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Thursday, October 13, 2011

on innovation, technological revolution, digital evolution & one Googler's rant

As many of you have seen now there was a public G+ post from a Google staff person; it has now been taken down and "leaked" (some are wondering whether it was intentionally leaked since there are claims that they have permission to republish it).

Anyhow, these are just my thoughts after reading it yesterday. The post itself is rather long and obviously not meant to be a formal piece of writing, but it is interesting with some very valid discussion points. If nothing else, it is an opinion piece on 2 different companies with very different workplaces and philosophies.

While it mostly focuses on his time spent at Amazon and more recently, Google, the more interesting bits are the thoughts on innovation. He talks about how Amazon made a commitment from the top to change how it worked. Amazon has become a very innovative company (in spite of my feelings about the confusing and unfriendly world of ebooks; I do love my kindle and shop regularly at amazon). I'm just one of millions. He also talks a bit about the culture of working for Amazon at the time (micromanaging, cubeville). The second part covers his time at Google, especially in terms of product development. One thing he talks about is a lack of awareness of user experience/needs in terms of technology -  Google looks for products vs. services. He also talked some about the good of Google - their work environment, community service, etc.

What I got from reading this post is that Google culture (& not necessarily individuals although individuals in leadership positions do drive culture or conversely, stagnant it) does not really grasp the why of community driven content (such as social media). I said recently of G+ that unlike Facebook which has a centralized upload for photos, videos, posts, etc. ;  for G+, it's picassa for photos, youtube for video, _____ ? (perhaps G buzz?) for posts. Not having an API makes it nearly impossible to push content from G+ to other social media networks. For alot of us, that is CRUCIAL.

Thinking about all of that, it seems that a lot of companies and organizations are struggling with adapting their workflows to new technology products (such as software) in the information age. Rather than trying to think about things in a new way, old thinking and understandings of the world are applied to the new workflow. Leadership (& others) do not grasp the fundamental point: our culture has changed. The way we do things should change - and it's not just the product being developed or the service being offered. It's not about taking our workflow and bending it around a new thing. While some would argue why fix (or break!) what's working - innovation NEVER comes out of stagnation. I would also argue that just because you can make a workflow (or worse - a WORK AROUND) work, does not make it a good, efficient, or productive workflow. 

So, it really is a cultural shift - yes, Michael Wesch really did know what he was talking about almost 5 years ago when he posted the Machine is Us/ing Us on Youtube:

...and this is where we are. Digital advocates (fundamentalists? I hate the term digital natives and technological stereotyping based upon age, btw) don't see technology as something that is frivalous (ok, maybe the Xbox is); technology just is. Having technology at hand (& connected - egads the U.S. needs more wifi) is an expectation. Creating content is part of life now -- and that act of creating  content and sharing it is driving new ways of looking at work, new workflows - community sourced knowledge.

It's easy to create one post and post to many automatically; to "mashup" (who says mashup anymore? nobody) multiple formats to create a new digital object; to repackage, repurpose, reuse (recycle). One of the biggest fundamental changes that technology has delivered is the shift of power - creative power, especially. Anyone can take a photo and upload it Flickr. Anyone can create a website. So, if your everyday foundation involves using technology to create content and contribute (reviews, writings, etc.) and the tools support creating automatic linked paths (linking data), how can a workflow structured as a line from point A>E work? How can a business or organization SUCCEED as a traditional hierarchy with traditional linear workflows?  Because after all, there is a big difference between succeeding and existing. ;-)  

Looking at our history, the 2nd Industrial Revolution was focused on science and innovation and lasted until some time after WWII (I would say up through the 1960s and the peak of the space race). A lot of our corporate (but especially higher ed and govermental) workflows were put into place during that time.

For libraries and many information organizations, the 1970s were the beginning of the digital revolution (although it is usually dated as beginning in the 80s with the rise of PCs) and we saw the rise of automation in the 1970s-80s, moving from printed card catalogs to some sort of automated system (database) using MARC language. Nothing really has changed for libraries from the 1970s until the mid 2000s, except our platforms and databases got better (more integrated and powerful; data more portable; reduction of manual work).

As a whole, as the digital revolution became more fully realized, we saw the true beginning of the information revolution (focusing on service rather than products). We're now in the Information Age, with the rise of social media and mobile, community created content, "citizen" journalism, and immediacy of information (real time). WE all are creative collaborative -- well -- creators. As whole, we have moved fully into a service based culture focused with a dependence on technological tools; other members of our society are either catching up,  will be forced to adapt once the culture changes around them entirely, OR will be left behind.

...and that is where many libraries and organizations got stuck. Due to budget cuts and an assortment of other issues (aging networks, outdated hardware, hierarchical structures, a lack of understanding of  how cultural shifts impact organizations), the leap across from the digital revolution to the information revolution seems at times, nearly impossible. It involves a dedicated vision - not just a migration or conversion (both of which would leave behind remnants of old thinking, but a complete re-envisioning from the ground up. That's not to say that libraries (& others) should throw out all of their products (such as books) or their services (such as circulating those books), but that  there are different ways of doing things (self check, ebooks sent automatically to account when available, etc.) but without addressing fundamental problems from a holistic view, the institution or library will never be truly innovative.
of course, some folks get this. Maybe everyone will one day.

-- just my thoughts (as always)

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