Shrieknote 219: All Hallow’s…


Things I have learned this week:

- your “big news” can be my minor interest story (and vice versa)
– a nameplate on a door can have have a certain impact (especially when it’s titled “Chancellor of the Exchequer”
– Boris Buses. Why? on so many levels…
– some of my favourite conversations at then moment are first thing in the morning, on a train (on Twitter)

Next week: November and the Ballantine family birthday cavalcade begins

Top blog posts for the month of October:

On how technology can make us efficient if not effective

On “New Coke” moments

On the future of career paths

On the craziness that is the “no reply” email address

On the nature of social networks as tools

Building trust


I’ve had two interesting, and diametrically opposed, conversations in the past couple of weeks on the subject of trust…

Yesterday I met someone who was recounting the experience of a friend working in the visual effects industry. VFX as it’s known in the trade is something of a boom industry in the UK at the moment and many Hollywood studios depend on studios in London to produce their stunning visual effects.

The friend had found that in recent months the fear of footage being leaked during the production cycles had reached such a peak that staff were required to drop mobile phones off at reception and then go to work on computers disconnected from the outside world. Despite there never having been any leaks in the past, creative talent was being forced to work “in a bunker” and were feeling suitably oppressed.

Compare that to a conversation a couple of weeks ago with a senior manager at Google. He was recounting how there was an incredible level of openness within the organisation, with product and other business announcements common knowledge within the business before being released to the outside world. Googlers knew the boundaries of disclosure and kept things to themselves as appropriate. He (and I) couldn’t recall a single leak that had occurred over the years, certainly in the Google for Work arena in which he worked. Compare that to the sieves that appear to be some of the other big, more draconian, tech companies.

There are a couple of things that strike me about these two stories. The first is that, in the case of Google, this implied trust that does seem to be a deep-rooted part of their culture probably explains why for so long they have responded to questions about information security and the like with little more than “trust us”. That’s been a barrier to them becoming more embedded into the corporate world, but interestingly the devices that Enterprise clients are looking for (third-party accreditation, contractual specificity and so on) are in many ways totems of mistrust – “I don’t believe you – I want a third party to verify or the law on my side please”. That’s very difficult to bring into a company who started with a mission of not “being evil”.

The broader point, though, is that trust breeds trust, and mistrust breeds mistrust. If you want someone to trust in you, then the worst way to begin that journey is to start on the basis that they themselves are untrustworthy. And yet when you look at so much policy and procedure that exists within our institutions, it starts with expecting the worst from people – and also in the realms of security intermingles mistrust of outsiders with mistrust of insiders. If you fundamentally don’t trust your staff, and that mistrust is enshrined into the mechanics of your organisation, getting the trust of your organisation’s members is always going to be an uphill battle.

The inverted dilemma


The announcement yesterday that Google and PWC are to join forces to deliver the Google for Work services delivers another plank in a strategy that seems to be turning Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma on its head.

In Christensen’s oft-cited model, technology providers are often unable to respond to competitive threats because of the need to serve the desires of their existing customers. A disruptive technology emerges in a parallel market, and then eats into the existing market later because of this customer-focused inertia.

Having entered into the consumer market with a disruptive set of products, Google has spent a number of years now trying to get companies to move to new models for software delivery and collaborative opportunity. To do this, Google seem to be working on a path to feature match things that will enable their offer to satisfy traditional IT, particularly in the areas of security and control. Essentially putting constraints on its innovation to appeal to a set of customers it’s trying to attract. (As an aside, the point this started was when labels became pseudo-folders in Gmail, leaving a solution that now makes no logical sense at all, but ticks a box on an IT procurement check list).

It’s been interesting to watch how Microsoft products have become distinctly more like the Google offer in recent years, whilst much of the Google innovation has been at the back end to offer administrative control and function that makes their product more “traditional”. The deal with a big consulting form like PWC is another step in that latter direction. “So safe your accountant uses it” is hardly a statement of innovative zeal…

Google for Work has been one of a number of products that has made Cloud commodity software acceptable, if not in many cases inevitable, as a technical model for delivery. It remains to be seen whether the constraints of traditional IT thinking will reduce our opportunity to really innovate with those platforms…

The M25 of Tech


London has two major orbital roads – the North and South Circular roads that entrap the centre of the city, and the M25 the 100+mile behemoth that boundaries Greater London. To be inside or outside of the M25 these days is the statement of how London you really are.

In my childhood I vaguely remember the opening of the completed M25. It took years to complete, and was opened in disconnected sections until eventually they were all joined up. And at that point you were able to speed around the capital at motorway speeds.

Unfortunately that motoring idyll wasn’t to last for long. The trouble with building roads that follow routes upon which people want to travel is that they generate demand. The more you build, it seems, the more traffic you create. And so it has been with the M25 – perpetual road building to increase capacity that increases demands that maintains the road as London’s largest open-air car park.

Google’s new “Inbox” user interface for email is the arterial road building of the tech world. The product, currently in invitation-only Beta, aims to lessen the challenges of email by using technology to make machines make smarter decisions about what to present in front of you. To increase your capacity to deal with the email deluge, if you will.

The problems with email are multiple: it’s not secure or controlled,
; it has reliability issues; vast resources are devoted to clearing it of spam; it has limitations that don’t match with our big-data era; there are multiple assumptions made by people that conflict about how and when others will respond; the language used in email has been dehumanised through it’s use by machines as a notification mechanism; the list goes on…

But it’s got one really big advantage that has led to its rise as the collaboration platform above all others: it’s an open(ish) standard to which large proportions of the internet population have access. That’s why it has become so all encompassing: everyone has it.

But email, and email programmes, are collaboration built around the individual, not the group. Email, I’d argue, might make some individuals more productive, but it makes the majority (and the whole) less so. Ask most office workers what’s at the top of their list of “shit that gets in the way of me doing my job” and email will be there or thereabouts – as it was a decade ago. There’s progress.

Initiatives like Inbox won’t solve the problem – they’ll make it worse. Sure there might be a short productivity burst for some as they get a competitive advantage over others. But then everyone else will catch up and we’ll have even greater capacity to deal with even more email. More efficient doesn’t automatically mean more effective.

There are plenty of technical tools in which we can work with others. Unfortunately, unlike email, almost all of them are proprietary and therein lies one of the adoption problems. But there’s an awful lot of unlearning to do with email (just witness how many files still get forwarded around even though there are a million and one other ways one can share files these days) – and putting an intelligent UI on top of email isn’t going to address that (un)learning.

Writing a novel


A few days ago I saw a blog post where someone was expressing their dissatisfaction with the business networking site LinkedIn.

I’ve come to one conclusion – LinkedIn is worthless to me.

Alright, so blunt cynicism aside, I’ve not found very many benefits from the site. It seems like you connect with people who barely know you and in turn, barely want to help. The most I’ve received is, “I’ll keep my eye out for you.” This is the same type of help I can get from a stranger sitting next to me on the bus.

The problem, it struck me, was the “people who barely know you” bit. And then I was reminded of an old saying that I’ve known for years (originally attributed to the relationship between Microsoft Project and the art of Project Management): social networks are to the art of networking what Microsoft Word is to the art of writing a novel.

We have all of these incredible tools available to us, but unless you are using them in the context of some sort of strategy you’re not managing, feeding and nurturing a network of people – you’re just collecting names on a web page. You might as well be trading football stickers or stamps.

I’ve of no doubt that social networks enable us to sustain networks far greater than the limits of our own cognitive ability. I’m certain that they enable us to connect and engage with people in ways previously unimaginable, finding people of like mind or of diverse interest.

But what social networks can’t do is feed and tend that network, helping it to grow so that you can give to it and receive from it. The tools might act as a conduit on occasion, but they won’t do it for you. They’re no replacement for hard work, empathy and paying forward.

They’re just a tool.

Don’t expect magic from them.

Four stages of digital disruption


I’ve been thinking about the ways in which media industries (and others) have been disrupted by the world of digital, and am playing around with the idea of four key stages:


The world where things existed in analogue and physical form. Think record shops and vinyl and cassettes. Think bookshops and libraries. Think news agents and newspapers.

Digital transactions

When the world of the physical became intermediated by websites. Think Amazon in its early days. It’s a place where a lot of the public library system in the UK current sits.

Digital fulfilment

When both the purchasing and delivery of the content become completely delivered across the internet. Think iTunes in music. Think Kindle in the world of books.

Digital transformation

Once the link between transaction and fulfilment has been totally digitized, there’s then the opportunity to rethink business models. In media, most obviously, this has been in the breaking down of the pay-per-item nature of music or film consumption through subscription models offered through the likes of Spotify or Netflix.

Non-media business can be seen to go through similar stages, although there are certain business types where it’s hard to imagine a completely digital delivery – take what Uber and others are doing to the world of taxi travel, for example.

Step changes generally happen with outsiders taking the lead (see: Amazon, Apple, Spotify…), and sometimes happen at the boundary of legality (Napster a great example in the world of music).

Thoughts welcomed.

Matt Ballantine's thoughts about technology, marketing, management and other stuff…


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