Launching Future Exploration Network

I have just established a new organization, Future Exploration Network, which will be the home for a lot of the work I do from now on. This is very exciting for me – the culmination of over 10 years of developing my thinking on business models and creating value for clients. The firm will focus on helping clients think about the long-term future, and what that means for strategy and actions today – this has been a significant piece of my work over the last eight years, particularly applying scenario planning methodologies in new ways. For this venture I’ve teamed up with Richard Watson, who is a fabulous trend-watcher and thinker. While a lot of his work is in driving the trend-watching group Now and Next, he’s also established organizations such as Global Innovation Network and Free Thinking. We’ve worked together on a number of projects, including a major scenario planning project for a large bank, and found that our skills are very complementary. Richard helps people stretch their thinking into new places, while I help take the insights we uncover to build pragmatic strategies. However the core of the model is moving beyond us and our support team to draw on global best-of-breed thinkers to deliver projects for clients. Together we can access many of the top people around the world, tapping our networks to create unique services. Rather than trying to cover all issues, we are focusing on four key themes: the future of global business, the future of technology, the future of media, and the future of financial services. Obviously meaty topics, but ones we have spent a lot of time on over the years. I’ll act as chairman of the new organization, as we build it over time, and continue to use my existing firm Advanced Human Technologies for some of my more traditional consulting work. We intend to generate a lot of interesting content along the way, so a fair bit of our work will be visible – I’ll keep you posted. Content includes a Future Exploration blog that includes posts from myself, Richard, and others, so this is likely to become a good one-stop shop for views on the future, especially – for now – on media. I’ll post about our initial venture on the future of media soon.

The raw data of the global network economy

For some time now I (and quite a few others) have been talking about the “global network economy”. The best way to understand the way the global economy is in considering the global networks of flows of goods, services, money, people, entertainment, aid, and ideas. Now Professor Miguel Centeno of Princeton University has taken the concept deeper, using network analysis methodologies to study globalization. He has set up the International Networks Archive, which has a fabulous array of data on globalization from a network perspective, much of it in Excel format for those who like going to source for their data and analysis. This is a fantastic resource, and I certainly intend to play around with some of the data available here. Prof Centeno is now using the network analysis and visualization software Netmap (which I’ve previously written about in its intelligence applications) to bring the data to life. Part of the things that you can pick out far more easily in this network-centric view of the world is the interdependencies of the world. Simplistic views of say US and China relationships dissolve in the far more complex global networks in which single relationships are set. These are great tools for politicians, activists, and anyone else seeking to really understand the nature of our inextricably interrelated economic existence.

MeshForum 2006: Connecting networks

If you’re interested in any aspects of networks, definitely check out the MeshForum 2006 conference, which is coming up on May 7-9 in San Francisco. I ran a Living Networks Forum session at the inaugural MeshForum last year in Chicago. It ws a fabulous event, with great people who are involved in many aspects of networks, and lots of interaction, including of course my Living Networks session. During the conference I discovered a whole range of very exciting work being done in networks. MeshForum is driven by Shannon Clark, a highly energetic believer in networks, who has recently made the shift to the Bay Area from Chicago, and a group of other kindred spirits. MeshForum is described as “a conference on Networks – bringing together an interdisciplinary mix of academics, artists, business leaders and government experts for three days of learning and collaboration. Our mission is to foster the overall study of networks – across fields of industry and academia.” Some of the highlights of the conference are a focus on visualization, presentations by bloggers (and now authors) extraordinaire Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, and an array of content on networks political, social, transportational, technological, philanthropic, artistic, and more. Highly recommended.

Making successful decisions: Technology Purchase Influence Networks

There can be few more important IT issues—for both large corporations and the vendors that service them—than making major technology purchasing decisions successfully. While technology is a massive expense for organizations, this money is often not well spent. To address this critical issue, CNET asked me to do a research study on this topic, which I did with Rob Cross of the Network Roundtable at the University of Virginia, Andrew Parker of Stanford University, and key CNET executives. Here is the link to the full CNET report on technology purchase influence networks.

Organizational network analysis is an immensely powerful tool, which we wished to apply to understand better how large technology purchasing decisions get made. These kinds of decisions are not made by individuals, they are made by a range of people within the technology and business sides of organization, using both formal and informal decision-making processes. As such, it makes eminent sense to use a network approach to understand how these roles are combined, what inputs they receive in the decision-making process, and what the roles are in this process of vendors and other external parties. We also wanted to uncover the vital differences between successful and unsuccessful technology purchasing decisions, and what organizations can do to more consistently make successful purchasing decisions. We surveyed 289 organizations, and for each one uncovered the influence networks that supported a major technology purchasing decision made over the previous 12 months. The technology purchases covered spanned enterprise software, servers, storage, and voice over IP.

The figure below shows one of the diagrams from the report, giving the combined network across all successful decisions.

CNETsuccessfuldecisions.jpg

Summary findings from the research include:

* The archetype for a successful purchasing decision is based on a strong IT Director/ IT Manager nexus that is well aligned with business executive roles.

* Input from selected external parties support successful decisions.

* Involvement from other external parties, especially vendors, yields mixed results.

* Unbalanced involvement of IT Technical Support is strongly correlated to unsuccessful decisions.

* Getting financial and business input from the CFO strongly supports decision success.

Go to the report for far more detail on all of these findings, and on the key differences between successful and unsuccessful decisions. I will be presenting with Ted Smith of CNET on the study, and more generally applying network approaches to generating revenue, enhancing relationships, and improving decision-making, at the Network Roundtable conference in Boston next week.

I am very interested in taking the findings from this research into new areas. Immediate possibilities include working with organizations to uncover their internal influence networks and enhance the success of their major purchasing decisions, working with vendors to identify ways of adding value to the decision-making of specific clients or client segments, and applying and adapting the influence network methodologies we have developed to other areas of purchasing and decision-making, potentially for consumer as well as organizational decisions. Definitely get in touch if you want to bounce around ideas on any of this. I’ll post here on new applications we find.

Social networks and search

Two years ago I did a four-city speaking tour of New Zealand under the auspices of SmartNet. Before my lunch presentation in Wellington, I sat out on one of the tables, and was astounded to find that the person I was chatting to was an executive of Eurekster, which was at the time a hot new player in applying social networks to search. I’ve never come across much public mention of this, as they present themselves as a US company, but much of Eurekster’s development has been done in New Zealand. The news today is that Microsoft, in endeavoring to integrate social network functionality into its own search offering, will either buy or partner with Eurekster, according to BusinessWeek.

While there are a number of approaches to what is being called “social search”, the heart of it is drawing on the experiences and search results of people with similar interests. Rather than using pure algorithms to rank relevance, it makes a lot of sense to use as inputs what people have found to be useful. This can be done in bounded groups, so for example racing car enthusiasts could form a social group where all the members can draw on the search processes or interesting results others are finding. A search for “fiat” would give very different results than it would in a generic research, or even for a car buyer’s interest group. However I think that forming specific search groups is only a preliminary step down this path. Everyone has many interests and roles, and it is not easy to find and join relevant search groups for each of these areas. In the long-term, collaborative search must automatically draw on people’s most relevant peers and their search results. This relates to how reputation networks will develop, where you have an implicit trust rating for each person’s input into the system. This may be through personally knowing that person, or it may be by how they – or the information they uncover – are viewed by your peers. There is no question that social search will over time give far better results than pure algorithmic search. But what Eurekster, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are doing now in this field are very early steps.

The symbiosis of mainstream media and blogs

I read through an article on blogging in the Financial Times this morning to help me as I develop some frameworks on the changing content creation landscape. The article was clearly negative on blogging being the transformative media it is touted to be, though brought out some interesting points. The writer makes the point that blogs are not self-sufficient – they depend largely on the mainstream media for their fodder.

“The present round of chiselling may feel exciting and radically new – but blogging in the US is not reflective of the kind of deep social and political change that lay behind the alternative press in the 1960s. Instead, its dependency on old media for its material brings to mind Swift’s fleas sucking upon other fleas “ad infinitum”: somewhere there has to be a host for feeding to begin. That blogs will one day rule the media world is a triumph of optimism over parasitism.”

Cute metaphor. Yet symbiosis is far more apt than parasitism. Mainstream media in its online form largely gets attention through blogs. Blogs add immense value to the original articles, by identiyfing what’s important, pointing out flaws, adding other perspectives, making visible to all the conversations that stem from media pieces. Blogs depend on mainstream media, with its resources and editorial capabilities, for sure. Yet media is increasingly dependent on blogging for the direction of attention and layer of value-add created.

Keynote on the Future of Global Business at the Harvard Club in New York

This April 27 I’m doing a lunch address at the Harvard Club in New York City on The Future of Global Business, organized by Claxton Speakers International – description below. Details and registration here. If you’re in the area, please come along and say hi, or feel free to pass on word if people you know may be interested in coming along.

The Future of Global Business

Business is now truly global. Communications technologies and deregulation are creating a world in which there are no boundaries for competition. Manufacturing has already gone to low-cost locations. Now almost-free communication allows legal work, financial analysis, and other professsional work – as well as customer service – to be done anywhere on the planet. Innovations are copied in the blink of an eye. Blogging, podcasting, and internet TV change the rules for media and advertising. The entire planet has become a intensely interconnected hive of business activity.

Yet despite the challenges, there are massive opportunities in this new global world of business. How should individuals, companies, and indeed entire countries, position themselves for success? The answer is in connecting. You must have at least one world-class capability, and then tap into global networks for both suppliers and clients. Those organizations that can create effective collaborative networks will dominate. Those that attempt to stand alone will fall. Today it is still about who you know, but also about how you can create value with your personal networks. In his compelling and energizing keynote, Dawson brings clarity to the unfolding world of global business, and provides specific, actionable strategies for individuals and companies to succeed in the challenging times ahead.

Newspaper headlines and search optimization

An interesting article in the New York Times on how newspapers are finding the art of writing headlines is changing. Back when you were solely trying to draw attention from readers of a broadsheet, being clever was the name of the game. But now that online content is starting to become a significant revenue stream for newspapers, and much of their traffic comes through search engines such as Google News or other new aggregators, creating headlines is becoming a very different art. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of making your website friendly to search engines. As it turns out, headlines are a critical part of this. Google and other search engines very heavily overweight words that are in page and story titles. Words used in titles need to be relevant to the article, so search engines can classify them. It’s been very interesting to me as this blog has gained traction to see how people are finding the blog, and what gets good search engine rankings. For example posts on this blog come up #1 on Google for a wide range of search terms, including “monetizing eyeballs“, “client sophistication“, “blogging serialization“, and many others. These are all words that are in the titles of the respective blog posts. Understanding how this works strongly influences what I – or any blogger or editor – choose to use as headlines.

Part of what the newspapers are doing is setting up dual pages, one with the traditional newspaper headline, the other with the search-engine friendly version, intended for different human or automated readers. The thing is that you are not just targetting search engines, but also news aggregration sites such as Memeorandum and Daypop News. Michael Parekh makes some interesting points on this regarding optimization for multiple platforms. Tagging and other approaches will help on this front, but for now content creators need to work out their priorities in how they optimize their sites and content to be found on the web.

Massively multi-player sex games

Click on the image for a trial of Red Light Center, the most popular multiplayer 3D virtual sex game

This is going to be big. Naughty America: The Game is a massively-multiplayer game, due out in the next few months, in which players assume the role of characters who meet, date, and have sex. Up until now the big multiplayer role-playing games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft have been set in fantasy worlds. Now it will be in sexual fantasy worlds, where characters can invite others back to their apartment, designed to their own taste with home decorator tools. Or they can flirt or have sex in a whole variety of realms including the beach, back alleys, a cruise ship, or theme rooms such as make-your-own-porn. And just so it isn’t too tame, you can switch to sex mode, where you can turn on personal webcams, or of course set up in-the-flesh dates. A good overview article discusses some of the ins-and-outs of the market, including how Naughty America intends to deal with distribution, fears of sexual predators, and bringing people into a new experience. However, interestingly, Second Life, the biggest free-form online world, is said to be one-third based on sexual interactions. I think that the only potential limitation here is the quality of the graphics. But if it’s not good enough now, it will be soon. Having recently delved into World of Warcraft and been staggered at how far the multiplayer online games have come in the last years, I don’t doubt that a significant portion of many people’s lives will be spent in virtual worlds, as and when the graphic and interaction quality is up to it. And sex will be part of that virtual interaction.

Online video heats up

YouTube, recently the belle of the ball at the Digital Hollywood conference, has just raised $8 million from Sequoia Capital in a Series B round. YouTube is currently the leader of the pack in providing online video hosting, but it still doesn’t have an evident business model. Apparently it will start putting advertising into its site – which it currently doesn’t do – by mid-year, but the costs of hosting video means this revenue stream has to be significant. Far more likely it will look to cut deals with major entertainment companies to be an outlet for video content, in turn tied in with related revenue streams. However YouTube is far from alone in the space, with Jumpcut launched yesterday, and yet to be released service Motionbox declared the best video service by TechCrunch, even before its launch. Both of these services allow video editing, with Jumpcut in particular having some nifty video mashup and remix features, while YouTube is just an upload site. Bubble, bubble, toil, and maybe trouble on the other end of this boomlet, but it has a very good run to go first.