May 15, 2004


Gum arabic. Where have you heard that before? Perhaps on the list of ingredients in Coca-Cola. According to a story in today's New York Times, gum arabic is a clear, odorless tree sap...

used as an emulsifier, the sap keeps ingredients in carbonated beverages from settling at the bottom. It ensures that shampoo has the right consistency, and is used to coat pills to keep them fresh. It gives buns a perfect glaze and beer a thicker foam.

Sudan's gum arabic is premiere cru, so the U.S. has exempted it from the seven-year-old restrictions against exports from Sudan imposed because of its terrorist activity. Nervous American business people are tracking the internal situation in Sudan closely.

Prices are shooting through the roof because harvests are half of what they once were. Violence has recently displaced a million people, mainly farmers. Many of the five million subsistence farmers who once harvested gum arabic are afraid to venture into the fields due to killings. In desperation, others are cutting down the acacia trees for firewood.

The Times article is accompanies by a photo of forlorn acacia stumps.

What can we learn from this?

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April 11, 2004


Having played with several online social networking applications, I've decided Spoke is the one for me. It's business-strength, privacy-protecting, and it supplements your address book with information from the web. Plus, it's geared to business networking. Designed for sales people who protect their contact information with their lives, Spoke is not going to out you or your network.

When I first looked at Ryze, LinkedIn, Spoke, and some others, they all seemed about the same. After you load them up with contacts and start receiving requests to link, you begin to notice different features. Spoke is more protective of who's linked to who and also more proactive in grabbing related information from the net. In my admittedly small sample, I also sense a different sort of folks, Spoke being the more corporate crowd.

As I gear up for this, I'll leave a few best practices breadcrumbs for those who join the fun.

  • Unless you're a social networking software junkie, you're going to be better off if you pick one application rather than join them all. I'm already starting to live on Spoke when interacting with new people. It's becoming my poor-man's CRM.
  • Upload a photo. Profiles with photographs are warmer than the all-text versions. Photos make an impression. They're a necessary step in getting to know someone, and that's what this is all about. I wish Spoke provided a few more places where members could upload photos and such; pointers will have to suffice for now.
  • Similarly, if you want people to know something about you, don't leave "Professional Experience" and "Interests" blank. This is not like an old-fashioned resume (where the interviewers used to look for periods of unemployment). List what you feel like listing. And no more.
  • Populate your "Inner Circle" with the sort of friends that Malcom Gladwell calls connectors.
  • Go for diversity. Take advantage of the strength of weak ties.
  • Ease into things. The old adage "You only get one chance to make a first impression" applies. Don't invite the world to see your beta home page on one of these sites.

More to come. Probably. I'm just a learner here myself.

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March 29, 2004

Ersatz relationships

Today I got several LinkedIn requests to connect someone I don't know to someone else I don't know because a friend of a friend in each direction knows them. I blew it off. Why should I be making this connection?

David Weinberger saves me a lot of time thinking. I agree with him so often, it's easy just to adopt his ideas wholesale. He recently offered his take on what he calls Artificial Social Networks (ASNs):

First, ASMs attempt to recreate our social network by making us be explicit about it. But our social bonds are necessarily implicit. Making social relationships explicit uproots them, distorts them and can do violence to them. Just try describing your child to someone, with your child in the room.

Second, ASNs make us be precise about that which is necessarily messy and ambiguous. This not only leads to awkward social moments (Am I a friend yes-no of some person I met once and don't know if I like?), it also reinforces the worst idea of our age: The world is precise, so our ambiguity about it is a failure.

Third, they inculcate the stupid belief that relationships are commutative. LinkedIn is especially guilty of this. I have been C in a five-term series that A initiated in order to contact E, which means someone I don't know asked someone I marginally know to introduce him to someone I kind of know who maybe knows someone I don't know at all. The formal name for this is "using people." (See my first paragraph.)

Fourth, the fact that they require explicitness in public about relationships guarantees that they will generate inordinate amounts of bullshit. For example, some ASNs let you write "testimonials" about your friends, a feature destined to encourage flattery and sucking up. Worse, they don't let you refuse testimonials as part of your profile, so I've had to to explain to a handful of people why I'm not accepting the sweet sentences they spent time putting together.

Yes! That's it.

With David, there's always more.

Look, I want to say to the Friendsters of the world, we already invented a social network for friends and strangers. It's called the Internet. Why are you privatizing it? Why do we need a proprietary sub-network to do what the Internet has already done in an open way? ... I don't like this thing coming along that implies that the existing social networks on the Internet — my social networks, the ones that constitute my social world — are so inadequate that some badly designed system with a derivative name (enoughster with the "sters" alreadyster!) sweeps the Net like photos of Janet Jackson's poppin' fresh wardrobe malfunction. What's a matter, the Net wasn't good enough for you?

A fellow left a message on the Internet Time Group answering machine this morning. He wasn't into this relationship stuff much. He explained that his group could produce any sort of eLearning I wanted...for only $15/hour. Uh huh. He didn't realize I sub out my dogs as coders for only $2/hour. And they're cute.

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March 27, 2004

The "no one in charge" world

We used to think that leaders controlled organizations, logic controlled computing, and individuals were in charge of their thoughts. Organizations are evolving into no-boss demoncracies. On Demand computing relies on the interactions of software agents rather than insturctions from up top somewhere. And today's New York Times has an astounding article on the work of Nobel Laureate Gerald M. Edelman, who suggests that for brains, just as for organizations and computers, no one is in charge.

"The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic."

Reporter Edward Rothstein writes,

The theory's first principles and assumptions are relatively simple: There is no overseer in the brain setting rules and making connections. There are also no "spooky" forces, as Dr. Edelman puts it. Neither is the brain a machine or a computer. For Dr. Edelman, there are only the "unlabeled world" and the "embodied brain," a confrontation of unstructured immensities.

Speculating on how the brain ("the most complicated material object in the known universe") does its thing will never be a walk in the park.

The brain will always have more going on than seems necessary, more randomness and variation than any humanly designed system. There is enormous redundancy (which Dr. Edelman refers to as "degeneracy") in the brain's functioning, giving it remarkable resilience and evolutionary possibilities. No brain event happens the same way twice. Even memory is always a variant, he says — a re-creation, never a repetition.

I've been questioning the utility of logic in figuring out our world. Logic simplifies understanding but that doesn't make it an accurate reflection of what's really going on. A spreadsheet is all logic, and I've used what-if scenarios in Excel to convince myself and others of the viability of outlandish, absurd outcomes. It was comforting to read, "The brain is not a logically structured organ; these processes of connection resemble the processes of metaphor more than those of logic."

These theories are part of what Dr. Edelman hopes will become "sciences of recognition," studying how biological processes recognize other biological processes. It is an enterprise, he argues, that spurs amazement, because if it succeeds, it will show that out of accident and diversity, something as miraculous as human consciousness can be born. But this vision can also spur discomfort, because it implies that there is no supervising soul or self — nobody is standing behind the curtain.

The Times placed the article on Edelman (The Brain: It's a Jungle in There) not in the Science section, but rather, in the Arts section of the paper.

Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness

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February 23, 2004

Power to the agents

From Robin Good, The Birth Of The NewsMaster: The Network Starts To Organize Itself. This is an important article if you haven't glimpsed the power of RSS. Hell, it's important even if you have, for it speculates on what's just around the corner in terms of personalized, self-organized news.

Yesterday, at the latest DEMO 2004 Conference in Scottsdale Arizona, Feedster “announced a new tool called FeedPaper, which combines syndicated Internet content (culled from the 500,000 newsfeeds continuously searched by Feedster), such as The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today,, many IT publications, PRNewswire, and hundreds of thousands of blogs. A Feedpaper is a web-based and RSS-enabled micropublication on any topic of its creators choosing. Creating a Feedpaper enables its publisher to blend, track, and share information on any topic.

The discovery is the unlimited and yet untapped power we now have to search, filter, aggregate and create focussed news/information channels with the only support of our know-how, culture, experience and a little unknown free technology called: RSS.

Bloggers have been first to scout new independent sources, alternative voices, and who have pointed links to new ways of looking at any issue. They, more than any other group, have brought, among much useless noise, the true emergence of effective meta news sources that originate, filter and aggregate valuable content online.

So, what it appears to the many superficial onlookers as a universe of mindless writings (blogs) is nothing less than the initial phase of a complex and orderly process whereby humanity at large takes control of filtering, gathering and re-organizing his own know-how an discoveries.

In one of life's odd little twists, I got an instant message from Robin Good himself while reading his article. He's prepping me for an online event tomorrow. But the timing was amazing.

Robin concludes with opportunities for people who master the RSS-on-steroids technology. For one, this is the future of competitive intel and professional development.

Via Stephen Downes: Gallery of Network Images

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December 01, 2003

Living Networks

Ross Dawson and I shared a late lunch in rainy San Francisco this afternoon before he fled east to lead what sounds like a really cool workshop in New York on Thursday. If I were in New York, I'd head over to the W on Lex for this event in, well, a New York minute.

Ross is author of Living Networks and the session in New York puts the book into practice.

The Social Network Analysis meme is making the rounds. At the Dave Winer dinner in Berkeley a week back, I asked my table, "How many of you are not doing something with social network analysis?" Community, collaboration, and context are hot. But analysis is still just that. It sort of lies there, waiting for someone to pick it up.

So Ross is experimenting with Social Network ENHANCEMENT. Now that you have a map to experts and kindred spirits and so forth, what do you do with it? On Thursday, attendees will be wearing Meme Tags that chirp when you're in the proximity of someone with similar connections. How do they know? The Spoke network is feeding participant profiles into the tags. Chirp, chirp, chirp, hi, who do we know in common? And now that we've figured that out, let's play with some collaborative work tools.

Setting up the Workflow Learning Institute with Sam Adkins has me revisiting Vilfredo Pareto's 80/20 rule. The overpowering inefficiency that workflow learning goes after is the 80% of virtually any workflow cycle that is wasted on transfer time, slack, idle moments, distractions, looking things up, and so on.

Here's a cycle. Of anything. It's the time from starting one item until starting the next. Of manufacturing a widget, of making a sale, of processing a loan application, whatever. Time and time again, we find that only 10% to 20% of the time is spent on the real task, adding value. That's the green. The remainder is "other." It doesn't add value. What more do you need to know?

Peter Drucker tells us that "Knowledge worker productivity is the biggest of the 21st century management challenges...(it is the) only real competitive advantage in a global economy."

How can we knock some of the inefficiency and slack out of knowledge work? As I said earlier, I'd love to be able to attend Ross's session in New York.

More on this at Ross's website. I'm making Ross a member of the Internet Time Group ecosystem.

Naturally, Ross is also a blogger.

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November 27, 2003

Serendipitous learning

The Japanese maples are the only trees showing fall colors in this speck of Mediterranean climate on the shores of San Francisco Bay. Our weather confuses the plants into blooming and shedding leaves one species at a time. Transitions are slower here than environments with more extreme seasonal patterns.

It's Thanksgiving morning, the wind is blowing leaves from those Japanese maples around the yard, and somewhere down below in the People's Republic of Berkeley, students or aging hippies are probably protesting Puritan brutality toward Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving. The pesky Europeans never paid for what they got! Who's the savage, the generous host or the ungrateful interloper? But I digress....

After taking a few photographs of leaves to get my priorities straight, I set out to do some shotgun learning. No, I'm not going after the squirrels, raccoons, and skunks that live in the back yard. Rather, I'm hopping onto the net to sift through items in some favorite hangouts just to see what's out there today. It's more edgy and less predictable than reading the New York Times.

I opened Stephen's Edu_RSS Feed. After a few items in German (too early in the morning for that) I came to a link mentioning The Web: Design for Active Learning. "This handbook will present the idea of interactivity as it applies to a cohesive design including high interface, content, and instructional design." This took me to the Carving Code blog, and that linked me to George Siemens'eLearngspace blog. Eventually I got to the original article, a piece by Katy Campbell, who's with Academic Technologies for Learning at the University of Alberta.

I got lucky. The Web: Design for Active Learning turned out to be exactly the puzzle piece I needed to add to my growing framework for Instructional Artistry.

You've heard it said that "You make your own luck." It's related to "Fortune favors the bold," Virgil's maxim that you've got to try hard to get anywhere. My pathway down the web was not entirely random, even though the result was unexpected.

For years I've maintained a list of links to favorite hangouts, the eLearning Jump Page. Stephen's Edu_RSS heads the list of Top eLearning Reference Sources. Stephen and I have met. We often read one another's work. I haven't met the author of Carving Code F2F, but I respect what I've read there in the past. I've been tracking George Siemens' work since his blog first appeared. George has addressed the eLearning Forum via Interwise. I'm delighted with the interview with me that George posted this time last year.

We who share our thoughts online, driven more by personal interest than commercial reward, are a loosely-knit Community of Practice. People ask where I find the time to blog. I explain that this is the way I think. It doesn't take much extra time to divert a few sentences into blog. That trail of words and images becomes a lure to people on paths that parallel mine.

I'm thankful to have a medium for starting conversations on things that interest me.

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November 08, 2003

Peering into the crystal ball

At TechLearn, Mark Oehlert presented his findings on The Future of eLearning Models and the Language We Use to Describe Them. Mark calls it like he (and I) sees it. This is a perceptive, on-target summary of where eLearning is headed. Mark's key findings:

  • While a more expansive definition of e-learning has been much discussed, requirements are now emerging that seek to make real some of those ideas (e.g. performance support, augmented reality, on-demand personalized instruction).
  • While cultural change continues to be cited as one of the main hurdles to successful implementation of e-learning, no e-learning vendors seem to be packaging change management with their products.
  • M-learning continues to gain buzz and momentum
  • Economic models for selling e-learning will have to shift away from ‘catalog’ shopping to a service-oriented model.
  • Gaming and simulation are poised to make huge impacts in this market space.
  • Copyright and other legal issues pose potentially great problems for the future of e-learning.
  • The ‘course’, as a meaningful unit of instruction, may well be doomed.
  • The cell phone is almost universally considered a learning device.
  • A continuation of the move toward “pay as you go” could actually allow smaller shops to get up and competing by providing lower barriers to entry.
  • Globalization is forcing a hard focus on US-centric practices and content

Here's Mark's Power Point. The William Gibson quote is absolutely brilliant and will eventually show up on my Time page

Mark interviewed Stephen Downes at length. You must read his unexpurgated version to get the full flavor of the exchange. Stephen:

    We need to stop thinking of online content as analogous to things. That’s the beginning and the end of it. Even if the language of ‘things’ is more suited to both contemporary academic discourse and commercial discourse, the reality is that when you find yourself immersed on an online environment it becomes evident and apparent that online content is much more like a stream than a collection of objects. That’s why I use analogies like the electrical system or the water system, and not (as Elliott does) analogies like bookstores or warehouses.


    At this point in history we not only have much greater powers of communication and expression than ever before, we also have access to greater riches than ever before. But there is a sense that we are at a peak, and with shortages in raw materials looming, there is a retrenchment happening, a vigorous conflict over the control of ideas, over the control of resources, and in the end, over control of people.

Clearly Canadian, Stephen gives his view of cultural imperialism:

    is the worldwide export of American culture, usually draped in the clothing of values and ideals. Many writers have remarked on this and so I don't need to go into a lot of detail: this not merely the export of McDonalds and everything it represents (wage-labour, corporate subservience, fast food production, massive advertising, and more) and Mickey Mouse (Scrooge style capitalism, greed, individualism and more) but also the twin towers of individualism and capitalism (and yes, I did use the analogy deliberately). These are wrapped in a dressing of 'freedom' and 'democracy', but these values are viewed very differently in the rest of the world. Americans, of course, are free to hold to these values, but those that must see them impregnating every book, movie, television show, and learning material (and also the IMF, WTO, and more) exported from the U.S. into the educational fabric must offer some form of resistance.

    Most of the world is far more communually oriented than the United States, far more than most Americans realize, and the political and social agenda that is offered under the banners of 'freedom' and 'democracy' are perceived, even in modern industrial democracies as Canada, as undermining hard-won social and cultural values. This is not merely a cultural facade; it will not be addressed by merely 'localizing' materials; it runs deeply into the selection and presentation of learning. Renaming the 'French and Indian War' to the term everyone else in the world uses, 'The Seven Years War', isn't just relabeling, it is a change of context, of protagonists, of history. Rewriting the history of the War of 1812 to reflect what actually happened, an opportunistic (because of the Napoleonic wars) American invasion of Canada that was rebuffed by a rag-tag army of First Nations (ie., 'Indians') and militia volunteers, isn't just a case of rebranding.

The exchange between Mark and Stephen is a wonderful example of a new form of online learning: the email interview. Aside from baiting the U.S. right (Stephen would fit right in here in the People's Republic of Berkeley), Stephen makes some great observations -- and you must read them in his own words to grok the message.

    The learning environment merges with the work environment; each, in turn, an extension of the worker, who with a new capacity for empowerment and self-actualization increasingly enters relationships of mutual association with a corporate structure - it is a dynamic relationship, full of tacit assumptions and convenient fictions (the corporation promises security, which the employee knows is an outright lie; and conversely the employee promises loyalty, which the employer knows will last only as long as the good times do). Learning, then, becomes a tacit agreement between employee and employer, selected by the employee with an eye to personal empowerment and development, aided by the employer, with an eye to developing native talent in- house (if not, any more, specific skills).

Another gem is Daniel Schneider's Conception and implementation of rich pedagogical scenarios through collaborative portal sites, although as the title alone tips you off, this one's quite academic in tone. I have yet to make it through all 40 pages but the topic is intriguing:

    Often, one associates new rich and open pedagogies are with “learner-centered”. We believe that being “learner-centered” is not sufficient, since main-stream content-transmission- centered e-learning also rightly claims to be learner-centered, since students can look at contents and do exercises and tests at their own speed. Good learner-centered pedagogics may also be very teacher-centered, since the role of the teacher can become very complex and demanding. Let’s recall the three principle roles that we attribute to the teacher-designer of structured, but active, open and rich educational scenarios:
    • His role as a manger is to ensure productivity, i.e. that learners do things.
    • His role as a facilitator is the help them in their choices and to suggest resources and tools that will help them to solve problems and get tasks done.
    • His role as an orchestrator is to create “story-boards”, i.e. to break down projects into scenarios, and scenarios into phases. He also may decompose problems into manageable sub-problems or alternatively encourage and help students to do so themselves.

    It is very important to respect a principle of “harmony”, to find an equilibrium of different
    pedagogical strategies and tactics and not (and we insist on this) to be tempted by
    over-scripting. In our philosophy, a teacher should think of himself primarily as a “landscaper” who uses ICT to build places where learners can “sculpt” according to some rule and with as much help as appropriate. Because of their modular architecture, a well trained teacher can configure portals and its “tools” according to his own needs. He can also hunt down new modules. He can re-purpose tools, e.g. he could use quizzes which are normally used for assessment as discussion openers. He can also suggest to the increasing number of technical support people that can be found in the school system to develop new tools. Since this technology is focused on “orchestration” and not content delivery, we believe that it will spread in the nearer future with almost the same ease as web pages did, but it will bring new functionalities. Teachers should have control over their environment and they can share their experience within teacher portals using the same technology and both fit the C3MS philosophy.

    [C3MS = Community, Content and Collaboration Management Systems]

    Finally, C3MS may be a chance to promote the open and sharing “Internet
    Spirit” to education, which is threatened by the philosophy of the closed so-called “educational platforms”, e-learning systems or whatever are called today’s main stream systems sold without as much success as they claim to the educational system. According to
    our initial experience, and despite many difficulties - like administrative hurdles, the time
    it takes to accommodate new pedagogical strategies, the disputable ergonomics of some
    software that we will have to overcome - teachers who engaged themselves “love it” and
    their students too.

    (via EdTech Post)

    The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview by Clay Shirky.

      The W3C's Semantic Web project has been described in many ways over the last few years: an extension of the current web in which information is given well-defined meaning, a place where machines can analyze all the data on the Web, even a Web in which machine reasoning will be ubiquitous and devastatingly powerful. The problem with descriptions this general, however, is that they don't answer the obvious question: What is the Semantic Web good for?

      The simple answer is this: The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms. A syllogism is a form of logic, first described by Aristotle, where "...certain things being stated, something other than what is stated follows of necessity from their being so." [Organon]

      The canonical syllogism is:

      • Humans are mortal
      • Greeks are human
      • Therefore, Greeks are mortal

      with the third statement derived from the previous two.

      The Semantic Web specifies ways of exposing these kinds of assertions on the Web, so that third parties can combine them to discover things that are true but not specified directly. This is the promise of the Semantic Web -- it will improve all the areas of your life where you currently use syllogisms.

      Which is to say, almost nowhere.

    To which I say, damn, damn, damn. I drank the KoolAde when Tim Berners-Lee wrote about the Semantic Web in Scientific American. This was supposed to solve problems, not compound them.

      Despite their appealing simplicity, syllogisms don't work well in the real world, because most of the data we use is not amenable to such effortless recombination. As a result, the Semantic Web will not be very useful either.

      The people working on the Semantic Web greatly overestimate the value of deductive reasoning (a persistent theme in Artificial Intelligence projects generally.) The great popularizer of this error was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories have done more damage to people's understanding of human intelligence than anyone other than Rene Descartes. Doyle has convinced generations of readers that what seriously smart people do when they think is to arrive at inevitable conclusions by linking antecedent facts. As Holmes famously put it "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

      This sentiment is attractive precisely because it describes a world simpler than our own. In the real world, we are usually operating with partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information. When we have to make a decision based on this information, we guess, extrapolate, intuit, we do what we did last time, we do what we think our friends would do or what Jesus or Joan Jett would have done, we do all of those things and more, but we almost never use actual deductive logic.

    Shirky is great. Consider:

      ...the pattern for descriptions of the Semantic Web. First, take some well-known problem. Next, misconstrue it so that the hard part is made to seem trivial and the trivial part hard. Finally, congratulate yourself for solving the trivial part.

      ...After 50 years of work, the performance of machines designed to think about the world the way humans do has remained, to put it politely, sub-optimal. The Semantic Web sets out to address this by reversing the problem. Since it's hard to make machines think about the world, the new goal is to describe the world in ways that are easy for machines to think about.

      There is a list of technologies that are actually political philosophy masquerading as code, a list that includes Xanadu, Freenet, and now the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web's philosophical argument -- the world should make more sense than it does -- is hard to argue with. The Semantic Web, with its neat ontologies and its syllogistic logic, is a nice vision. However, like many visions that project future benefits but ignore present costs, it requires too much coordination and too much energy to effect in the real world, where deductive logic is less effective and shared worldview is harder to create than we often want to admit.

      Much of the proposed value of the Semantic Web is coming, but it is not coming because of the Semantic Web. The amount of meta-data we generate is increasing dramatically, and it is being exposed for consumption by machines as well as, or instead of, people. But it is being designed a bit at a time, out of self-interest and without regard for global ontology. It is also being adopted piecemeal, and it will bring with it with all the incompatibilities and complexities that implies. There are significant disadvantages to this process relative to the shining vision of the Semantic Web, but the big advantage of this bottom-up design and adoption is that it is actually working now.

    Bravo! Check his home page for more.

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September 19, 2003

Social Networking: Is There a Business Model?

Check Courante for a blow-by-blow report of this week's symposium at Stanford B-School on Social Networking: Is There a Business Model?.

Ross Mayfield on Social Software:

Our business model is antithetical to traditional enterprise software. Top-down software, with lines of code as barriers to entry, process and ontology that users are expected to fit themselves into, long sales-cycles and inordinate TCO -- is by all accounts dead and leaves users stranded with email.

The reason for this is the rules and opportunties have changed. You can't screw your customers. You can't lock them in. You can't ask them to take significant risk up front. Risk is shared with customers by providing incremental proof of value in-line with them taking risk on you.

While startup costs have declined, some have increased. Notably, its harder to sell traditionally (top-down) and you can't raise barriers to entry by locking-in your customers. The only entry point is bottom-up. The only marketable barrier to entry today is network effects.

Another viewpoint rings true:

We will see social networking functionality become become an integrated service provided in an application suite. Just like Microsoft Outlook and Yahoo have email, calendars, and address books, it wouldn't be a stretch to extend their services to support social networking functionality. They already have the captive audience and branding so adding social networking functionality isn't really a high barrier to entry for them. We should all stay tuned for a lot of interesting M&A activity in this space, rather than the next big thing.

Bottom line on the starting question: No, there's not currently a business model.

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September 11, 2003

Social Network Analysis

Eighty to a hundred people attended the inaugural meeting of the Institute for Social Network Analysis of the Economy (ISNAE: is-nay) yesterday evening at PARC. The crowd included social network software people, venture capitalists, sociologists, deal-makers, economists, and a handful of people looking for advice on how to leverage their own personal networks.

I’ll share some of my notes and use this as a social network analysis resource page for a while.

People at first ISNAE meetingMark Granovetter, a professor of sociology at Stanford, did a great job of covering the waterfront of Social Network Analysis (henceforth SNA).
Mark Granovetter
We’re all involved in social networking every day. It’s like the character in Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme who is astounded to discover that he has been speaking in prose all his life.

The typical person knows 500 people. That gives 125,000 possible configurations of relationships. SNA represents the relationships as points and lines. Software to sort through that many lines has only been around for the last five years, so deep SNA is relatively new.

Mark’s working on two major projects. The first is an SNA of the early electricity industry. Conclusion: A tight social network of Edison and others shifted electricity generation from a distributed model with local generators to a grid fed by massive turbines. The entrepreneurs drove the technology rather than the best technology rising to the top on its own.

Is this happening in SIlicon Valley, Mark’s second area of study? Other areas and nations send people to Stanford and to the Valley to study the ecosystem here. They are trying to find the formula that makes it happen. Mark and his students are years into the project but the completion date is always moving out faster than the project itself.

Mark introduced some of the classic concepts of SNA:

The strength of weak ties, his own serendipitous discovery. Looking for a new job? You’re more likely to get useful leads from acquaintances than from close friends. The acquaintances travel in different circles. For the most part, you already know most of the people your friends know.

The small world problem, famously studied by Stanley Milgram. Short-hand: six degrees, Kevin Bacon.

Scale-free networks, a confusingly named situation where mosts nodes only have a single connection but a few hubs have loads of connections. This is robust if you’re killing nodes because the odds are that you’ll hit one with few connections and the network won’t feel it. If, on the other hands, you understand where things are, the scale-free network is fragile; wiping out a hub does major damage.

The three authors popularizing SNA at the moment have different views on the impact of scale-free networks (think of it as a measure of density or clustering) on network resilience. The books Mark suggests are:

I found Linked much more enjoyable, and useful, than Six Degrees. have yet to read Nexus. Mark did not suggest the two that follow, perhaps because their authors lack PhD’s and tenure. Gladwell is an enlightening read; you can do it on a transcontinental flight with time to spare. Johnson’s book covers lots of things besides networks, and for me it was read/contemplate/read/contemplate/etc., one of those books you savor over weeks.

I asked Mark about the capacity of the current software. Points and lines don’t convey much information. I ponder the importance of the value and quantity of content flowing through the pipe and what’s going on in the nodes. Is this someone I respect? Or hate? Or don’t know well?

Mark said the software today is ahead of our ability to use it. I take it many SNA people are still relying on dots and lines. Apparently, the most commonly used package can take as many variables as you can throw at it. It’s named Pajek. That’s Slovenian for “spider.” It’s a free download. It produces dots and lines diagrams like this. Unfortunately, the documentation is a broken translation from the original Slovenian, so it’s difficult to learn. ISNAE will be sponsoring a class in Pajek (pronounced Pie-Ack) soon. Other software for SNA is here.

The solid state physicist sitting next to me was looking for direct application of SNA. Sick of designing chips, he’s looking for networking to take him into a new field. Upon hearing of the strength of weak ties, he deadpanned, “Does this mean I should shit-can all my friends and begin hanging out with mere acquaintances?” Mark said friends have their place.

I had a small-world experience yesterday myself. Over lunch in Emeryville, a friend had mentioned Bob Karr, a guy who is investigating the interlocking network of board memebers in Silicon Valley. The next question in the evening session came from the fellow behind me, who turned out to be the same Bob Karr. You can look at the Silicon Valley network for free at

For those who are interested in SNA, Mark recommends joining the International Network for Social Network Analysis. dues are $40. Annual conferenes, the Sunbelt Conferences, have taken place on the Costa del Sol, San Diego, New Orleans, Cancun, Charleston, and Budapest. Lucky you — the 2004 Sunbelt convenes mid-May in Portorož, Slovenia. Maybe you can pick up some hints on using Pajek while you’re there.

The INSNA site has a wealth of resources: back issues of Connections, the Journal of Social Structure, a listserv, social capital links, and lots more.

Posted by Jay Cross at 07:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 08, 2003

Social Network Analysis

Wednesday night is the inaugural meeting of the Institute for Social Network Analysis in the Economy at PARC in Palo Alto.

Naturally, I'll be there. SNA is at the core of informal and collaborative learning, two areas I'm focusing on.

We live in a world of networks, from networks of suppliers, to networks of computers; from networks of trading partners to networks of anti-globalization activists our connected world is linked like never before. Each instant more links are made through the Internet, cell phones, travel, trade pacts, markets and countless other ways. These networks can provide us with vital information and tremendous opportunities or they can become closed and stifle growth.

How do we know what the networks are? How do we know how they behave and interact with each other? When is a network a healthy beneficial one and when is it stifling and destructive? As networks have grown more complex, the tools job of analyzing them has grown more complex,. ISNAE exists to study these networks and use the knowledge to make a difference.

Mark Granovetter will be speaking Wednesday evening. Is that name familiar? Perhaps you read Linked. Mark is the fellow who discovered the strength of weak ties, e.g. you're more likely to find a job through a friend of a friend than through the friend itself. That's what this is all about:

>Special Insider Tip: They've sold out on dinners. Eat beforehand, and you're still welcome to join us. Your price: $20.


For more information, or to join ISNAE, contact: Don Steiny
([email protected]) or 831.471.1671.

Posted by Jay Cross at 05:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Outlook? Look out!

Good bye forever, Outlook.

Outlook is handy but it's also like leaving your front door unlocked in a bad neighborhood. And it's a bitch to back up. And it's slow. And it once asked me if I wanted to archive old records and when I foolishly clicked "Yes," a year of email vanished, never to be seen again.

Eudora is now my email client. It's snappy, easy to back up, and free. I just installed SpamPal, also free, and it's isolating most of the Spam so I don't have to deal with it.

Posted by Jay Cross at 03:01 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 26, 2003

The Future of Knowledge

The Future of Knowledge: Increasing Prosperity through Value Networks
by Verna Allee

"Why are you reading something called The Future of Knoweldge?" asked my wife. "You are supposed to be on vacation, remember?" I replied that I was thoroughly enjoying myself, and indeed I was.

Verna's concepts around knowledge and the way I think about learning are completely in sync, but Verna has pushed the envelope further than I have, expanding the arena to include sustaining the earth.

These are my notes. Most are direct quotes from the book although a few of my own thoughts are scrambled in, and sometimes I've shortened or rearranged the original. I encourage you to buy the book; at $20, it's cheap.

"There is really only one management question: What do we need to pay attention to in order to be successful?" Similarly, there is only one individual question: What do I need to pay attention to in order to be successful?

Awareness of how we create our shared social reality is the most important aspect of business life we will need to learn for a successful future. (So say Nonaka, Senge, Varela, de Geus, and others)

  • Businesses are evolving into the patterns of living systems. The meta-level learning that we are all engaged in is learning to work with network principles. Decision making and knowledge creation are not rational processes, but social processes.

  • Now it is as important for managers to work as deliberately to improve the quality of knowledge and learning as it is to improve the quality of products and services. Indeed, in this economy they are often one and the same.

  • Networks are the natural pattern of organization in living systems. They are the pattern of social systems and the natural pattern of business relationships as well.

  • Our present accounting methods were developed during the Renaissance, and most of our management practices come from bureaucratic and military models that have dominated management practice for decades. These vestiges of the old order are obsolete.

  • Decisions are moving from corporate headquarters out to individual business units. Business units in turn are distributing power and decision making to self-managed teams and profit centers. Workers who used to be tucked snug inside corporate walls are roaming the roads and working from home. The action is at the edges.

  Early industrial Industrial Age Knowledge Era
Management focus Plan, organize, control Vision, values, empowerment Emergence, integrity, relationships
Structured around Functions Processes Systems
Social structure Individual tasks Work & project teams Communities
Strategic resource Raw materials Financial capital Knowledge & intangibles
Worldview Descartes, Newton, mechanical Ford, Taylor, efficient, engineering Complexity, systems theory, living systems.

When something is truly complex, all the parts work together in such a way that the whole cannot be divided without losing its integrity--and the parts also lose their integrity when separated from the whole. When you cut a cow in half you don't get two cows. You get a mess.

Every conversation is an experiment in knowledge creation/testing ideas, trying out words and concepts, continuously creating and re-creating our experience of life itself. As people move beyond routine processes into more complex challenges, they rely heavily on their colleagues and friends as thinking partners.

Verna's value mapping process:

  • Intangibles: Human capital, external capital, structural capital; Values
  • Exchange analysis, impact analysis, value creation analysis
  • Holistic model puts people back in.

With too much structure organizations can't move. With too little, they disintegrate or fly apart. Companies that have learned to keep that edge--that fine balance between tight and loose?are at their most alive, creative, and adaptable. Systems adapt best if they are only partly connected.

A business school professor once instructed me, tongue in cheek, that "Everything comes in three's." Usually, this holds true. The first columns below are Verna's. I added Bloom and my shorthand for Bloom.

Learning tools Networks timeframe individual Bloom
Operational eLearning, newsfeeds, search technology Immediate Hands Psycho-motor
Tactical Community, stories, collaboration knowledge Soon Head Cognitive
Strategic Scenarios, system maps, dialog value Future Heart Affective

Check out Verna's site. And you thought "bookkeeping" was the only word with three double-letters in a row, didn't you? www.vern aa ll ee .com

Posted by Jay Cross at 11:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 01, 2003


I am reading Linked, The New Science of Networks, by Albert-László Barabási. I'm about halfway through and finding it more readable than The Six Degrees of Separation, that covered essentially the same material.

In the late sixties, Mark Granovetter, a grad student at Harvard, explored social networking by asking residents of Newton, Massachusetts, how they found their jobs. He was surprised to find that close friends played a much less important role than people who were only weakly connected socially. In fact, close friends were no help at all.

Think about it. You have a handful of really close friends, and you travel in the same circles and know most of the same information. Not much chance of finding something new in this small, tightly-knit crowd.

However, each of your friends has friends in other groups. These acquaintances are bathed in different streams of information.

And since each contact opens up bonds to another group of friends, the number of friends of friends and so forth grows extremely rapidly:

Granovetter's paper describing weak ties was rejected by American Sociological Review and languished for several years before being recognized as one of the most influential papers in modern sociology. It's the weak ties transmit new ideas from the outside world.

The weak ties hypothesis helped researchers see through the oversimplifications that had hamstrung their study of networks.

  • Networks (information networks as well as human networks) are not random. Clustering is common. The 80/20 rule applies. They follow Power Laws, not the normal distribution.
  • Not all nodes are created equal. Many have multiple connections. "Connectors" may have hundreds; they cross disciplines and are part of many circles (think Tipping Point).
  • Unlike the mathematician who starts with and studies a set numer of nodes, the real world contains growing networks that start small but grow rapidly, link-by-link.
  • I haven't gotten to it in the book, but of course, not all pipes are the same. Consider: bandwidth, reciprocity, social convention, trust, signal:noise, and reputation. Our representation of a network as a group of equivalent nodes connected by standard links now seems naive.

    Google came late to the party but soon proved that "first mover advantage" is a myth. Google was sticky. In network lingo, Google was fit, not unlike people in social networks who make every contact a lasting tie. "Beauty before age."

    Another grad student, Ginestra Bianconi, discovered that the web behaves according to some of the laws of quantum mechanics. Researchers had looked at network phenomena as a math problem or geometry exercise. No, it's more like a complex system. This means that sometimes it's winner take all (think of Microsoft in the software ecosystem). I don't think it's mere coincidence that grad students are making these discoveries rather than faculty members who've spent decades in the math department.

    Robustness is a measure of stability and survival under extreme conditions and Murphy's Law. A tightly interwoven system exhibits this fault-tolerance. You could wipe out 80% of the nodes on the Internet and it would continue to function.

    Network thinking is poised to invade all domains of human activity and most fields of human inquiry. It is mroe than another helpful perspective or tool. Networks are by their very nature the fabric of most complex systems, and nodes and links deeply infuse all strategies aimed at approaching our interlocked universe.

    The author ends with an analogy to Christo's wrapped Reichstag. Networking has been under a shroud too long. It's time to unwrap it.

    Yuck. I was looking for more. This reminds me of my undergraduate major, Sociology. I chose this social science because I thought I'd learn something scientific. To my disappointment, the field turned out to be primarily social. In fairness, I think the difficulty is that we simply don't know much abuot network behavior yet. The upside is that I feel that I have a shot at expanding our understanding of it.

    Posted by Jay Cross at 12:39 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack