniboine - like many other colleges - is governed in an autocratic top-down style. When I was first hired by the college, I had a great deal of freedom. But as management gained an awareness of the technology (i.e., learned how to use email), they acquired a greater and greater desire to control it.

On the one hand I saw the college web site turning into a promotional brochure, rather than anything useful. I saw on the other hand a desire on the part of management to have me design arbitrary limits into my software. Courses would be structured this way. Content would be titled that way. It is antithetical to the nature of good design.

My job, too, changed along those lines. Assiniboine employs a 'flat' organizational structure, which sounds really democratic, but means in practice that all decisions are made by the 'team leader' (who is invariably the manager). More and more I saw greater portions of my work managed, so much so that I had to justify one-hour meetings with software vendors.

What Assiniboine doesn't see is that employer-employee relationships are contracts, with goods and benefits accruing to both sides. The idea of a contract is that it is in each other's mutual interest to maintain the relationship. Employment - especially in the information economy - is no longer a relation of servitude, where the boss dictates and the employee jumps.

Employment relationships in today's environment are partnerships. Employees today are often looking for more than just money. They know their job will disappear in a few years. They want professional advancement. They want to form networks. They want to put their signature on professionally designed (and competent) products.

If I design courses according to stupid dictates, or create a dysfunctional online community, it reflects not only on my pointy-haired boss who made me do it, it reflects on me when I try to find employment in the future. And moreover, it's pretty frustrating to take software design directions from somebody who has her secretary type her email.

If we take the lessons of the information economy - as described in these five books - seriously, then we are looking not only at a fundamental change in how businesses operate, we are looking at a fundamental change in how workplaces operate. Corporations operating in this environment will rise and fall not only based on traditional economic criteria (such as sales), but also based on how hey work with their employees.

Something to think about.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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