Digging Corporate Blogs

I’m really learning to dig the Innovation Creators blog, so it’s appropriate that the most recent post is on facsilitating innovation with an enterprise version of Digg, combining Web 2.0 with mainstay corporate intranets in a creative way. While I think it’s a great idea, I suggest that some companies would be taking a huge step forward simply by inplementing corporate blogs, let alone creating Digg-like interactions. If Blogs are Web 1.5 and Digg is Web 2.0, companies are still tying to get beyond Innovation 1.0.

There’s been a growth in discussion in the mainstream press suggesting that companies need to incorporate blogs into their intranets and that they can create a more personal relationship with customers through CEO blogs. I first took note of this possibility when a good friend of mine at Microsoft said that they use blogs extensively for internal communcation of projects and department/group development information.

Rod Boothby, the writer of the Innovation Creators blog, has written a treatise on using blogs to promote innovation within companies that he e-mailed to me two weeks ago, right before I headed out to lead my own company’s retreat on innovation. The essay is insightful on many levels, and I plan on discussing it in a future post.

My final comment on Rod’s latest post is that for many (most?) companies, suggestions of making corporate structures flat to allow blog-developed innovation to emerge from organic restructuring is probably too radical a concept. I think that other posts on Innovation Creators speak to this issue, and the use of Wikis might be an equally fruitful way to accelerate corporate innovation internally, but I’ll leave that for another post as well.

Rules for Startups, and Grownups Too

Ev Williams posted his Ten Rules for Startups, which has advice that can be applied to large companies as well, whether towards sustaining product design, research, or skunkworks projects. I won’t point out which ones I think apply to sustaining companies–I’ll let you identify the ones you think apply yourself.

Still, here’s one of his rules that I like:

#5: Be User-Centric
User experience is everything. It always has been, but it’s still undervalued and under-invested in. If you don’t know user-centered design, study it. Hire people who know it. Obsess over it. Live and breathe it. Get your whole company on board. Better to iterate a hundred times to get the right feature right than to add a hundred more. The point of Ajax is that it can make a site more responsive, not that it’s sexy. Tags can make things easier to find and classify, but maybe not in your application. The point of an API is so developers can add value for users, not to impress the geeks. Don’t get sidetracked by technologies or the blog-worthiness of your next feature. Always focus on the user and all will be well.

Cognitive Approach to Font Design

The use of cognitive science on the design of Microsoft fonts is intriguingly mentioned by Scobleizer in his post on a visit to MS’s Cleartype team (and supports my post on the application of cognitive science to product R&D).

When talking about the team’s cognitive scientist, Kevin Larson, Scoble says:

He sticks people inside an MRI machine and asks them to read two pages
of text. One with fonts that are ugly and poorly designed. One with beautifully designed fonts and aesthetically laid out.

He says they can’t see much difference in reading speed, but there’s
a massive difference in the part of the brain used on each kind of
page. Also, they measure the various facial muscles used when reading
text. Turns out people frown more when reading the poorly-laid-out text.

The comments on this post mention a fascinating blog by the Cleartype team which discusses the arcane science of font design. I not only learned a lot about the problems and solutions associated with fonts, but why people have a tendancy to (improperly) use two spaces after a period-ending sentence.

I wonder if any of this can be applied to selecting the optimal fonts for Powerpoint presentations that use the Wabi-Sabi philosophy.

Moore’s Torrential PC and Information Overflow

I like Geoffrey Moore’s call for a new metaphor for the PC UI that embraces multi-threaded information streams to appease our increasing demand for data:

The current UI is still tied indirectly to the PC’s original root
metaphor, a typewriter.  It needs to transition to another—the stock
trader’s workstation on Wall Street.  It needs to recast itself as a media machine, with many concurrent feeds that enable traders to scan for information, detect trends, and transact, all very rapidly.

This concept feeds into previous posts of mine and others on the increasing demands on our attention. While Geoffery does not discuss the fact that we are becoming overwhelmed with information, he rightly identifies the PC as being inefficient in relaying the multiple streams of information that we have come to require.

I would like to add to his request for a better UI by also suggesting that we need better tools for information management. There is a huge volume of information coming at us (or that we are mining) from multiple streams and the storage management of this information is becoming too difficult. I am struggling to find the right mix of tools to deal with all of the data that I wish to retain and be able to recall at some future time on multiple machines (work PC, home PC, Treo). I’m using a combination of del.icio.us, EverNote, ContentSaver, FolderShare, 37Signals, Outlook folders, and Windows folder structures to maintain information that I want to preserve for work and personal purposes, yet I feel like it’s all a kluge. I need help in consolidating the vast amounts of information that I am trying to assimilate. AJAX is helping, but the panacea for this problem is not yet here.

Koppel’s Last Words

I just watched the last episode of ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel (on Tivo), and I’ll be damned if the last few seconds ended with humor instead of sadness.

KoppelI view the departure of Koppel with serious concern. With the retirement of Rather and Brokaw, the passing of Jennings whom I met as a teenager (my father was a colleague of his and of the same school and quality of analytical reporting), and now the stepping down of Koppel, serious news is in a sorry state.

Many of the 24 hour news channels are unwatchable (the most egregious offense being Headline News which appears to have been purposefully repackaged to mock journalism). Many of the current news "reporters" being groomed for anchordom earned their chops on morning shows interviewing reality TV stars and celebrity chefs or on tabloid TV investigating unwed mothers rather than providing heady analyses of world politics backed with an encyclopedic knowledge of history (or with backgrounds in print journalism, as Shales points out in the link below).

To get back to my point, Koppel ended his last Nightline show by telling of a quiz he used to give to Nightline interns where he would recite the names of many past renowned anchors. Most of the names–Huntley, Severeid, Brinkley–went unrecognized by the interns, yet Koppel noted that the passing of those heavyweights from the glow of TV didn’t diminish the quality of television journalism because the baton was passed on to other worthy successors. Koppel’s last commentary before his signoff, which abated for a few seconds my sense of a heavy curtain falling on the integrity and respect of the anchor position, were as follows:

What none of these young men and women in their late teens and early twenties appreciates, until I pointed out to them, is that they have just heard the names of seven anchormen or commentators who were once so famous that everyone in the country knew their names. Everybody. Trust me, the transition from one anchor to another is not that big a deal. Cronkite begat Rather, Chancellor begat Brokaw, Reynolds begat Jennings, and each of them did a pretty fair job in his own right. You’ve always been very nice to me, so give this new anchor team from Nightline a fair break. If you don’t, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this timeslot, and then you’ll be sorry.

Ted, I hope you’re right, but all I can think of is that Carson begat Leno, and it didn’t help that tonight’s Nightline was on Thanksgiving dinner foods  😦

A couple poignant commentaries on Koppel’s departure from Nightline can be read in Shale’s Washington Post article and the Cultcha blog.

HBR: Executive Intelligence

Since I’ve been posting on cognitive science lately, I just wanted to note that the latest Harvard Business Review discusses the use of cognitive measures as a means of evaluating candidates for executives positions.  In these tests, the candidate is given a business scenario and asked how they would handle it, where there is no correct answer and a good response depends on clear thinking rather than learned knowledge. Research suggests cognitive measures formulated as problem-solving business scenarios can account for 23-30% of the variance in executive performance measures.

The standard approach that is typically used when interviewing job candidates is the "Past Behavioral Interview" and can explain about 25% of the person’s performance as an exec. This is where the interviewee is asked about their past experiences (such as "describe a time when you had a difficult employee and what you did to resolve the issue").

The authors state the Past Behavioral Interview prediction of performance is independent of the prediction from cognitive measures, meaning that the combination of the two techniques could predict the candidate’s performance with 55-60% accuracy. How valid this statement of independence is not clear from the article, however; it may be based on the authors’ assumptions on independence of qualities being measured by the two tests. Sixty percent predictive factor is an extremely high number for a two-hour test to predict human behavior and ability, which is why I question the ability to simply sum the predictive power of the two tests.

Measuring Innovation

John Hagel and The Economist’s View discuss a Financial Times article by Michael Schrage that blasts the use of R&D spending as a measure of a company’s innovativeness. The point is that many companies now innovate through "efficiencies, effectiveness and productivity." Hagel notes that in his research he has found little correlation between R&D spending and business performance.

Of course, the question is whether business performance is a good measure of a company’s innovativeness because many companies can produce incredibly innovative products and fail on execution: manufacturing, reliability, marketing, usability, customer support, costs, etc. Schrage says that:

Innovation is not what innovators innovate, it is what customers
actually adopt.

By this definition, a company that introduces an inventive product that fails in the market because of other factors was not in fact innovative. If a company later copies the product and has better pricing or marketing so that the product is accepted by consumers, then the second company is considered the innovator.

That’s not the type of innovation I’m interested as someone in R&D. The question to me is what is the relationship between R&D spending and product innovations introduced to the market. Also, what other R&D metrics can account for the the variance in product success once other business variables have been factored out?

Hagel goes on to criticize using patent activity as a measure of innovation because such activity relates only to product innovation and doesn’t capture process and business model innovations. I agree, but I am interested in how good a measure patent activity is of a company’s innovativeness in product development. Most of the patents that I see assigned to competitors and those to companies in related fields are for inventions that never make it to market–i.e., they have a low hit-rate on invention-to-productization.

The presence of an abundance of patent filings, however, is probably correlated with a company’s R&D spending (with other variance accounted for by corporate attitude to the value of patents), and both #of patents and R&D spending are probably correlated with product innovation to at least some extent. I can assess some form of a product innovation quotient for each company in my industry simply through my assessment of product introductions, and I’m going to guess that factor analysis can  determine how the PIQ is dependent on R&D spending and # of patents filed/issued. The question I have is: what other metrics are related to the PIQ, and then how is product success related to the PIQ? I would like to be able to quantify the level of product innovativeness for each company and use it as a tool for my company’s own assessment.

HBR: Crap Circles

Circle_of_needI rarely laugh out loud while reading humor, let alone while reading a magazine like the Harvard Business Review, but that’s exactly what I just finished doing after reading a short article by Gardiner Morse titled "Crap Circles." In it, Morse comments on the sometimes absurd misuse of the ubiquitous circle of arrows that we have grown accustomed to seeing in presentations, articles and websites. An example that I found online is shown on the right. If someone is presenting information on concepts that are inter-related, people tend to represent them as an interconnected circle without thinking of the appropriateness of representing them as one concept feeding into another until the chain feeds back on itself to begin the cycle again. Morse shows egregious examples from unspecified corporate websites. In one example, a project reaches completion only to revert back into a concept phase–a project life cycle only Sisyphus would understand. In another example, a two-stage circle shows product demand growth leading to supply growth which leads back to product demand growth, depicting the business plan equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.
I’m particularly (perhaps overly) amused by this article because last week I contemplated creating my own misinformed circle for a presentation that I just gave today. I wanted to get rid of my bullet point list of inter-related research with a graphic and initially thought, "Hey, I’ll make a colorful circle of labeled arrows!" After some thought (and, thankfully, without actually creating the graphic), I realized that the circle concept made no sense at all for this case: one research project did not feed into another in a linear manner until the chain fed back on itself. The relationship was not soSigproc_copy straighforward. So, I eventually created a graphic showing one concept platform supported by two research concepts, with the whole thing sitting on a large foundation representing that theories upon which eveything is based. Visually, it represented exactly how I thought of the research approach, better than a circle and better than a bullet point list.