About this blog

This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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    Eating Animals
    by Jonathan Safran Foer


Be the change

I have just watched Kathy Sierra's video on how to deal with aggressive or abusive behaviour online. I totally agree with her main point that we all have a role to play in what is deemed normal or acceptable online behaviour. It brought back my own intervention in a spat between two well known bloggers back in the early days of blogging. Adopting my best disapproving Scottish presbyterian accent, I told them that being in the public eye they should be more aware of the signals they were sending to the still forming online community. I also remembered the famous occasion at the first "Le Web" when Mena Trott lectured the audience of bloggers on good behaviour and ended up picking a fight with Ben Metcalfe. I guess what these remembered occasions made me aware of is the need not to preach or moralise. Yes act in ways that cultivate positive behaviours and yes, be prepared to stand up and say when someone is "behaving badly", but stop short of telling other people what they should or shouldn't be doing - it just tends to wind them up!



The single biggest challenge facing clients in moving forward with social media is caution. They are cautious of disapproval, cautious of making mistakes, not sure of what to do or why. You can see the potential in there and they wouldn't even be talking to me if they didn't think it was possible to make a difference. But they just need a little push, a little encouragement - and maybe someone to talk to if they get the odd bloody nose along the way. Getting the social web to work for your business isn't rocket science but nor it is easy. The challenges are personal. It is all about people opening up and connecting more with each other and the barriers to this happening are high and often self made.

This is why I am doing more and more coaching. I have been getting coaching myself from a wonderful guy in the US called Steve Chandler and it has made a huge difference not only to my ability to make things happen but also to cope when sometimes they don't. I actually think the coaching relationship is one that more and more managers are going to adopt. How often have you ever needed your boss to actually tell you what to do? But then how often would it have helped if he had sat down with you and helped you to sort the world out? As people need less direction they need a different kind of support and I think coaching is a really productive way to give them that support. I also think it is very much in keeping with the possibilities that social tools give us to take increasing responsibility for our own lives and to work together in entirely new ways.


Feeling stuck

I remember so well the feeling of being stuck at work. Having the trappings of status as a line manager in a big organisation but feeling powerless. Being unable to change things. Knowing that the system doesn't work but feeling that you have no power to improve it. Having to face people who also know that it doesn't work and who hold you responsible. I see the feeling of frustration in the eyes of so many people I deal with in all sorts of organisations. Some have given up, and some are still fighting, but most have to just go along with things the way they are.

But do they? Are we really so powerless? I used to get very frustrated at many of the changes John Birt made during his time as Director General at the BBC. Like most people I went into victim mode and complained to anyone who would listen about how wrong things were. But I did little to offer alternatives. I didn't commit to trying to change things. Then I remember one day realising that the only reason that the BBC had ended up the way John Birt thought it should was because he articulated it. He laid out what he wanted and persuaded enough people that it was the right thing to do. He had to start somewhere. He had to express an idea and keep expressing it until it came into being. There was nothing stopping me doing the same thing ...


"The world needs to take a rest"

Doc Searls' post today, remembering his blog around the time of 9/11, brought back memories. Not just of the dreadful events that prompted it but also that his post about he and his son looking at a sky devoid of aeroplanes prompted me to email him. This triggered our connection that grew into friendship.

It also brought back my own blog post, reproduced below, of an exchange with my daughter. It seemed particularly poignant four days after so many people died.

Saturday, September 15, 2001

Out of the mouths of babes
My nearly four year old this morning on being told that she couldn't get up intil the sun came up:

M: Daddy...how does the world make the sun come up?
D: Well the world turns round and then the sun comes up.
M: And why does the sun go away again?
D: Because the earth keeps going round and that makes the sun go down again.
M: That must make the world very dizzy wizzy.
D: Yes darling. Sometimes the world gets very dizzy wizzy.
M: Well the world needs to take a rest then Daddy.
D: Yes it does.....yes it does darling


When simple is hard

A tweet yesterday from Dion Hinchcliffe on whether social adds complexity or removes it got me thinking again about the confusion we often have between complicated and complex. Complicated tends to mean difficult whereas complex needn't. You can have complex systems that are easy to understand and operate in whereas this is never true of complicated systems.

Equally, simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. Writing a blog post is simple but for many it feels really hard. It requires thought, commitment, even bravery.  Also what happens after you save your blog post isn't complicated but the effects are complex and rich. The ongoing conversations, comment threads, tweets and so on that can be triggered by a good blog post are wonderful in their complexity but the process is simple rather than complicated.

This is for me the biggest difference between truly social tools and many of the enterprise tools that go under that name. Tools that work are simple to use, but have complex and rich effects and require an investment of thought and effort to make them truly effective. Tools that don't work are complicated, difficult to work out but make it easy to write inconsequential flotsam.


People farming

Tonight my email address was used by Tango to spam me with fluff about their product and an invitation to like their Facebook page.

What will it take to help the marketing world grasp what is going on with the web? They really don't have a clue. All of those agencies who label themselves "social", and who have in fact devalued the term to such an extent that it is becoming unuseable. "Doing social" "doing digital" - the language makes my flesh creep. They still use words like capturing, targeting, campaign, blitz. Militaristic words that seemed to make sense in a past world of mass, where if you shouted loudly, and expensively enough at enough people, you could claim to have had an impact on sales.

They try to apply these mass techniques on the web and the result is to make customers feel like they are part some ill conceived people farming experiment. It could be so different. I really do want to buy stuff, I need to buy stuff and am longing to have more meaningful conversations with the companies who want to provide me with stuff. However I have less and less patience with stupid people who treat me like an idiot and shout at me about crap I don't want when I am trying to do something else!


Shirts 4 Shelter

There is something about a roof over your head that seems pretty fundamental - and that most of us take for granted. But the reasons to end up without one are varied, often surprising, and sadly increasingly common. There is also something that just seems so wrong when looking up at the the financial areas of the world's cities with people literally walking the streets below them without a roof over their heads. So it is nice to see a company that dresses many of the city workers and a charity that aims to help the homeless find roofs over their heads getting together to do something to bring the two a little closer.

T.M.Lewin is proud to launch National Shirt Week in partnership with Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity. With a large proportion of people owning a surplus of shirts that hang unwanted and unloved at the back of the wardrobe, T.M.Lewin is encouraging you to give your unwanted shirts a new home whilst also raising money for Shelter.

Each shirt received during National Shirt Exchange Week will be given to Shelter to sell in their shops. In return T.M.Lewin will donate £2 from the sale of every shirt purchased throughout the week to Shelter. The money raised will be used to help people in desperate housing need so that they can find and keep a home.

Customers who are unable to visit a T.M.Lewin store can still take part and donate, as T.M.Lewin will be running the shirt exchange initiative online at www.tmlewin.co.uk. Online shoppers will be sent a donation bag enabling them to take their unwanted shirts into their local Shelter store.

To celebrate National Shirt Exchange Week, T.M.Lewin will be building the biggest ever house made of shirts in Paternoster Square, London on Monday 26th and in Spinningfields, Manchester on Wednesday 28th September.

The houses will be at both locations from 8am to 6.30pm and there may even be a few celebrities donating their unwanted shirts throughout the day too, all to help raise money for Shelter.

Couple of disclosures on this post - I am on the board of trustees for Homeless Link, the umbrella organisation for homeless charities, and my wife produced all of the videos used in the campaign as part of her ongoing work with TM Lewin.


The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). Vladimir Nabokov



The biggest single force holding back people's involvement in social media is fear of disapproval. Fear of what customers' reactions might be. Fear of what the boss might think. Fear of what friends might say. Even fear of the tacit disapproval of being ignored.

Where did we learn to be so afraid? Why do allow our lives to be so limited by what others think? All of the famous figures who changed the world got over this fear. They invariably faced disapproval, disagreement and disdain. Many of them faced imprisonment and many lost their lives. They didn't let that stop them.

But we let ourselves go numb at the prospect of someone laughing at our first blog post. We don't state the obvious. We keep so much of ourselves to ourselves and don't rock the boat.

What a shame ...


Technology really bores me

This may sound like an unlikely thing for me to say but it is true.

Don't get me wrong, I love my Macs and my iPhone and do believe that they have enabled me to do things that otherwise I wouldn't have. But that is the point. It is what they enabled that matters. Someone once called me "the Terence Conran of anoraks" and I took this as a real compliment. I am very interested in technology if it makes life better, but left cold by it if it doesn't.

This is why I get really, really bored when people go on about this enterprise system or that. I don't care. Most of them are dreadful anyway. What I am really interested in is what you do with whatever tools you use - and that could be the cheapest BBS off the internet. What is the point in buying the latest shiny thing or lumbering yourselves with Sharepoint if no one writes anything interesting?

There are too many organisations keeping up with the Jones's and "doing social". Too many people who use the words but who never blog, never tweet, never think aloud and in public. They might as well have saved their money.



I am sometimes asked to sign NDA's (Non Disclosure Agreements) when working with clients. These are basically written promises on my part not to talk about things I need to know in order to work with the companies I do. Each time I do it, and I occasionally say no, it rankles me a little. It is invariably down to immutable corporate policy but it also feels like a sign of mistrust which is unfortunate happening as it does at the start of a working relationship.

It also occurs to me that as more and more of us live our lives online it should become increasingly unnecessary. Any indiscretions on my part will be much more obvious online and even if not clients would have the ability to do real damage to my online reputation if I ever behaved inappropriately. It feels much more accountable to have an online reputation I am keen to protect than to have a piece of paper filed away somewhere never to be seen again.


Every journey ...

When I talk with friends about their jobs as managers in organisations of all sorts they often express frustration at the various things that cause them pressure at work. I am forever thinking of ways that social tools might help them relieve some of that pressure. I don't often say anything as I would soon start losing friends if I banged on about social media every time we met. It is hard to resist the challenge though to map what I know to the problems they describe.

Each time this happens I come back to the same thing. Forget grandiose plans for fancy Enterprise 2.0 solutions or even long term "the world of business is changing" polemic. No, every time I find myself thinking "you should start blogging". Even if they only ever did it in private, I am convinced that the self reflection encouraged by blogging would be a first step in them dealing with whatever problems they face.

Most of us know the answers to our problems most of the time deep down. We just don't always articulate them even to ourselves. Even if the solution appears to be out of our direct control, sitting down and thinking about how you are going to convey the problem, or the solution, to say for instance your boss has to be the first step. Blogging is a great trigger to doing this. If your blog is visible to others you will probably have to abstract the problem to avoid compromising others involved in the situation but this abstraction is partly what helps. It helps to depersonalise things and get to the root of what is really happening.

And this is how you actually bring about the large scale organisational stuff too. One person at a time, one step at a time. Not "driving adoption" or simply moving business bollocks online, but helping real people solve their own real problems in very real, and often very modest, ways.


Dysfunctional ICT

Reading John Naughton's piece in The Observer today about how much of a mess the teaching of computing in schools is prompted me to think of the experiences of my thirteen year old daughter.

As you might have guessed both of my daughters have been used to having all sorts of Macs around the house and using them since they were old enough to walk to do all sorts of interesting things. Mollie, who at thirteen has to take ICT as an obligatory subject, is having her head done in by a curriculum that assumes that she will end up with some wage slave job using Powerpoint and Excel. Not only does the curriculum not include much of the geekier possibilities that John talks about in his article but it doesn't even touch on the exciting creative and social possibilities of computing.

Mollie has achieved a level of sophistication in her use of computing that amazes even me. Having shown her Scrivener she has tapped into her love of reading and has now written about 30,000 words of her own, very impressive, novel. She has taken the narrative of her novel and cajoled the avatars in Sims 3 to act it out and then done screen movies of their "acting" which she edits, adds music to, and shares on YouTube. She has also recently scripted, shot, acted in, and edited a video of four short humorous skits as part of her Spanish course. She then finds and connects with other youngsters doing cool stuff with their computers on YouTube and ends up meeting up with them at Summer In The City and talking about all the amazing things they are creating.

Sure, computers are just a means to an end, but that end can be life enhancing. Steve Jobs said a computer should be a bicycle for the mind. Shame the school system seems determined to confine them to being little more than the modern equivalent of the typewriter. Wouldn't it be better to inspire youngsters with their potential to change the world and giving them the tools to do so?


Steve Jobs resignation

I know there will be a lot written about Steve Jobs resigning over the next few days - way too much. But it would have been odd not to make a comment about this apparently minor event of a CEO resignation here on my blog.

I am sure PC users will be bewildered at the wailing and gnashing of teeth that will emerge from the Mac community - but then they never did really understand what we were so passionate about. It's just a computer isn't it? Well yes and no.

Job's once said he was building  "a bicycle for the mind" and that is what has had such a huge impact on my life. I have always had this feeling of potential and possibility from my computing, that it was an enabler rather than an end in itself. Whether it is me writing my book, or my daughter editing amazing films, it is the joy of making something that Macs have, for me, been uniquely great at, that I dread losing.

I have always had a very strong sense that Jobs cared what my computing felt like. That there was passion built into the devices I have had so much pleasure using. This quote from him reveals the focus behind that feeling:

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

I know he is not dead, and that Tim Cook will hopefully keep the huge ship that is now Apple on course, but I am not ashamed to admit shedding a tear this morning at the coming to an end of an era that has had had such a significant impact on my life.


Information fertiliser

Thought you might enjoy this paragraph from the chapter in my book exhorting people to resist tidying up their information:

Finding the good stuff is one of the functions of bloggers. Information rag and bone men who curate the weak signal and the long tail. Seeing patterns in the small, the marginal, the messy. This is where those with nerdy curiosity and a good eye can find real value in what others have discarded or not noticed. Boosting these weak signals so that they last long enough to travel long distances takes effort and care. Finding it, recording it and nurturing it are important skills. Separating it in a dynamic way from the noise. Curation is becoming one of the most valued skills on the internet. Pulling together the good stuff. Separating the signal from the noise and boosting it. We will all have to develop these skills. Recycling has become a way of life for many of us. Why not apply this to information and knowledge? Keep your knowledge equivalent of potato peelings and use them to generate compost. Pile more rubbish on the bits of the garden you want to grow and employ gardeners who tend and care for your baby shoots rather than disinfecting your information spaces.

Sorting things

I keep mulling over what is happening with the riots, the financial system, and the apparent collapsing of an old world under its own weight. Like many I keep thinking of ways to "sort it". Each time I fall into the trap of coming up with some system or ideology or framework - all the grown up stuff that is meant to be how we fix things. But every time I come back to what I can do now, myself - how I behave moment to moment, and how I treat both myself and others.

If I allow myself to feel sorry for myself, hard done by, or victim of some perceived injustice, I give myself permission to feel justified in behaving badly.

If I think that something outside myself will make things better - God, the state, other people or buying more stuff - then I absolve myself of the responsibility for changing things and render myself powerless and a victim of someone else's view of the world.

If I allow myself to see other people as a mass, and not made up of individuals like me, I open the door to demonising them or being overwhelmed by the futility of that mass ever changing.

If I see work as inevitably being a cog in a huge wheel with little or no control over what that wheel does then I consign myself to the life of a wage slave keeping my head down long enough to make it to my ever diminishing pension and the promise of happiness tomorrow.

And if I read mass circulation newspapers or watch mass media I exacerbate all of the above challenges and become even more powerless to change either myself or the world around me.

This is why I am so passionate about the web and the ability it gives us, to quote David Weinberger, to "write ourselves into existence", to see the world as made up of connected individuals with the ability to shape their shared future rather than as a mass or ideologically driven herd.

This is also why I feel so motivated to work with the large corporations and institutions that so dominate our modern world. If I can help any of the individuals who make up those organisations to feel a little bit more self aware, a little bit more capable, and a little bit more able to think for themselves and speak for themselves, and to do so as part of networks of others doing the same - then I will have done my job.

Perhaps they will feel able to stand up and make their voices heard about the things that their organisation is doing that they don't feel comfortable with or that they know deep down aren't making the world a better place for their kids.

Maybe if we all do that we will stop fooling ourselves that the mass is anything other than individuals pretty much just like us.

Maybe if we stop fooling ourselves there will be less of a gap between the haves and the have nots.

Maybe our care for the planet will increase.

Maybe we can collectively build a new world based on tolerance and mutual responsibility before the very different one we currently inhabit falls apart.

Maybe we will be able to grow up in time.



Being kind

Three things triggered this post.

First a blog post from Doc about the very sad story of a young lad killed during a fraternity hazing event. The institutionally acceptable nastiness struck me.

Second a couple of examples of trolling in Google Plus that have caused distress and show willingness, even from those who should know better, to indulge their nastiness at others' expense.

Lastly the riots in London. I'm not inclined to read more into them than bad lads using the excuse to behave badly, but that is the point. The fact that they feel it is OK to give vent to their aggression and appear to have no sense of the effect on others of their actions.

We all have moments when we feel justified in our nastiness and it is all too easy to indulge ourselves. I sometimes feel that my own occasionally robust online reactions to things I observe and comment on risk tipping the wrong side of my personal standards. I try to remember Gandhi's advice but don't always succeed: "If you are right you have no reason to be angry. If you are wrong you have no right to be angry".

We all pay a price when we make being unkind OK in however small a way.


Knowledge ecology on a global scale

Reading Charlie Brooker's spot on article about the increasingly unfunny joke that is mainstream media, I was struck yet again by the degree to which we are able to, and have to, take back our individual responsibility for creating and sharing the stories that shape our lives. I am also reading Freedom, the sequal to Demon, Daniel Suarez's books about a MMOG designer who, anticipating his death from a terminal illness, creates the Daemon, a collection of bots, scripts, volunteers and mythical narratives that builds an alternative civilisation as our present one crumbles under its own weight. The theme of the books is that truth has become so complex and maleable that we have to be very aware of who is telling us what, when and why.

When I wrote my recent Ten ways to create a knowledge ecology post I was thinking in terms of intranets and within the enterprise, but actually I believe that all ten steps are just as practical and necessary on a national and global scale. We are starting to build some of the bits already but I worry that we might not build a new world fast enough in the face of the old one burying itself under its own crap.


Help your boss to understand

Bonnie Cheuk responded to my post about hierarchies with a couple of very revealing stories about the challenges and risks of saying what you think in a conventional, hierarchical culture. I cover these challenges in my book from which I have lifted this paragraph:

Maybe your boss is nervous because he understands the potential of social media all too well. Once people learn that they can find each other, share their knowledge and work together the roles of many managers will change if not disappear. This is frightening. However the good managers will make the effort to adapt and will continue to add value in the more networked world we are moving into.  Many of them will be old enough to have children active on the web and may not be comfortable talking to them about it. Or they may get the point of social tools outside work but not see how to map them to the business context. Why not help them? Why not help your boss to understand the benefits for their business and them as individuals of getting to grips with the social network world? There is a real danger that we assume that our boss knows everything. Often they don’t and may be embarrassed about admitting this. Make it easy for them to do so.

I don't underestimate the challenges in doing this but if you can't even broach the subject with your boss then your problems go much deeper than social media.




A word on hierarchies

I thought I'd share this paragraph from my book "Corporations Don't Tweet - People Do". I am about to deliver my first draft to the publisher this week and it seems a shame not to do something else with all these words!

There has been a lot written about the end of hierarchies. In fact David Weinberger once wrote that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”. But do we really mean this? Don’t hierarchies emerge everywhere in human nature? Won’t there be some who take to blogging and tweeting more readily than others and therefore end up on the top of a new  pile? Perhaps, but it is likely to be a more temporary ascendancy to the top of the pile - because the pile keeps moving and morphing into other piles. What is much more likely to emerge is an ephemeral meritocracy. You will gain status, and therefore power, if you add value to a lot of people. But don’t expect it to last. Don’t attempt to freeze it and institutionalise it.  Someone else will add more value tomorrow, and the moving anthill of conversations will move on. The networks of individuals will reshape around the new conversations and those who are adding value will change.

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