Explaining twitter – part 1

As the twitter phenomenon has become mainstream I have found myself being asked on a regular basis to explain its value to business people who have not yet engaged. In three postings I hope to explain what it is, why I use and how I use it.

The basics of twitter

Twitter enables me to stay in touch with a group of people who, for the most part, share common interests with me. Effectively I participate in a community where people – including me – contribute information. The contributed information may or may not be of interest to me. However I have a number of options open to me to focus the information which is being brought to my attention.

I choose whom I follow in twitter. All of the information contributed by those whom I follow is brought to my attention. I can of course choose to ignore any or all of this information. However I have chosen to follow these individuals because I expect some or all of the information contributed by them to be of interest to me. Over a period of time I will cease to follow individuals whose contributions are generally of no interest to me.

I contribute to twitter. My expectation is that my contributions will be of value to some of my current or future followers. My contributions may range from: drawing attention to one of my own blog postings, drawing attention to someone else’s contribution (twitter, blog, web site, youtuve video, etc), responding to a request for information or asking a question – seeking support/ advice from one of my followers. In general my following will grow in proportion to the quality and frequency of my contributions.

I also use an application, tweetdeck, to assist me in reviewing tweats which my be of interest to me. Using tweetdeck I have organised the people I follow into groups e.g. those who contribute in relation to ‘links golf in Ireland’, those who contribute in relation to ‘semantic web’. This way I can focus my review on one specific subject matter of interest. I also use tweetdeck to run a number of continuous searches e.g. all tweets re ‘sharepoint for knowledge management’. This searches across all tweets. It may also cause me to add specific individuals to my follow list – because of the quality/ relevance of their contribution.

University education in the age of web 2.0 and 3.0

Happiest days of my life.  Very fortunate to have attended Trinity College Dublin in the early 80’s.  Computer engineering – learning to program assembler for the Motorola 68000, learning fluid mechanics.  Friends, fun, social development, cricket, rugby, chess, campus in the city centre.  Developing wider interests.

But what opportunities there are now for everyone in terms of learning and collaboration!  No reason why an undergraduate in TCD would not be collaborating on a first year project with others located all over the world (e.g. students in other universities, people in industry).  Time and location no longer the boundaries they were in the past.

Fascinating book published on future of learning: The future of learning institutions in a digital age

The book sets out challenges for universities in terms of enabling and encouraging participatory learning.  These challenges also present fantastic opportunites for the go ahead insitutions.

Interesting to consider the content in terms of how learning and knowledge management take place in companies and organisations.  I referenced concerns of business leaders recently – much the same: missing the opportunity and failing to move to the more participatory and less hierarchical thinking.

Making online collaboration work

In a conversation with the managing director (I will call him ‘Tom’) at a client a few weeks ago I felt I was in a time warp. I remember those conversations around: don’t want to give them PC’s because they’ll spend all day on their pc’s, don’t want them to have internet access because they’ll spend all day surfing. Tom was talking about why he didn’t want his staff accessing facebook etc. while in the office. And he was clear: it’s a distraction, keeps them from getting their job done.

A few days later we took time out to have a conversation.

Tom recruits a significant number of graduates each year. All of these people (with some small number of exceptions) are regular users of social networks such as Bebo & Facebook. They generally IM throughout the day. Many of them use twitter. Very few of them buy newspapers (they may read free papers on public transport). They use mobile devices for music, radio, telephone, IM. Many of them have their own blogs.

At senior managemenet level (generally 45-55) things are a little different. They all use mobile phones, most use blackberries to access email when out on the road. Very few use twitter. The majority read a daily newspaper and listen to radio. Very few use IM and almost none have personal blogs.

Social networking and the web is how this younger generation communicate and inform themselves. They have run and organised their lives using technology in a different way. Their attitude to news and information is different – they have an expectation that they can personalise it to themselves – not what is provided in a generic newspaper. They want it to be up to date and available when they want it. Likewise they expect to communicate with each other on an informal and unstructured way – via IM, using presence, etc. All of this works very well for them.

The senior management team is well aware of the technologies and the changes. In fact this group is using all of the technologies – even if moving a little slower. This is explained by (1) coming to it later and (2) being held back because not all their peers are comfortable with it. However through their kids, their work experiences, etc. they are more than familiar with what’s ‘going down’.

I asked Tom what were his criteria in recruitng a graduate. He mentioned: aptitude for the work, ability, ambition, education, likely fit for the organisation, ability to work in teams, social skills, willingness to learn. Not unusual.

My initial comment to Tom was to congratulate him on recruiting some very smart people. These people can helpTom to train and support his senior management team – if Tom encourages and supports this. Tom’s thinking was programmed the other way – the senior management team will train the new recruits. This ‘upladder training’ provides the opportunity to kick start a level of collaboration and team work not previously experienced in Tom’s company. From day 1 there should be a give and take – people sharing ideas and knowledge, learning from each other. But it needs a mindset change.

We then dicussed how Tom sees people learning and innovation in the company. Tom referenced the inhouse training program, the external courses to be attended, professional exams and, most importantly, ‘on the job’ training. I asked him how many of his senior guys participate in web based fora (to answer queries), publish papers on the web, etc. He had no idea and had no expectation that they would do so.

I suggested to Tom that he should survey his staff to determine how active they are on the web – in terms of active participation in relevant groups – including using twitter to follow and interact with other experts across the world. While his initial reaction was one of concern at the thought that his people may be giving out opinions on professional matters on the web he agreed to follow up.

The situation has moved on very quickly in the last two years or so. The idea that Tom would attempt to shut his people off from the rest of the web (or at best limit their access ie censor their activities) is dated and flawed thinking. Tom’s company will succeed or fail on the back of his team. He needs to find every which way possible to encourage and develop team activities and collaboration (hierarchical structures and thinking needs to be managed/ eliminated). And this collaboration cannot be restricted to his own enterprise. He needs his people networking and leveraging thier contacts to drive his enterprise’s capabilities and knowledge.

Tom had already seen the benefit of the web in terms of google search, online advertising, client communications. But that’s only one element of it. He needs to use it to enable and drive collaboration and knowledge management.

What about those not using social networking?

Twice today I was asked by people who are infrequent or non users of social networking solutions (and blogs) – how do you avoid leaving the non users out?  Or, when you are looking at a restaurant recommendation ot a wine recommendation – how valuable is the recommendation, given it is only based on information supplied by social network users, who may or may not be the best judge of the specific appeal of a restaurant or a bottle of wine for me?

If there are large groups of people who do not participate in social networking what is the impact for me, as a social networker and for them as non users?  Is a new elite being formed?  Even if people arecurrently  joining networks such as facebook in their millions, what about all of those users who cease to use the application some time after their initial registration?

Perhaps it’s a little (more than a little) like people choosing not to use a phone or not to use a mobile phone.  They are being left out, but may feel that overall quality of life is improved (or at least maintained) by not participating in a technology enabled, driven, environment.  And that environment is worse off for their non participation.

I tend to believe that social networking (when enabled by technologies/ standards such as SIOC) will prove to be a medium of communication and/or collaboration that people, for the most part, will need to join.  As the networks begin to work together and integrate the case fo participation will become greater.

It’s not all positive on the social networking side – lots of poor quality communication/ idea sharing/ workload sharing.   But grow it will – and opting out will gradually become less of an option for our citizens.

Semantics – for data and for documents

No doubt about it – linked data seems to be where it ia and will be for some time.  CEOs traditionally have one eye on the external and one eye on the internal – relying on COOs, CFOs etc to drive the inside efficiently while they figure out the positioning, the alliances, the competitive advantage.  Most of the CIO work has been focused on providing the systems to enable the COO, CFO, etc run the organisation efficiently.

The CEO needs linked data.  She needs to be able to compare and contrast using external data, preferably in conjunction with internal data.  That’s all about linked data – in spite of the data being held in completely different structures. (Enter semantics, tags, RDF, etc).

Have spent a lot of time in the last 18 months working with companies figuring out their document management strategies for the first time – down to detailed taxonomies.  Now, in the context of linked data and semantic web am looking at ontologies.  Without doubt thinking through the ontology questions forces people to figure out processes, relationships and different types of structures.  Seems to me now that the linked data and the document management imperatives are not separate – rather they require a more holistic approach to the analysis and design.

I would expect linked data, content management, mashups, collaboration – all to become part of the same thinking and solutions.  Indeed wikis and blogs are part of this – as they challenge the traditional role of wordprocessing type documents – through providing greater interactivity/ collaboration.  Even developments such as wiki enabled web based training soltions (cf DERI and pergamon) are further examples of this merging of tools, environment and solutions.

So you may come at this from a collaboration and document management perspective or from a BI and data useability/ refereneabililty perspective.  But much of the thinking and problem solving are common, interlinked and overlap.

Explaining the semantic web

We’ve just had the great semantic web conference, semtech, on West Coast.  Lots of interest, new initiatives, buzz.

Have been fielding more questions from the general populace – what is the semantic web?  Have tended to focus on the difference between being able to access data rather than documents over the web.  I think the other key is explaining that the semantic web is designed to enable computer software to aggregate, analyse, present data from the web – without human interaction.

@mirkolorenz on twitter brought my attention to a short 5 minute video from the last Davos conference which gets the essence across.  For the next number of week I will be directing my friends and colleagues to this video for a snappy, relevant, dynamic explanation of semantic web…if a picture can paint a thousand words..

Thanks Tom Llube – i think you nailed it.

linked data – lots of upside but major rethinking required

Linked data poses some interesting questions for us as individuals and in our organisations. Traditionally we have held that information is power – and therefore have guarded our information. Much of the time this has included guarding our data. To make linked data work we are looking to encourage much greater publications and sharing of data.

I was recently looking to complete some research on behalf of a client. It required me to review financial and operational information (including annual reports) for approx. 50 global companies. After some google work I ended up looking through a whole series of pdf files – available on the internet – and compiling my own analysis. And I have no easy way of updating this analysis.

However if this data were published in a different format – to facilitate its being read and analysed by computer applications – then this analysis would have been available to me instantaneoulsy. And updating the analysis would be trivial.

Back to safeguarding our data and/or information. If you have invented coca cola and have the secret formula then you want to keep this secret. Your concern is that you have a fantastic product and you want to maintain your competitive advantage.

If you are a soft drinks manufacturer you probably also know what percentage of nine year old males, living in any particular catchment area, drink your product more than once per month. This data is also of value to you – perhaps in terms of planning marketing campaigns, advertising initiatives, pricing plans. But perhaps you would be willing to share this information – in order to be able to correlate it with information that other groups may have about habits of youth in a particular neighbourhood.

Is there any real point in people the world over wasting time effectively completing the same analyses – in private companies, government bodies, voluntary organisations? Is it not an incredible waste of time? In fact, in an era when we have finally begun to concern ourselves with energy waste can we not recognise that this duplication (many times over) of effort is a major societal waste of time?

We have driven some of the sharing of data through initiatives re disclosure – to protect shareholders, citizens, etc. However we have not yet got to the point where we are rewarding companies and organisations for making more of their data available in useable formats. There are major potential savings and benefits if we can change the mindset.

I do not underestimate the challenge faced. Our business training and experience has been to develop and maintain competitive advantage through having greater insights, knowledge, etc. What the semantic web is suggesting is that to succeed we should be much more generous with our own data – in order to gain access to far richer and deeper data, while at the same time serving the common good. We now need to see real sample models for people and companies adapting and succeeding with this approach.

Golf making most of web and social networking

I thought 3 made a brilliant job of promoting the Irish Open – using networks including facebook.  However I think the opportunity to play a virtual round at Bethpage for the US open beats this.

This is an example of the web adding significantly to the the user experience ie to the TV golf spectator or the golf newspaper article reader.  Anyone who takes the time to play 18 virtual holes at Bethpage (not having playing the real course) will have a greater understanding of the challenge to be faced by Tiger Woods, Padraig Harrington, etc.

And then there’s the traffic, the advertising potential, etc.

Good luck to all of you who try.  I hope you have more skill at virtual golf than this blogger.

Seeking changes in Health & Education in Ireland

Interesting to read Paul Rellis (CEO Microsoft Ireland) pushing significant amounts of technology in Education and Health as ways to address much of the problems we have.

Would agree 100% with Paul Rellis’s ideas around uses of digital technology.  However seems to me risk putting cart before the horse.  First we need a clear vision of what we are looking to achieve, then commitment from those in Health & Education to achieve the vision, commitment from the investor (govt.) in terms of any required investment.  The technology bit is not actually that hard – using Microsoft technology, other proprietary technology and open source technology – in any, to be agreed, configuration.

But first let’s set vision, get some commitment and manage the change.