Archive for the ‘Useful Metaphors’ category

Library as Metaphor

August 13, 2011

I still recall the feel of the book, the yellow tint of overhead bulbs, the exact moment when I understood that books were made things, that words written by a stranger 100 years ago continue a beckoning call to new readers – and I wanted to become a maker of such things, a writer of words that (with good fortune and perhaps a bit of skill) could outlast me for years to come.

The place: our public library in Danville, Illinois.  The time: a Saturday morning, 1965.

This entry is not, however, about the publication of a book forty years later, or about the profound sense of purpose when I returned to my hometown a few weeks ago and located a copy of my book on its shelves.  Good topics, both.  Rather, it involves a small story about that small town library, a modest anecdote resonating a much larger theme. 

The new library building, with modern brick facades, bronze sculptures of children reading on the lawn, and a fully-computerized infrastructure not unlike many libraries in many other towns, is situated across the street from the old library of my childhood, now a museum.  As the town readied for the opening of the new library (several years ago), the last phase of the project involved the transfer of books from old building to new.  They didn’t hire specialists.  They didn’t use crates or forklifts.  They used little red wagons and dozens of children.

The wagons were donated by their manufacturer, just for this purpose.  And so it was, one Saturday morning, that a very organized but energetic line of little people – each with their own red wagon – moved an entire library’s contents from the library I knew to their sleek new home one hundred yards away, back and forth with their numbered, Dewey-catalogued pile of books, somewhere among them the one I held in my hands in 1965 and the one I published in 2005.  And it doesn’t require much imagination to visualize that scene from the air: the living channel of content and containers, the transfer of immense (incalculable) amounts of words and pictures from one physical location to another, the simple-but-important protocols each child was instructed to follow, and the sequencing-validation-archival of librarians chartered with ensuring that not a single word or book (or child or wagon) is lost in the transfer.

It reminds me of the advances in technology we now all take for granted, how gigabits of data (books and songs and movies) are so easily transferred across great (unimaginable) distances from one (now unknowable) physical location to the tiny device in our hands.  My teenage son does not know what a card catalog looks like, but he navigates the universe of information as easily as those kids navigated their wagons.  Information transfer is now measured in milliseconds. Fonts can be changed via menu.  Foreign languages translated with a click.

And yet, the physical space of the library itself – the quietness of reading rooms, the cluttered bulletin boards in the lobby, the airy ceilings of light – still remain a place for community, refuge, safety, and those moments of occasional delight.

Best Innovations of 2010

December 29, 2010

One recognizable impact of recessions is muted worker creativity – we take fewer risks, content that we still have a job – and companies, too, can lose their spark as they pare expenses. Retrenchment is often the opposite of spontaneity, and an absence of spontaneous thinking limits new ideas.

True innovations in such an environment are worthy of applause.

With a disclaimer that the actual innovative thinking for these product enhancements likely occurred in 2009, I offer The Best of 2010 because, as a consumer, I noticed them in the past 12 months.

What I find most interesting is that both innovations are evidence that improved usability (of a product) can also lead to a measurable reduction of operational cost – a paradox that should inspire anyone who is asked to do more with less.

  • ATM User Interface – How many of us (in previous years) have used our bank’s ATM machine, completed our transaction, and walked away without retrieving our ATM card?  The problematic behavior cost the banking industry hundreds of thousands of dollars annually because of replacement costs and the diminished productivity of bank employees distracted by customers who lost their cards, or turned in someone else’s card that they found in a nearby machine.  It used to happen 1000’s of times in most bank branches, but no more. Kudos to the usability designer who recognized that this was actually a business process problem – one that was completely solved by simply changing the sequence of tasks during our transactions.  We are now asked to remove our card before the transaction is finalized.  This small change in the order of instructions has almost entirely eradicated the CLB issue (Card Left Behind) and has been adopted as a “best practice” by all major ATM vendors, saving the consumers and the banking industry both time and expense.

Now, that’s good thinking.

  • Hotel Hand Soap – Originally noted by visitors to Yellowstone National Park, I discovered mine at the Turkey Run Lodge in Indiana: a bar of soap without a middle (soap with a hole in it) that is much easier to handle and, for the hotel industry, the solution to their WDWDWTWS problem (What Do We Do With This Wasted Soap).  It has been heralded in other columns as a “green” or eco-friendly innovation, however, I’m inclined to consider the cost reductions for the manufacturer: each bar of soap uses 30% less material, allowing them to produce the same number of items while dramatically reducing their cost of goods.  Kudos to the engineer at Green Natura soap products for their solution to the paradox of reducing cost while simultaneously improving the product.

Now, that’s good thinking.

As managers, we need to give our employees some breathing room because it is possible to reduce costs and also deliver an improved product.  As employees, we need to give our bosses a break when they dare to assign us the impossible task, because it is possible to reduce costs and deliver an improved product.

Why Don’t We Train our Managers to be Managers? Part Three: Listening

August 13, 2010

Easy advice to give others, not so easy to actually follow yourself.

I had a harsh lesson in this topic when, after years of executive-level consulting in which I taught managers how to listen to their teams (even purchased stethoscopes for one group to be prominently displayed in their offices, provoking their employees to ask Why The Stethoscope, and inviting a conversation about listening skills) one of my dearest colleagues stopped a meeting and told me to get my stethoscope.  I wasn’t listening.

Metaphors abound, all telling the same story.

I once met a truck driver in Pennsylvania who always rolled his window down when his rig entered one of the Fort Pitt tunnels.  They were an echo chamber, he said, for how well the truck’s engine is doing.  He claimed that he could hear an emergent transmission problem weeks before a mechanic could find it.

Good listening skills are more than important tools in your organizational relationships.  They help us hear the emergent problems in the mechanism of our departments.  As any first year Mechanical Engineering student knows, it is critical to recognize (and compensate for) the smallest vibrations in the construction of (for example) a suspension bridge, rather than waiting until the entire bridge fails from increasingly strong resonant vibrations.

Executives are so accustomed to fire-fighting (shifts in the market, unhappy customers, competitive risk) that they can lose sight of the too-small-to-be-noticed-until-there-are-flames problems.  They presume that their employees will attend to them, but the absence of listening skills (no one wants to hear bad news) replicates itself through the hierarchy.  Have you been surprised by the sudden departure of a key staff member?  Missed project milestones?

Here are a few (of the many) things you can do to encourage the information flow in your organization:

  • Town Hall meetings:  Bring everyone together with the sole purpose of answering anyone’s questions, and do this regularly.
  • Skip-level Lunches:  Invite 4-5 randomly selected individuals to lunch and listen to the conversation rather than dominating it.
  • Cross-attendance of Team Meetings:  Encourage (or even insist upon) “outsiders” in each departmental meeting where the visitors are tasked with taking news back to their teams.
  • Walk the Halls:  Don’t wait in your office for people to come to you with an issue (classic open door policy) but take the time to roam, and engage.
  • Check-in with your colleagues, visit your remote offices, launch an employee satisfaction survey, give an award for the Best Question of the Week.

We know how to monitor the health of our servers and can respond to email notifications alerting administrators when a server is a 95% capacity and on the verge of failure, but what methods do you use to learn that an employee is at 95% capacity?

Why are we still talking about The Stack?

May 9, 2007

I have been an attendee of MR Rangaswami’s enterprise software conferences since their inception five years ago, and yesterday’s sessions of Software 2007 (see deserve some response.

Hasso Plattner is a smart guy, to be sure, and his keynote address acknowledged the massive transformation we are witnessing in the software industry.  Pundits have commented on his “chalkboard-style” presentation, yet no one has yet to point out that it was simply a chalkboard font to give the illusion of personalized notes.  Shane Robison (from HP) was far too unwilling to challenge his competitors/partners (Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, SAP) by saying anything that was controversial; no one seemed to notice his lapse in logic as he reiterated that HP was serious about software, yet offered nothing new in their roadmap as they shift R&D from hardware to software.  Even the PR/Marketing gurus in the breakout sessions were inconclusive: everyone notes the importance of innovation and the dominance of communities (of users, developers, bloggers, et. al) yet none of them was willing to propose a unique strategy for enabling us/them.  Marc Benioff comes the closest with his Software-as-a-Service paradigm, which some of us have been recognizing since (and Corio and Jamcracker) were called ASPs in 2001.

One obvious (to this writer) theme echoed throughout everyone’s presentations:  The Stack.

Why are we still talking about The Stack?

For those unfamilar with this stale metaphor, a simple explanation: imagine a Powerpoint diagram of ascending boxes, with “the network” at the bottom, above which is a layer of “databases,” above which is a layer of “applications” and crowning the stack, a browser-based user interface.  Every IT diagram has included a variation of this diagram for the past ten years, and it was easily witnessed again this year in the “vision” of SAP, HP, Microsoft and friends.

Yes, they also nodded affirmatively to the slow-but-sure acceptance of services-oriented architectures, re-usable components and models, and widely available (even open source) functions and features that can and will be accessed ubiquitously across a worldwide network, yet no one in the room was willing to admit what I will state here:  The Stack is a legacy system, and the institutions who still depend upon the metaphor are those who continue to build and serve legacy architectures.  Of course, The Stack will not go away (few legacy systems ever do go away), except in those few, truly visionary institutions (think: Credit Suisse) who understand the challenge is not about linking devices, but about linking people, institutions that understand that the network is not the platform: we are the platform.

We are diffuse, global, personal, and inclined toward “local” communities (of thinking and behavior, not geography anymore).

We are the fundamental components of a network that is most often diagrammed without those fundamental components. 

At our best, we are not hierarchical (The Stack is hierarchical, and therefore does not serve us at our best).

Perhaps the keynoters will begin to acknowledge this at MR’s conferences in 2008 or 2010.

We are the Platform.


April 28, 2007

With thanks to Dave Snowden’s latest commentary in our Value Networks online dialogues (see…

Dave, your latest observations about HTML lead me to relate an anecdote from my book’s research.  (I will leave the semantic and psychological variations to those better qualified, with one note: it has been my observation that we must change our words in order to change our behaviors.)

The anecdote, then.

As some of you know, my book is a series of fictions, narratives of characters who live and work in the world of technology.  One of the chapters is told from a professor’s point-of-view, and includes a description of a technical writing exercise he asks each year from his students.  In this story, the students are encouraged to consider the works of Robert Coover (Brown Univ.) and Ted Nelson (Xanadu, etc.) in three-dimensional form.

During the early drafts of the chapter, I had the good fortune to engage in actual (not fictional) correspondence with Mssrs. Coover and Nelson – and Ted Nelson, in particular, was enamored with the idea that I might send him passages of the fictional story, to which he could (in real life) respond.  In this way, the fictional conversation becomes a real conversation over the Net.  During our brief correspondence, I explained that his text in the story could be linked to his dynamic website, allowing him the possibility of editing/revising his notions about information exchange, even after the book was published.  However, we acknowledged that, upon hardcopy publication, the actual hypertext link would be “frozen in time” as published.  Finally, we then postulated that the book might oneday be electronically searchable by Google or the Internet Archive, at which point, the hypertext link to his writings would become active, once more.

HTML created and blurred the distinction between “content” and “container.”  In the old days, the text was housed in a time-based and physical ostuary (print), however, with the advent and wide acceptance of HTML, and the further expansion of dynamic links generated by software, one’s homepage might be changed via software programming, without manual intervention, creating dynamically-generated content.  Since then, we have introduced even further layers of abstraction that invites us to further blur any distinctions between content/container.

The most apt metaphor for the future of hardcopy publishing is reflected in my experience during the production cycle of my book, The System is a Mirror, which I finished writing in December 2005.  If I had wanted to publish the work on the Net (via an extended blog or narrative-based website), it would have been available to readers within days.  However, the manufacturing and marketing cycles of the book led it to an August release, more than seven months after I’d finished writing.

For those of us who continue to learn and adjust our conceptual models, seven months can lead to significant changes in one’s thinking – perhaps work on a second book is well on its way when the first appears for readers, whereas the currency of web-based publishing (events unfolding in text as they are unfolding in the world) affords near real-time exchange of views, a “faster” absorption of other views, a more complex and adaptive system that emulates the natural behavior of a human network.

One final note, as confession: I am a book lover.  Leather-bound first editions of fine literature are among my favorite objects in the known world.  Unlike hundreds of years ago, however, they are no longer bound by a specific time.  Our networked collaboration – due to the ubiquity of markup languages and standard Internet protocols – indeed, this very blog is no longer constrained in this way.  It is text in the present tense.

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.