Tag Archives: thinking in bits

Technology – required but not sufficient for digital transformation

Digital technology is a necessary component of digital transformation. In fact, digital transformation is only possible because of digital technology. And not only possible, but inevitable. Digital transformation isn’t something you do, it’s something that happens to you.

Digital transformation isn’t about getting better or more efficient at what you already know how to do. Yet, many organizations want exactly that, to simply “automate” the processes they already have, using these digital technologies to keep doing the same things they’ve always done in basically the same way. Online forms instead of paper forms, for example. Thinking in atoms, not bits. They think that the technology is sufficient to make them better; it helps the organization achieve some efficiencies of scale in getting done the things they’ve always gotten done. But this is not transformation.

At the same time, many employees of these organizations are concerned – and rightfully so – about what all these digital tools will mean for them. They are used to working on what is essentially an assembly line: a task passes from someone up the line to them, they do their piece of the task according to some predetermined set of rules or procedures, and then pass it down the line to the next person. Their job is to execute tasks when they’re told, in the manner in which they’re told to execute them. Input – black box – output, where the employee is a figurative black box in very real danger of being replaced by a literal black box of technology.

Digital technology is a necessary component of digital transformation, but is not sufficient to achieve transformation. Digital transformation is about becoming better and more effective at identifying and executing outcomes you didn’t even know were possible, and that requires a change in mindset, a change in culture. Dare I say, a change in purpose. From “we’re going to be the best at doing this thing thought up in the past” to “we’re going to come up with the best ideas and products ever.”

Otherwise your organization, like its employees, runs the very real risk of becoming a commodity itself, that figurative blackbox that is eventually, and inevitably, replaced by a literal black box.

Thinking in bits (redux)

A key to any organization’s survival of the ongoing digital reformation will be their ability to break free from the deeply ingrained thinking in terms of atoms and start thinking in bits.

I first came across the idea of thinking in bits in Nicholas Negroponte‘s 1995 book Being digital. In the book, Negroponte talks about the limitations, the cost, of moving information around as atoms – paper books, CDs, DVDs, snail mail, you get the idea – and how information would soon be converted from atoms to bits. The immediately obvious implication is that it now becomes essentially free to move and share information as bits.

The less obvious, but much more important, implication is that bits change the way you can think about the information. How you can manipulate and repurpose the information. How you can do things that were impossible with the information locked up in atoms. The obvious applications have come to fruition. Email instead of snail mail. Music downloads instead of CDs, and now streaming instead of downloads. The same with video.

And yet…

And yet, the way this digitized information, these bits, is handled is still in many ways tied to the way atoms were handled. The medium has changed, but the process remains the same. Some of this, such as in the music and movie industries, is purely for commercial reasons. They are shipping in bits, but they are not thinking in bits.

Even from a creative perspective, as opposed to the commercial, this thinking in atoms prevents many from seeing new possibilities for providing engaging and individual experiences to their customers. For example, consider how labels distribute music, how they release the same tracks in the same order on both CD and on services like iTunes or Google Play. This is thinking in atoms at its finest (worst?).

Imagine if they were thinking in bits instead. They could offer an “album” that includes songs from the setlist the band played in your town, or edit the songs at the disc-breaks on multi-disc albums so they didn’t fade out / fade in. For individual song downloads from live recordings they could edit the track so you didn’t catch the introduction to the next song at the end of the song you’re listening too.

The same is true, albeit for different reasons, inside many organizations. Yes, nearly everything is in bits, stored on shared drives, in Sharepoint or email, on an enterprise social network or whatever system your organization uses to “manage” content.

And yet….

And yet most of these bits are locked up in mere digital representations of atoms. Again, working in bits but not thinking in bits.

Of course, 20+ years after Being Digital things have changed quite a bit. Many companies have leveraged thinking in bits to their advantage. Tax preparation software companies come to mind: the process of collecting the necessary information is designed to meet the needs of the person entering the information while the output of the information is in the format (atom-based) necessary for submission to the appropriate agencies. (Sadly, my guess is that those agencies still have atom-based processes to actually handle the information.)

And technology has evolved radically. Blockchain comes to mind. But even there, in a highly thinking in bits based process of transactions, most people’s attention is drawn to the most atom-based aspect of the blockchain – it’s use as a currency.

Digital transformation is not, as some people think, something you do. It is, rather, something that is happening, something that is happening to you. Whether you want it to or not. Thinking in bits is your key to not just surviving the transformation, but to leading the way.

Imagine no employers, no employees too

In my June 2008 post The evolution of the employee-employer relationship I wrote the following:

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

This was in response to some things I had read at the time and was something of a follow-up to another post from April 2004, in which I wrote:

I’ve long believed that the prevalence of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

Though I haven’t written much (at all?) about this particular aspect of thinking in bits since that 2008 post, the ideas are never far from my the front of my mind. It is hard not to think along these lines as I wonder about the future of work. Not just for me, but for my kids, and for the people with whom I work every day. Even within an organization, there is a certain amount of this, where HR acts as the “agent” and the employee moves about inside the organization based as much on their own needs and desires as the organization. (If, that is, they are lucky enough to work in an organization that “gets it”.)

b9fhxmdwI closed that 2004 post with the thought, “This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

Some interesting questions that Stephen DeWitt is working on answering. Here’s a description of what DeWitt is doing as CEO of Work Market, from the article/interview A Total Rethink of How Work Should Work:

In short, Work Market hopes to instrument a wholesale rethinking of how work gets done in our society — from a world of traditional corporate employment to a world where every skilled worker can act as an enterprise of one.

Or, to look at it another way, where an organization consists primarily of management and the workforce is “on demand”. Where the focus is not on building, growing, and sustaining a large organization but on doing the work, creating value, getting shit done. Where each member of the team can contribute their expertise – whether it be financial, management, technical – and all benefit from the arrangement. On their own terms.

More flash team than gig economy, where the labor is not a commodity but where each participant competes based on skills, past projects, reputation, etc etc. All those things that in the past would have led to promotions and raises and bonuses will now lead to more work, higher rates, and more choice in the work you accept.

Obviously, there is much more to it or it would already be the norm. There are examples of where it is working and organizations who are using it, but it will be many years before it is more widespread. And, of course, the transition will not come without pain, without costs, without some collateral damage to the workforce and organizations who are not able, or interested, in making the change.

Are you ready to be an “enterprise of one”?

Returning to the Original Social Network

Something has been lost. Before algorithmic timelines, message length restrictions and mass surveillance there was a more robust world. It’s a distributed world that still lives behind the centralized allure of social networks. It’s a world where every person owns a small part of the internet, where they control their medium and communicate freely.

Source: Returning to the Original Social Network

Design Better Forms — uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design

Whether it is a signup flow, a multi-view stepper, or a monotonous data entry interface, forms are one of the most important components of digital product design. This article focuses on the common dos and don’ts of form design. Keep in mind that these are general guideline and there are exceptions to every rule.

Source: Design Better Forms — uxdesign.cc – User Experience Design

h/t @jcantroot

Thinking in bits (not atoms)

During a break at EMWCon, I participated in a conversation with several people about the relative advantages and disadvantages of requiring people to use wikitext markup in MediaWiki (instead of providing them a visual editor). During the conversation, Lex brought up examples of documents with their content locked up as binary files compared to wiki pages with the text readily available and accessible. I mentioned the idea of “thinking in bits” as part of the conversation.

Reflecting on the conversation later, I realized that I have written here and there about the concept, but don’t really have anything pulling all the thoughts together. So here you go.

I first came across the idea of thinking in bits in Nicholas Negroponte‘s 1995 book Being digital. In the book, Negroponte talks about the limitations, the cost, of moving information around as atoms – paper books, CDs, DVDs, snail mail, you get the idea – and how information would soon be converted from atoms to bits. The immediately obvious implication is that it now becomes essentially free to move and share information as bits.

The less obvious, but much more important, implication is that bits change the way you can think about the information. How you can manipulate and repurpose the information. How you can do things that were impossible with the information locked up in atoms. The obvious applications have come to fruition. Email instead of snail mail. Music downloads instead of CDs, and now streaming instead of downloads. The same with video.

And yet…

And yet, the way this digitized information, these bits, is handled is still in many ways tied to the way atoms were handled. Some of this, such as in the music and movie industries, is purely for commercial reasons. Digital rights management systems are deployed so that the company can benefit from the freedom (as in beer) of distributing their content while at the same time restricting the freedom (as in speech) of the consumers of that content. They are shipping in bits, but they are not thinking in bits.

Even from a creative perspective, as opposed to the commercial, this thinking in atoms prevents them from seeing new possibilities for providing engaging and individual experiences to their customers. For example, consider how labels distribute music, how they release the same tracks in the same order on both CD and on services like iTunes or Google Play. This is thinking in atoms at its finest (worst?).

Imagine if they were thinking in bits instead. They could offer an “album” that includes songs from the setlist the band played in your town, or edit the songs at the disc-breaks so they didn’t fade out / fade in. Along those lines, for the individual song downloads they could edit the track so you didn’t catch the introduction to the next song at the end of the song you’re listening too.

The same is true, albeit for different reasons, inside many organizations. Yes, nearly everything is in bits, stored on shared drives, in Sharepoint or email, or whatever system your orginzation uses to “manage” documents.

And yet….

And yet most of these bits are locked up in digital representations of atoms. We are using bits, but again we are not thinking in bits.

Part of the challenge, of course, is a need to accommodate the lowest common denominator. In the case of many corporate processes that lcd is the requirement to print. So, the templates and processes are designed based on what is expected in the final, printed outcome. Of course, once something is printed, there isn’t a whole lot you can do with it except read it and manually extract the info you need. If you have the digital file that was printed, you can at least search the content. But this is really just a faster way of “reading” the document to get to the “good part”.

What if, on the other hand, the document (whatever it might be) was designed and created based on the expectation that it would be used primarily in a digital format, with the printed product a secondary feature. Or that you don’t even know what the final format needs to be.

As an example (since I was inspired to write this by a conversation at EMWCon), creating your contract proposals as semantic wiki entries. The proposal can be collaboratively developed and reviewed and when ready can be exported into the end format that you need. This will likely be some sort of MS Office or .pdf file that can be easily sent to the potential client, but it could just as easily be shared with them as bits and negotiations conducted against that.

I say “just as easily”. This isn’t to say that work wouldn’t be involved, there would be a lot of work required. Designing, implementing, transitioning, executing. Cultural challenges galore. But, as Lex explained in his story about bikes, cars, and messenger services, the marginal cost of making this change can be far exceeded by the benefits you can gain from the change.

 

Meetings in the age of working out loud

Working out loud is typically looked at from the point of view of the person doing the work out loud, with tips and ideas on how to work out loud more effectively. But it is also important for those who are “consuming” this out loud work to understand the process and how they can leverage it in their own work. No one has more to gain, and probably more to learn, from working out loud than the managers of those doing the work. Consider, for example, meetings.

meetings500

Meetings, in general, assume that the process of work is hidden and that the only thing that matters are the results or, in many cases, the current state of the work. So managers will call meetings, or even worse schedule recurring meetings on a regular basis. These meetings are often set for an hour, because that is the default in Outlook and generally the time blocks by which conference rooms are scheduled.

What other factors do you take into account when you plan / schedule a meeting? Some items might include:

  • Agenda

Actually, if you don’t count the availability of a conference room, the only real consideration in the scheduling of most meetings is the agenda, even though it is more likely than not that the agenda is more an outline or a “let’s go around the room so everyone can fill everyone else in on what they have been working on”.  The “this is what we’re going to talk about” gets a lot of attention, the “what do we want to achieve” gets a bit less, and the “how does this contribute to our work” gets barely any attention at all.

When, of course, the most important aspect of meetings, the easiest to measure, and the most overlooked – dare I say ignored – is the bottom line. The value of the meeting. (Not just the cost, but the return you get on paying that cost.)

From the book ReWork:

When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering. Let’s say you’re going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend. That’s actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. Your trading ten hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time. And it’s probably more like fifteen hours, because there are mental switching costs that come with stopping what you’re doing, going somewhere else to meet, and then resuming what you were doing beforehand.

Which doesn’t take into account the productivity loss for the time required to prepare for the meeting, type up and distribute notes, etc….

When it is possible to work out loud, however, the work is not (need not be) hidden and the current state of work, along with all of the context that goes with it, is readily available to all who may need to see it. Including managers. But this requires a change in how managers approach management, and how they interact with the people who report to them.

Instead of asking to be “kept in the loop” through individual emails or by scheduling meetings, it becomes incumbent on the manager to ensure that their employees are working out loud and that they, the manager, keep themselves in the loop.

Thinking in bits isn’t just about changing the way we design forms to collect information or using fancy techniques to push customized content to our users. It also has far reaching implications and potential in how we design our work and the organizations in which we perform that work.