Sunday, 25 January 2015

A tale of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively."

This is how author Walter Isaacson introduces 'The Innovators', a fascinating tale of pioneers and entrepreneurs who are responsible for some of the most significant breakthroughs of the digital age.

The reason why I liked this book lies in Isaacson's ability to describe the lives of these visionaries in detail. He shows their profound passion and deep care for building great products that ultimately changed our lives. At the same time, the author likes to emphasise how their remarkable inventions were mostly the results of collaboration. Being able to work in teams made those inventors "even more creative."

"The tale of their teamwork is important because we don't often focus on how central that skill is to innovation."

From Ada, Countess of Lovelace to the Web

Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace. The English mathematician and writer published her "Notes" on Babbage's Analytical Engine in 1843. Notes were recognised as the first algorithm carried out by a machine.

Over the years, Lovelace has been celebrated as a feminist icon as well as a computer pioneer. What stood out was her appreciation for poetical science, which the author likes to emphasise as a lasting lesson for innovating at all times.

"Ada's ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times...She was able to understand the connections between poetry and analysis."

Many influential people who have made a big impact on our society often have gathered enemies or disagreements along the way. This applies to Ada Lovelace too. "She has also been ridiculed as delusional, flighty, and only a minor contributor," writes Isaacson.

However, the author perfectly captures the reason why Lovelace must be recognised in The Innovators:

"The reality is that Ada's contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of human imagination...Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds of a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later."


The author likes to remind us of a crucial element to the partnership between humans and machines: creativity.

"We humans can remain relevant in an era of cognitive computing because we are able to think different, something that an algorithm, almost by definition, can't master. We possess an imagination that, as Ada said, "bring together things, facts, ideas, conceptions in new, original, endless, ever-varying combinations." We discern patterns and appreciate their beauty. We weave information into narratives. We are storytelling as well as social animals."

Isaacson believes that arts and humanities should endeavor to appreciate the beauty of math and physics. And vice versa.

He encourages us to respect both the two worlds. But, more importantly he suggests understanding how they intersect. "The next phase of the Digital Revolution will bring even more new methods of marrying technology with the creative industries, such as media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, literature, and the arts."

New platforms and social networks are enabling fresh opportunities for individual imagination and collaborative creativity. It is through the interplay between technology and the arts that new forms of expression will eventaully emerge.

"This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors."

The human-machine partnership

The book encompasses all the major key players in computing, programming, electronic devices, microchips, video games, the Internet, the personal computers, software, online and the web.

It concludes by describing IBM's Watson and its Jeopardy!-playing computer, a good example of how people and machines can partner and get smarter together for the better of society.

Isaacson describes a project where Watson was used to work in partnership with doctors on cancer treatments.

"The Watson system was fed more than 2 million pages from medical journals and 600,000 pieces of clinical evidence, and could search up to 1.5 million patient records. When a doctor put in a patient's symptoms and vital information, the computer provided a list of recommendations ranked in order of its confidence."

But, as often happens with new technological developments, there was an initial resistance from physicians who were not happy to have a computer telling them what to do. It was mainly a problem of communication and language. The author writes, "in order to be useful, the IBM teams realized, the machine needed to interact with human doctors in a manner that made collaboration pleasant."

They decided to reprogram the system to come across as humble. After those iterations "doctors were delighted, saying that it felt like a conversation with a knowledgable colleague."

Innovation is a team game

Other key lessons can be drawn from Isaacson's book in addition to the power of creativity and the possibilities created by the human-machine partnerships just discussed.

The following ones are very close to the internal communicator's heart.

First and foremost, as the author puts it, "innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses." I like the example of Twitter that Isaacson uses to make the point.

The popular social network,

"was invented by a team of people who were collaborative but also quite contentious. When one of the cofounders, Jack Dorsey, started taking a lot of the credit in media interviews, another cofounder, Evan Williams, a serial entrepreneur who had previoulsy created Blogger, told him to chill out, according to Nick Bilton of the New York Times. "But, I invented Twitter," Dorsey said. "No, you didn't invent Twitter," Williams replied. "I didn't invent Twitter either. Neither did Biz [Stone, another cofounder]. People don't invent things on the Internet. They simply expand on an idea that already exists."

Within the Twitter story lies another useful lesson:

"The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations."

Two more lessons are worth acknowledging. One is that the most productive teams are made of people with a diverse range of specialities. The second one is that the physical closeness of team members can help to drive innovation.

The latter is interesting. It is often the subject of lively debates on the nature of our workplaces. The author observes that despite today's virtual tools, "now as in the past, physical proximity is beneficial. There is something special...about meetings in the flesh, which cannot be replicated digitally."

He uses the research facility Bell Laboratories as an example to illustrate his point:

"In its long corridors in suburban New Jersey, there were theoretical physicists, experimentalists, material scientists, engineers, a few business-men, and even some telephone-pole climbers with grease under their fingernails. Walter Brattain, an experimentalist, and John Bardeen, a theorist, shared a workspace, like a librettist and a composer sharing a piano bench, so they could perform a call-and response all day about how to make what became the first transitor."


"We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning."

Probably that is true. But, Isaacson doesn't fail to bring that meaning back reporting on how innovation is actually occuring in the real world.

If you want to find out how the most disruptive ideas have been concretely turned into realities, then 'The Innovators' is the book for you. The manual is full of pointers that communicators and leaders of any progressive organisation may use as a sort of inspiration. Plus, I would like to applaude the author's ability to write about technological developments in such a clear and simple way that even 'non techy' people can easily comprehend and much appreciate.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate 

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Leadership and diversity - in conversation with Sylvana Storey

Different ways of working across cultures and generations have become prominent in today's global and complex organisations. How a leader embraces, coordinates and acts upon differences in the workplace is key to achieving business goals while supporting organisational identity and sustaining employee engagement.

I met with Change Management Consultant and author of "The Impact of Diversity on Global Leadership Performance. LEAD³" Sylvana Storey (pictured right) to learn more about the topic.

In her book Storey explains:

"Diversity is often seen as a problem for global business leaders – either because leaders in mature markets driven by compliance are experiencing ‘diversity fatigue’ or, leaders in emerging markets don’t always believe diversity is ‘relevant’ to their context.

"However, when diversity is seen from a ‘big picture’ perspective then it is acknowledged as being vital to global growth, sustainability and maintaining strategic advantage – it actually represents a huge commercial opportunity, but only if it is correctly understood and managed with this purpose in mind."

In this video interview Storey shares her personal experience with discrimination - due to the colour of her skin or just for being a woman, and suggests what companies can do to help their workplaces be more diverse.

She also discusses three key dimensions of diversity: Structural diversity, which considers demographic and systemic differences; Cognitive diversity, which relates to the different ways of thinking, and Behavioural diversity, which pertains to the different ways of behaving.

"Organisations are complex adaptive systems that embody both technical and human processes. It is the humanness and quality of our relationships that ultimately drives an organisation’s success and therefore the focus on inclusion, engagement and collaboration that lies at the heart of diversity is also the heart of successful change." 

Click on the image to watch the video

A framework for leadership and diversity
Storey gathered the views of a multitude of senior leaders while working with 7 multinationals from 7 different sectors across 22 countries. That research enabled her to develop an interactive tool called LEAD³, which she uses when consulting business leaders. It "presents a change management process for leadership and diversity that is focused and aligned to the strategic business objectives."

Storey believes that many opportunities can be realised through LEAD³ including innovation, customer-centricity, enhanced brand reputation, new collaborative ways of working, increased market share and penetration into new markets.

"A leader who successfully embraces diversity will enhance their own reputation as well as that of the organisation, and will make their role easier by garnering the support of the organisation to sustain itself through periods of rapid and discontinuous change. The fundamental idea that diversity creates strength is evident when diversity works, just look around at the increasing success of global businesses that get it right."

More on the following video. Click on the image below to watch the interview.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

How digital is shifting leadership

Lee Bryant (pictured right) founded PostShift in 2013 with the mission to help enterprises evolve their structure, technology, culture and practice to become more competitive and agile in the 21st Century.

He has been exploring the field of digital transformation for a much longer time though; prior to launching PostShift he was the Director of HeadShift, a boutique consultancy focusing on the practical use of social technology for achieving organisational change.

"I had a great time for about ten years doing that. There was the need of a mindset shift in how companies were run. We thought that social technology was the way to achieve that. Then, we realised that it wasn't really just about the technology. First and foremost it was about the culture of the organisation.”

That is how the name PostShift came about. "It was no longer a debate that social technology was one of the most interesting ways to connect people inside the enterprise. We succeeded in making that mainstream. Now, it was the time to move to the next part of our mission by helping companies to look at their structure."

Three levels of activities

For Bryant, digital transformation is built upon three levels of activities: "how you change the way you engage with markets and customers; how you change your internal operations; and how you innovate around business models (new products, new services, new partnerships and so on...).”

What he saw with the rise of social media was an initial focus on just external engagement. However, that seems to have changed: "What is interesting now is the recognition that to do all these exciting new things externally, we need to look inside. We need to look at the DNA of the company."

Today, part of the business challenge is management, part is leadership and part is technology. "It is largely about realising that the way we run our businesses is out to date. It is based on old assumptions and constraints of the 20th Century. There is no more reason to use that template."

He believes that there are many new ideas - from networked organisations, to non-hierarchical or self-managed systems - that sit at the heart of more agile businesses. "These are more responsive to change and able to deliver the promise of social engagement and digital transformation."

The capability gap

For Bryant, the way to start is by trying to understand the capability gap that the business needs to fill in to be successful. "Look at how to create those capabilities through better structures, a more collaborative culture and new practices, by making the most of communications and engagement technology."

But, there is a problem to face: "Often, programs are big, top-down and done with such a great intensity that they do not lead to a sustainable change." Change should not happen once per year, but "every week through a little bit of iterations and tweaking."

"You need a real-time picture of the organisational health. It is a picture of the evolution of the company as opposed to a revolution. You need to set some measures that reflect what and where you want to be. Then, keep making small changes that that will help you move toward that picture."

Bryant likes to use the metaphor of personal health. "For years people had used a crash diet, losing weight for a few weeks and then gaining it back.”

Now instead, there is the idea of the quantified self. “We have started to track our health through connected devices and gradually we try to become fitter. It is an evolutionary progress based on real-time feedback rather than one-off big change. The same sort of change needs to happen for enterprises.”

Leading evolutionary change

The companies that are successfully embracing this transformation “have in common a visionary leader who has created a state in which the organisation can pursue alternative ways of working. Often they operate without micro-managing from above."

He cites the holacracy methodology, popular among innovative, customer-centric companies like Zappos and Medium. “They use self-management ideas to involve their people through individual accountability and responsibility. We do not know if this is going to be the answer. But it is certainly an example of the effort to update old management styles.”

The challenge for managers is to take these new radical approaches and simplify them for their own organisation. "It is not about adopting one single template but finding your own structure that matches your culture and the behaviors of your staff.

Ultimately, it is about mixing and matching different methodologies that best suit the company.

Internal communicators – blockers or supporters?

“In some cases, internal communicators can be the blockers. If they come from the old school of controlled messages, they may want to hold on to that position, and not really to adapt.”

Yet, there are three key populations inside a company that can be useful in driving digital transformation: “One is the Community Managers who spread the culture of collaboration and sharing. Another is the people who work with knowledge. And the third is Internal Communications.”

The latter applies when internal communicators act as networkers. “Instead of taking the message from the boss and getting it across to everybody, they maintain the fabric of collaboration and sharing. They tend to be more aware of new tools and techniques that help to build engagement in the digital world.”

Also, they can help to create confidence around collaboration. “A lot of what is going wrong inside companies is a confidence issue – people are afraid to say the wrong things. Not communicating and not sharing what people need to know to get work done is a big issue. Internal communications can play an important role here.”

The future

“We tend to underestimate the time it takes for technologies to become mainstream.”

However, Bryant is sure that in 2015 digital transformation will be recognised as something that cannot be owned by marketers alone. “Marketers play a huge role. But, we will see a coming together of internal and external initiatives as well as wider processes of change.”

In terms of technology, things will continue to move to the cloud. And, experiences – not features – will be key. “Companies will start to have the confidence that they can use simple point solutions like Slack or HipChat above monolithic platforms like SharePoint.”

The leaders of tomorrow

There is a range of characteristics that make a networked-centred leader succeed in 21st Century. Bryant believes these three to be fundamental:

First is the ability to communicate by sharing stories that excite people.

The second is about influence. “With social networks, a good and strong leader can have a presence that is much wider than the one they achieve physically. The ability to influence virtually has become a vital leadership quality.”

The third is having the right knowledge of how things get done in complex systems. “You cannot manage complex networks directly in the same way you manage hierarchies. You need an understanding of how you can affect change when outputs are not under your direct control.”

Bryant believes that the biggest change is letting go of the old hierarchies:

“Leadership is now distributed – it is not confined to job titles and it is not a property of management. These leaders have the big belief that they can make great things and have the ability to create the desire for change.

“Managers are the product of a structure. Whereas with leaders, you can take away the whole system and they will still be leaders.”

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The future of work - a colourful journey to 2022

As generations collide and workforces become more diverse, PwC's new report asks whether your organisation will be blue, green or orange in 8 years' time.

“Disruptive innovations are creating new industries and business models, and destroying old ones. New technologies, data analytics and social networks are having a huge impact on how people communicate, collaborate and work. As generations collide, workforces become more diverse and people work longer; traditional career models may soon be a thing of the past. Many of the roles and job titles of tomorrow will be ones we’ve not even thought of yet.” - Michael Rendell,
 Head of Human Capital Consulting, PwC

10,000 respondents from China, India, Germany, the UK and the US took part on the future of work’s survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). 66% of them saw the future of work as a “world full of possibility.”

But, which possibilities? “The future of work. A journey to 2022” is a fascinating narrative of three worlds coming together to shape new ways of working.

The Blue World – corporate is king 

The Blue World will be governed by capitalism, with a business model built around efficiency, speed and innovation. To survive in a challenging environment, the operating system will look at opportunities whenever they are.

Internally, the challenge will be to “integrate talent from different markets into the overall corporate culture.” Also, to implement high rewards for high-flyers, while catering for benefits such as flexibility and technological support.

Analytics will provide novel ways of identify
workforce skills sets, “creating precision around sourcing the right candidates for the right tasks, as well as on-the-job performance measurement and assessment.”

HR and those in charge of human talent will be required not only people skills, but also capabilities such as financial, analytical, marketing and risk management skills.

However, building trust and real-time communications will remain key to be establishing lasting relationships with staff. It will be particularly true in “convincing employees that the ‘price’ of data release and close monitoring is worth paying.”

The Green World – companies care 

Companies in the Green World will be highly involved in social and environmental responsibility. They will be open, collaborative and learning working environments willing to support employees and communities in their development.

While the Chief Executive will lead the strategy for the company, green firms will have flat and fluid structures, in which every individual will be empowered to make decisions.

For green firms, “corporate responsibility is not
an altruistic nice to have, but a business imperative.” Technology will be used to replace colleagues’ need for travelling; staff footprint will be used in targeting performance; initiatives will be created around health and well-being, professional development, flexible working and volunteering.

“The combination of ethical values, support for the real economy and family- friendly hours is an opportunity to create a new employee value proposition that isn’t solely reliant on pay.”

However, HR will need to be innovative, providing employees with jobs that meet their aspirations and lifestyles. Plus, ensuring that regulations will not be a barrier to flexibility in the enterprise.

Finally, “in a caring organisation, there
is also the question of how to keep people
in employment if there is a downturn in the market or wider economy.”

The Orange World – small is beautiful 

Businesses in the Orange World are fragmented “into looser networks of autonomous, often specialised operations.” They will be brought together often on a task-basis through technology, connectivity and social media. While the core team will fully embrace the philosophy of the company, “the rest come in and out on a project-by-project basis.”

“People are more likely to see themselves as members of a particular skill or professional network than as an employee of a
particular company.”

The Orange World sees the rise of “the portfolio career,” with a big number of individuals preferring to have multiple working experiences as freelancers or contractors for a variety of organisations. According to the findings, 2 out of 5 respondents think that the traditional employment will disappear. Instead, individuals “will have their own ‘brands’ and sell their skills to those who need them.”

This will be part of a generational shift, with younger people hunger for autonomy and entrepreneurialism.

As for the Blue and Green World, Orange firms will make extensive use of technology. However, their focus will be on creating virtual collaboration, coordinating external workforce and supporting relationships with third parties. Again, building trust and solid relationships will be crucial.
One challenge will be to ensure that the people who have a stake in the company’s success, genuinely possess the expertise required.

So, what does the future hold?

“Most of the HR professionals in our survey don’t believe they’re prepared for meeting the needs of a workforce that demands more freedom, autonomy and flexibility. Only around 20% report that they’re
 ready to embrace the role of technology and automation in replacing knowledge workers, even though most recognise this is something they should consider.”

The three worlds by PwC are not intended as a prescriptive and static model. Instead, they should be treated as a starting point for planning a long-term strategy, which takes into considerations both opportunities and risks likely to occur in the future.

This article originally appeared on simply-communicate