Archive for March 2007

Teaching “…the Mirror” to CIOs

March 16, 2007

During today’s presentation to the San Jose CIO Community of Practice, several underlying themes (of the book, of these blog commentaries) were discussed; as promised, I will note them here, so that the attendees of the session have an opportunity to “extend the discussion…”

As with last week’s presentation at the Naval Postgraduate School, though with a very different audience, much of our attention was paid to the very difficult task of explaining complex technology to non-technical (though nonetheless astute and/or intelligent) audiences, particularly in the context of corporate institutions that produce technical products and services.  Most often, the non-technical audience are executives, and just as frequently, the significant events occur in relation to budgets.  As our technologies become more complex, the requisite challenges to explain them coherently (or risk inadequate funding) are also becoming more complex.

The key, as those familar with my work will already know, is narrative and metaphor.  And, as in  last week’s sessions with the admirals, the attendees at today’s session seemed most interested in the stories and metaphors “that have worked,” i.e., have conveyed the lesson that might otherwise have remained vague or confusing.

In my entry of March 6, I noted two interesting “metaphorical scenarios” re: enterprise search, and two-factor authentication.  As a result of today’s session, I have added a new “category” to this site, so that any of the postings containing a metaphor/analogy (of possible value in a broader context) will be tagged appropriately.

I’m inclined to re-iterate the underlying strategy.  Metaphors and/or narratives are not the end state in communication.  They are creative tools to be used when the audience needs more from the speaker/writer than mere description.  For example, some of my friends have jokingly told me that I’m at my best when I am a router.   My professional colleagues understand the reference, but my wife’s colleagues (psychologists, analysts) may not grasp the true intent of the sentence.  Therefore, one approach would be declarative: a router is a device on a network that distributes tiny packets of information according to a pre-defined set of rules.  OK, now they might understand what a Cisco router does literally, yet they still may not understand why some of my friends think I am a router. 

However (from the book) if a complex network were explained, in metaphorical terms, as a city bureaucracy with many layers, many different functions and departments, and a possibly arcane set of regulations governing a citizen’s interactions at City Hall, and that Stuart (the guide, or the router) could welcome the citizen to the bureaucracy, quickly determine their needs and their authenticity, and help them navigate the circuitous hallways and offices in order that the citizen’s packet (license, ticket, fee) as delivered as efficiently as possible to the correct location.  Routed.

Armed with last week’s “Stump the Consultant” anecdotes, one of today’s attendees (while waiting in line for me to sign a copy of the book – another subject worth a few words) asked what the metaphor would be for autographs.


With a disclaimer that the “system” being discussed was the book I have written, the autograph might serve as a personalization detail at the presentation layer, a unique key underscoring that person’s ownership of the book.  Pretty simple.  I was ready to move on to another subject, but they asked for another layer of detail, something less obvious, something directly involving technology.

And so, the following story:  in 1972 and ’73, I served as a congressional intern for Senator Adlai E. Stevenson the 3rd (Illinois) as part of my college curriculum (Oberlin 1971-75).  My first task was sorting mail which, at that time, was a tedious and manual effort absent any glory or significance.  However, if one demonstrated exceptional skill as a mail sorter, an intern could quickly be promoted to use the AutoPen.

The AutoPen, a desk-sized (and curiously expensive) machine, the core asset being a brass disc at the center of the mechanism, cut like a large jigsaw piece.  The disc, when rotated, guided the pen (fitted in its appropriate groove at the appropriate angle) to apply the Senator’s signature to the document inserted at just the correct moment.  It was an exact duplicate of the Senator’s true signature, used for the dozens (often hundreds) of personal notes and sensitive responses to constituents that deserved more than a stamped signature.  It was considered, in most Senate proceedings, as the official signature, when such was needed. 

 Senator Stevenson’s real (actual) signature rarely passed through staff hands, though on one or two occassions, I was asked to provide a “quick” note or photo autograph, stopping the AutoPen at just the right moment, so that only Adlai was scribble in the same, auto-authentic manner.

Reason for telling the story?  Because there is always – yes, always – a useful metaphor or relevant narrative that could be used to convey a larger theme.  As I boldly asserted this afternoon, if you cannot find a mirror image or analogy anywhere in nature or science or art, then perhaps you should re-visit your original notion, which must might be wrong, in need of some additional critical thinking.

There must be a downside, someone asked today.  With all of the benefits of metaphor and narrative, surely such an approach comes with liabilities? 

I know them well, suffer from them, and they can be found here in the blog:  the effort to convert a complex subject to a simpler level through metaphor risks oversimplifying the subject, lessening its apparent importance; the effort to provide a narrative in lieu of more technical jargon, as we may be witnessing at this very moment (late at night, unedited) wherein a great many words have been used to say what can better be said shortly.

A quick note about Quick Notes…

March 16, 2007

There is a collaboration inherent in every effort to write (what I am doing now) and read (what you are doing now).  Subsequently, there are implicit obligations to the collaborative process, and occassionally, I think it’s useful to re-state them, for those who’ve just jumped into the column and haven’t yet read anything that comes before…

First, I have an obligation to keep the column current, with a broader concern (in this case) than simply listening to myself talk.

Secondly, the reader has an obligation to, at the very least, approach each entry with a modicum of attention and respect (suspension of disbelief), and to whenever possible, add the reader’s response, whether pro or con.

Consider this an ongoing invitation.

There are mirrors everywhere…even in The Navy

March 6, 2007

Last night, I had the good fortune to speak to a group of Navy captains as part of their continuous learning program sponsored by the Naval Postgratuate School in Monterey, CA. (See for more information about their mission and programs.)

The simplicity of our metaphor (we reflect ourselves in the systems that we build; as such, to transform our information systems, we must transform the organizations that design, build, and maintain them) was immediately embraced by this engaging and articulate group of Navy leaders.  Though many at the dinner seemed to believe that their particular difficulties with institutional technology were more complicated than could be addressed by such a “catch phrase,” they asked challenging questions in order to better understand these principles and how they might be applied in specific circumstances.

I’m inclined to share two of the many conversations I had with these Navy captains and admirals, not to over-simplify their very complicated technology environments, but to serve as examples as we strive to apply what we know to what we don’t yet know.

Example 1: Trying to explain complex security algorithms to business executives (for funding)…

Executives “glaze over” when asked to understand the technologies of two-factor authentication or deep packet intrusion protection. However, they understand in great detail the risks of illness, and our various tools that can be used to address them.  A thermometer costs $9.98 and effectively identifies a fever that can be addressed by ibuprofen.  Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) is much more expensive yet effectively identifies a mass in an organ that would require even more expensive oncological treatments. There is a risk-reward ratio that tells us it is ineffective to treat brain cancer simply with ibuprofen, and similarly ineffective to treat the common cold with radiation.  As parents, we make such decisions every day.  By asking the executives to understand the risks inherent in underfunding intrusion protection, and the consequences of providing the funds only for ibuprofen, they will be able to better understand the nature of the challenge and its proposed response.

Example 2:  We are convinced that a broader data search will yield more valuable results than the simple search being recommended, yet our executives don’t understand the complexity of tiered/virtualized storage.

Imagine that you are organizing a yard sale to yield some profits from your attic that is filled with no-longer-needed posessions.  You could simply provide your own used items for sale, or you could spend the time coordinating a neighborhood-wide yard sale on the assumption that there may be even more valuable items forgotten in the basement of the people who live down the block. How do you convince them to allow you to look through their basement, possibly discovering an old (inherited) painting that they didn’t remember, but could bring a substantial profit at your yard sale?  It is delicate diplomacy, requiring trust and an additional amount of administrative trivia, but the larger value to the entire neighborhood is compelling.

As I explained at our dinner last night, I do not mean to diminish the urgency or complexity of current technology initiatives.  On the contrary, applying this metaphor and understanding its human-centric components may add many complications we’d rather not confront.  There is no right or wrong – businesses have many constraints.  However, the application of the metaphor (and its resulting change in behavior) reduces the risk of miscommunication, and helps everyone understand the objectives in a more participatory way.  This becomes more complex, over time.  Yet there are fewer surprises (setting expectations) and less blame when projects exceed their initial timelines or cost structures.