Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Blogging on hold

Blogging is on hold just for the week. I'd hoped to do some writing as I've got the week off, but I've got rather too much on to commit to anything regular. Back next week I promise!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Outsourcing the OODA

The OODA as a tool is something I’ve discussed plenty of time on this blog, and I’ve grown increasingly interested in recent months on a trend which I think is only going to grow stronger with time. It goes without saying that business already outsource the “Act” part of the OODA, that’s understandable enough. However there is also a trend toward outsourcing the Observation and Orientation aspects of the loop.

For the record, and before I go further, I should say none of this pertains to current or previous clients of mine. I am discussing broad trends within my industry only.

I am, broadly speaking, an analyst. I analyse data on behalf of a range of clients. Even more broadly I’m a consultant, clients come to me and my colleagues to consult about the way the world works and we seek to tell them. There is no better expression of observation than what we do. That’s our entire function day to day, and across the consultancy industry you’ll find dozens of different specialisations, all of which seek to create a set of actionable observations.

Increasingly in my industry however, clients are asking us to make recommendations and provide guidance on the actions they should undertake. This is actually a relatively new trend in market research (new in the sense its only a decade or so old), and shows all the signs of strengthening over time.

This raises interesting questions about how well prepared businesses are for the challenges they face, and indeed the strength of their internal decision making process if they are choosing to rely on information which has been heavily vetted by third parties outside of their immediate control. It requires an enormous amount of trust, and is based on the assumption that a third party will not seek to provide information which is intended to please or flatter, rather than purely accurate information.

There’s always the risk that by outsourcing, you create messengers who do not under any circumstances want to risk being shot. There’s also the tendancy for clients to request information in the form of a “deck” or “story” rather than the raw data, which places the onus on the agency providing the information to find a way of delivering the information within the confines of what is already known and understood, limiting the potential for reflecting seismic change in a realistic manner.

That’s not to say that the model of outsourcing is a bad idea. It’s not. It’s a vital part of how modern businesses operate, however I don’t think there are sufficient safeguards in place within businesses to ensure that they are accessing the truth of the information they are receiving. What form this would take is hard to guess. I’d suggest it would be still closer ties to the organisations providing 3rd party insight, perhaps with direct secondments where necessary, so that there are greater opportunities to interrogate the information at it’s source. 

Whatever form it takes, the goal should be clear, to strengthen the ability of companies to access realistic and correct information about the state of the environment. Further to this, to be able to understand and orient correctly in the direction this information is taking them. Further outsourcing without some form of safeguard is extremely risky, and potentially could create a situtions in which companies are isolated from change.

A fascinating trend, but one companies should not blindly follow without understanding it’s dangers.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Microsoft's Failure

I meant to post about this some time ago but lost track of the article. Vanity Fair did an expose on the inner workings of Microsoft which is absolutely essential reading. It shows how a company with all the money and potential in the world could turn it all around and go into a decade of disaster and malaise. For those who want a quick read, there's an extract here and the full article is here.
Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”
This sort of system is all too common, and although this is an uncommonly severe system, many businesses fall into the trap of creating competition between employees when in reality, employees want and should be judged on the basis of individual performance against a set standard. Any organisation which doesn't allow for the fact that all it's employees might be exceptional is cruising for problems.
According to Eichenwald, Microsoft had a prototype e-reader ready to go in 1998, but when the technology group presented it to Bill Gates he promptly gave it a thumbs-down, saying it wasn’t right for Microsoft. “He didn’t like the user interface, because it didn’t look like Windows,” a programmer involved in the project recalls.
A former official in Microsoft’s Office division tells Eichenwald that the death of the e-reader effort was not simply the consequence of a desire for immediate profits. The real problem for his colleagues was the touch screen: “Office is designed to inputting with a keyboard, not a stylus or a finger,” the official says. “There were all kinds of personal prejudices at work.” According to Microsoft executives, the company’s loyalty to Windows and Office repeatedly kept them from jumping on emerging technologies. “Windows was the god—everything had to work with Windows,” Stone tells Eichenwald. “Ideas about mobile computing with a user experience that was cleaner than with a P.C. were deemed unimportant by a few powerful people in that division, and they managed to kill the effort.”
Microsoft ensured that innovation had to be approved, and filtered through a certain set of criteria (i.e. it had to be Windows). Two of the most innovative companies going, Apple and Dyson, have based their entire existence on the fact that they don't really care what consumers want right now, nor do they care what they do as a business right now, it's about creating the next innovative thing and then making consumers want it.
When one of the young developers of MSN Messenger noticed college kids giving status updates on AOL’s AIM, he saw what Microsoft’s product lacked. “That was the beginning of the trend toward Facebook, people having somewhere to put their thoughts, a continuous stream of consciousness,” he tells Eichenwald. “The main purpose of AIM wasn’t to chat, but to give you the chance to log in at any time and check out what your friends were doing.” When he pointed out to his boss that Messenger lacked a short-message feature, the older man dismissed his concerns; he couldn’t see why young people would care about putting up a few words. “He didn’t get it,” the developer says. “And because he didn’t know or didn’t believe how young people were using messenger programs, we didn’t do anything.”
One of the great things about the internet is that it has provided a venue for consumers to experiment, and give clues about where the market is going. Social media was always going to happen, from the day that bulletin board systems existed the internet was going that way. It just didn't have a vehicle for it at the time. By failing to recognise a trajectory and taking advantage of it Microsoft sat on the outside while new innovators who understood the internet were able to step in and steal an entire marketplace for themselves.

These quotes are from the extract for the sake of simplicity, but I highly recommend the full article as it's a shocking set of revelations about a company which has largely gotten away with its own incompetence (albeit with the collapse of it's stock price). At least until now.


Monday, 20 August 2012

Content bubbles and political content

Much has been made of the dangers of so called content or filter bubbles. In essence this is the subtle process by which companies like Facebook and Google tailor what you see on screen to try and match your preferences. It's subtle but it means that what you individually see online will be different to what someone else with different preferences will see.

Day to day, this isn't too disastrous, for a given value of disastrous. It means that you'll be exposed to less diverse information, but a sensible person can work around a filter bubble to seek out the types of content they want.

TechDirt however, point out one danger of this technology, when it comes to politics, what happens if you are never really exposed to both sides? What happens when the filter bubble only helps to re-enforce your existing preferences? They cite some interesting statistics:
  • 86% of Americans say they do not want "political advertising tailored to your interests." Somewhat smaller majorities also said they don't want ads for products and services (61%) or news (56%) tailored to their interests.
  • 85% agreed "If I found out that Facebook was sending me ads for political candidates based on my profile information that I had set to private, I would be angry.”
  • More than 3/4 said they wouldn't return to a website if they knew if was sharing information about them with political advertisers.
  • 70% say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate they support if they found out that their campaign was using Facebook to send ads to friends of that person saying they "like" that candidate's Facebook page.
  • And two-thirds said their likelihood of voting for a candidate would decrease if they found out they were tailoring messages to them and their neighbors by purchasing information about their online activities, and then sending them different messages based on what might appeal to each.
These statistics assume that voters will be aware of the activities of data aggregators and advertisers, when all the evidence suggests that people are woefully under informed about how their information is used and shared online. I imagine you would get similar statistics about any similar scenario, but it does raise the difficult question of whether it's okay to filter on the basis of political beliefs.

The entire point of the political system is to ensure that people are able to vote on their preferences and to ensure that if they so desire those preferences can change over time. Anything else begins to undermine the democratic process, regardless of the benevolent intent of the people doing it. Candidates should be careful not just on the practical level of alienating voters, but also on the moral level (which is why voters are so enraged by the idea of it happening) as to how they use filter bubbles to their benefit.

Of course the technology will be used this way, because it's a tool and a useful one in many situations. It will be used, but anyone who does use it should do so in the knowledge that it could hit that badly. One to watch.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

What if campaign ads stopped working?

I quite like the Daily Kos, it's gloriously partisan, in the same way as a site like TechDirt, and it does what it does with a savage accuracy which is extremely entertaining. Here's a quote from an article posted today which gave me pause:
It is now August, and Romney tried the same tactic—over $100 million has been spent by the conservative Super PACs attacking President Barack Obama, yet the president has remained resilient in the polling. Perhaps more damaging, Romney has been stuck in the low 40s in key battleground states. His personal unpopularity has acted as an anchor around his neck, preventing him from making real gains against Obama.
I'd also recently read this, over at Campaign Sick (emphasis in the original):
Even more frustrating is the myth that yard signs influence the outcome of a campaign. Every organizer has rolled her eyes at the potential volunteer who claims they "don't have time to come in, but I have a yard sign" as if that excuses or mitigates a lack of participation...

However, because the competition is doing it, we have to do it too. Although yard signs neither vote nor win elections it can be demoralizing for volunteers and activists if your entire town is covered in signs for your opponent. Yard signs and chum can work the other way and give your local activists a sense of cohesion and pride.
So here's a hypothetical, in the age of fragmenting media, where media is consumed by choice, rather than on an unalterable live feed, is it possible that campaign ads could become the audio visual equivalent of the yard sign? I'm not saying that it has yet, but that wider trends in media certainly suggest they will become less useful over time

I don't own a television. I've not turned on a television since Christmas, when I sat down with my parents to watch something (I can only imagine it was Dr Who or some other Christmas staple). I go to the computer for all my entertainment, and so do most of my friends. To varying degrees they have ad blockers and other tools which eliminate 90% or more of the advertising on the net, so even passive exposure is possible to largely eliminate in the context of computer based entertainment.

With the advent of Smart TVs and other similar tools the experience of television is far far closer to that currently avaliable on your computer than it is on a traditional computer. This means a day is coming when being exposed to advertising in the home is almost certain to vanish from the majority of homes, because even if the older generation don't know how to eliminate it, their friends (or kindly neighbours) will set it up for them.

There's no easy answer to how you stop this problem, beyond trying to make your ads so shocking or out there that they get featured on sites like Reddit and become part of the overall zeitgeist. We've seen this happen recently, with a pro Obama ad accused Romney (indirectly) of causing a woman's death. Pretty awful in terms of fact checking, but it cut through, without ever having been released.

A savvy campaigner would look at these trends and extrapolate 5 years down the line when these technologies are ubiquitous and easier to access than they are now. When the workarounds are so good that literally no one has to view advertising in their homes unless they specifically seek it out. That day is coming, and it's coming fast.

Monday, 13 August 2012

On a lighter note

I have no deep and meaningful things to say this evening, so I thought I'd share a rather entertaining Tumblr, collated purely with those who Campaign in mind. Collated by democratic consultant Nancy Leeds it's truly hilarious. The collection can be viewed here, and I highly recommend you take the time.

Thats all for now. Thinking will follow on another occasion.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Cross post from Disruptive Thinkers

I recently wrote a piece for Disruptive Thinkers on how Boydian strategy and tactics can be used in a political context. The full piece is avaliable here, but an extract follows:

Sun Tzu says that it is critical for the warrior to “remain formless, like water”. Stonewall Jackson said “Mystify, mislead and surprise”, and from the 1984 version of the USAF Basic Doctrine Manual “Timing and tempo allow friendly forces to dominate the action, remain unpredictable, and create uncertainty in the mind of the enemy.”
These are all goals a political campaign can aspire to. The intention should not be to act in a chaotic way arbitrarily, but instead to behave in a way which seems chaotic to one’s opponents without losing sight of the strategic objective.
Presenting a formless target within a political campaign may seem challenging, but maintaining a constantly flowing narrative, avoiding pre-briefings which give opponents the opportunity to issue “prebuttals” and shifting rapidly from one area of focus to another all create an environment which is difficult to react to.
Campaigns are now so used to knowing roughly what is coming next, due to the endless stream of staged leaks and pre-briefings, that without this roadmap, it is extremely challenging for them to operate effectively. What is often forgotten is that this activity is often commenced to generate good favour amongst the media, rather than to address a need within the campaign.
There exists an opportunity here for a highly disciplined campaign to create an air of uncertainty by communicating deceptive and contradictory information.  This would baffle and ultimately ensure their opponents are unable to make swift and effective decisions. The campaign which does this will make few friends among journalists, but is far more likely to win.
Do read the full piece if you have a chance though.


Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Quiet days

I've been working on a longer piece about Boyd, and how his theories can be usefully integrated into political campaigning, which has consumed all of my attention for a couple of days. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow!

Monday, 6 August 2012

Boyd and Beyond 2

The speaking list for Boyd and Beyond is now out, and I thought I'd share it here for those who are interested. Not least because I'm officially now on the list, a rather intimidating prospect, but one I'm thoroughly looking forward to.

Boyd and Beyond 2012

Chet Richards: Closing the OODA Loop: Boyd, the Conceptual Spiral, and the Meaning of Life (60 min)

Greg Wilcox: Boyd's: People, Ideas, and Things, In That Order (30 min)

Dr. Terry Barnhart : Ten-Minute Teaching Modules throughout conference

The Rise of the Marines

Brigadier General Stacy Clardy USMC: John Boyd, Quantico and Marine Corps Enlightenment (60 min)

Captain Paul Tremblay USMC: Boyd and Bravo Company: Tempo in Ground Combat (60 min)

Boyd and the Real World

Katya Drozdova: Afghanistan, Force and Tempo (30 min)

Marshall Wallace: NGO Team Decision Cycles in Crisis: Boyd in Action (30 min)

Mike Miller: The Boyd Archives: Lecture and Tour Round-Robin

Concurrent in classroom: Case Method Instructors (Bruce Gudmundsson/Damien O’Connell).

GI Wilson: How it Happened

Sid Heal: The Five-Dimensional Battlespace (60 min)

Fred Leland: The Anatomy of Victory : Winning at Low Cost (60 min)

Adam Elkus: OODA and Robotic Weapons (30 min)

Pete Turner: Human Terrain Systems and COIN (30 min)

Tom Hayden: Boyd and COIN (60 min)

Mike Grice: The Second O: The Effect of COIN on Orientation (30 min)

Boyd and Business

Jake Wood and William McNulty: Boyd and Bureaucracy: Starting Rubicon (90 min)

David Diehl: Boyd in the Cyber Conflict Domain (30 min)

Mike Grice & Jonathan Brown: Boyd Cycle in High-Pressure Business (30 min)

1330-1500 Boyd and Your Brain

Chris Cox: Boyd and Politics (30 min)

Michael Moore: WinBowl II (60 min)

1515-1545 Boyd and Beyond IV Silicon Valley Spring 2013
My own piece will be a look at the way in which we can draw together Boyd's ideas on speed and efficiency of approach into political campaigns. I'm in the process of writing a more significant article on this to frame some of my ideas and look forward to sharing it with you in the near future.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

I sometimes wonder...

I always chuckle when stories like this come up
Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria police who speaks on e-crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was right for police to intervene in cases of bullying on twitter.

Recent cases of abusive tweets have sparked a debate over whether the authorities should get involved in policing Twitter.

It comes after the arrest of a teenager in connection with abusive tweets directed at Olympic diver Tom Daley and the jailing of a student for inciting racial hatred by tweeting about the footballer Fabrice Muamba.
It makes me ponder whether the people saying them realise quite how disproprtionate they appear to be when arresting unkind (and sometimes genuinely menacing) people who post on Twitter, when there might be a case to focus more effort on high level cyber crime... or indeed trying to figure out where all the drugs keep coming from.

It comes hot on the heels of yet another monster being let back on the streets after threatening to blow up an airport. Except he didn't, by any standard any reasonable person would use. Incredibly, "reasonable person" is a title we can now give to Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge:
In an important High Court ruling the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, said that the message posted online by Paul Chambers could not be considered “menacing”.
He pointed out that no one who saw the tweet thought it was a genuine bomb threat, and it was not sent to airport staff.

The joke about “blowing the airport sky high” was made in frustration at flights being cancelled because of the snow, and was only spotted five days later by an off-duty security manager.

In the wake of the ruling supporters led by Murray, a comedian, criticised the authorities for pursuing the case.

After former Home Office advisers warned people to be careful what they wrote on the micro-blogging site, Murray, who had been in court, described the actions as akin to those from the East German secret police.
The endless desire for the police to return over and over again to bullies on Twitter speaks, I believe, to the general inability of the police to modernise and deal with true cyber crime. Although estimates for how much damage cyber crime causes in reality are subject to much debate, its a real problem and there needs to be a real effort to deal with it.

One of the key issues is that dealing with problems in the online space at a police/justice system level isnt one you can solve with money, unlike many other issues the police deal with on a day to day basis. Dealing with 'online' requires real skills, which many police officers don't have, and are unlikely to learn. Without these skills, you're just fumbling around in the dark and hoping for the best. If you want, you can bring the private sector in to help you, but that just costs yet more money, and there's no guarantee of results (here's looking at you G4S).

Just as with drugs, it's easier to arrest the guy selling them on the street corner than it is to go after the guys producing the problem in the first place. So lets all look forward to another decade of the police flailing wildly at those vicious online criminals who say nasty things to celebrities. And arresting protesters. Because that's pretty easy too.

PS. I have nothing but respect for the average policeman, who does a great job keeping people safe and dealing with day to day criminality. This piece uses the word "police" to describe senior staff of the police services.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Disruptive food

Great article on an attempt by former McDonald's senior staff to create a health food version of fast food. Not the first time someone has tried this of course, but certainly sounds like it has more potential for success than most:

There is one overriding reason to believe that this venture will work. The cofounder and chief executive of Lyfe is Mike Roberts, former president and chief operating officer of McDonald’s. He and some of his erstwhile McDonald’s colleagues have bet a few million bucks that an eco-embracing, mega-natural startup will blaze the trail to their rightful share of the billions and billions served by Burger King, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and Wendy’s.

Lyfe’s aim is not just to build a radically sustainable, healthy brand of fast food. The former Golden Archers hope to transform the way the world produces organic ingredients, doing for responsibly grown meat and veggies what McDonald’s did for factory-farmed beef. These days, the utopian vision of responsible agriculture is premised on a return to small and slow. If Roberts is right, though, we’ll have to swallow a paradox as preposterous as a vegan Whopper: The nirvana of eco-gastronomy may at long last be attained, but only thanks to the efficiencies of supply-chain management.