Creating enhanced serendipity

A topic of great importance – serendipity – has suddenly surfaced in public debate. William McKeen, chairman of the University of Florida journalism department, recently wrote an article in the St Petersburg Times titled The endangered joy of serendipity, suggesting that in an online world we are less likely to stumble across the vital information you aren’t specifically looking for. Steven Johnson, author of among other titles Everything Bad is Good For You, responded with a blog post Can we please kill this meme now, strongly disagreeing that online information is worse for serendipitous discoveries than print, sparking substantial debate on the theme. With the mainstream press commonly taking their stories from discussions in the blogosphere, not surprisingly the BBC took up this issue of the importance of serendipity, with a piece Serendipity casts a very wide net.

I’ve been speaking about serendipity for some years, and more specifically the concept of “enhanced serendipity”, that is, deliberately making fortuitous and valuable accidents more likely to happen. As part of the debate Nicholas Carr wrote a post expanding on the history of the word serendipity. However he missed out an important detail of the story. As Carr wrote, the word originates from Horace Walpole, who coined it from the story, The Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes, in their adventures, had the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries. However these didn’t just happen to them; the princes actually helped to create them. In the following tale, excerpted from a retelling of the The Princes of Serendip by Richard Boyle, the three princes are advisors to the great Emporer Beramo.

Beramo has fallen in love with a beautiful slave girl called Diliramma, who one day questioned his honour in public. In a fit of rage, he had her bound and abandoned in a forest. The next day, Beramo was filled with remorse and ordered a search for his paramour. No trace of her was found, leaving Beramo ill with sorrow.

Witnessing the emperor’s suffering, the princes advise him to build seven beautiful palaces and to reside in each one for a week. In addition, the best storyteller in each of the seven most important cities of the empire is to be brought into his royal presence to recount a marvellous story.

Over the weeks, in his various palaces, Beramo listens with appreciation to six of the stories, his health steadily improving. While listening to the seventh story, about a ruler who spurns his lover, Beramo suddenly realizes that it concerns Diliramma and himself. On being questioned, the storyteller reveals that he knows Diliramma and that he is searching for her lord to tell him that she still loves him despite his act of cruelty. Overjoyed, Beramo sends for Diliramma and they are reunited.

In this story, the princes have created a strategy for making a happy accident more likely to happen. This is a great example of enhancing serendipity, not just being subject to it. That is what we must seek to do, in creating links between ideas and people that would be enormously valuable if only they were made. So many of the emerging technologies of today, from blogs to collaborative filtering systems such Last.FM, absolutely facilitate happy accidents.

The debate on the topic is very important. I believe that online search tools are currently at a very early stage of development, and so they are hardly likely to cut us off from accidental discoveries of relevant or interesting information any more than we have been in a print world. However we are moving closer to a time when we will be able to hone in on what we are seeking with great precision. I have previously envisaged a “serendipity dial” which we can situate either to give us great accuracy, or a greater possibility of accidents in our discoveries. I don’t share McKeen’s concerns. Most people are far more diversely informed than they were not long ago, except by choice. The tools we have are not at fault. As we move forward, we need to be highly aware of the degree of serendipity we are choosing. The new world of information gives us that choice.

Total immersion video games

The whole direction and ultimate point of video games is total immersion. It should be as if you are actually in the game’s environment, acting as you would, and fully living the experience. The VirtuSphere is certainly a step towards that, despite the graphic quality still not being there to support it. However the next years and decades will, step by step, move towards games being virtually indistinguishable from our everyday world.

“The VirtuSphere takes gaming to a whole new level, allowing users to walk inside a virtual space “while being totally immersed” — through the head-mounted display system. Built-in sensors detect movement and transmit that information to a linked computer. A special platform inside the sphere allows it to rotate in any direction as the user walks.”

“The VirtuSphere is currently the only technology in the world, which permits the user to move about in virtual space through the most natural movement of all – by walking.”

In from TechEBlog

Check out the video!

Blogging, PR, influence, and free conference calls

Today I received my first approach as a blogger by a PR agency, trying to promote their client’s wares to me. I guess that indicates a certain level of success, though the top bloggers are swamped not just by PR agencies, but also by other bloggers, all trying to get links and attention. Influence is now not held just by journalists, but by anyone who chooses to set up a blog and happens to attract a reasonable audience. In fact, bloggers can be stronger “opinion-makers” than journalists, because they are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as less in thrall to corporate power.

By sheer coincidence, I happen to be a “customer” of the company the PR agency was flogging, and I think they offer something worth highlighting, so it was worth their while approaching me. The company, freeconferencecall.com, offers, not surprisingly, free conference calls. I use them for all my conference calls. Previously I have had occasional technical glitches, but recently everything has worked fine, and it’s a very good service at a very agreeable price. Their business model is supported by getting a portion of the cost of the inbound call (which is not an 800 number). Their new offering is Simple Voice Box 2.0, which is a free unlimited length voice mailbox system, which allows people to dial in to hear messages, creates .wav files for distribution, includes RSS subscription etc. Again, what seems like a great offering at the right price. Helping keep telco competitors on their toes, something they still need.

The collaborative space of blogs and newspapers

Technorati has just announced a deal with Associated Press (AP) that will place a “top five most blogged about” list of stories on more than 440 media sites – many of them local newspapers. In addition, they will place a feature of “who’s blogging about” the story for the AP stories that appear on the local sites. This feature was first introduced by the Washington Post last year, when I wrote about “the cycle of media” which this enables. These features both allow readers to know what other people find the most interesting from everything in the mainstream media, and to immediately see and engage in the conversation stemming from those articles. More recently I wrote about the symbiosis of mainstream media and blogs. Newspapers and other mainstream media are still the primary reference points for what’s happening in the world, and the first pass of editorial commentary on that. Yet mainstream media increasingly feeds off the dialogue and news that surfaces in the blogosphere. News sites are also vastly enhanced by having the conversations that stem from their articles being visible to all. Anyone who wants to comment on a media story can have their thoughts available to readers globally, not just on a single site, but through an entire world of syndicated media. This move is particularly important as it is not just on a single newspaper, but covering the links that hit a story at any point in the news syndication process. Technorati’s initiatives – and their uptake by mainstream media – are making the system into a tightly enmeshed collaborative space for identifying and disseminating news through society.

Global innovation and networks

IBM has recently released its second Global Innovation Outlook report. I referred to a related initiative – IBM’s Global Technology Outlook – in the second edition of Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships as an example both of collaborative innovation, and how IBM provides customized and highly relevant insights to its clients. IBM brought together 250 thought leaders in five locations around the planet to think about innovation and the future. The insights are available in a publicly-available report, and also in customized interactive presentations for large clients. The report is excellent, not least because it hits on most of the themes of this blog :-) It points to innovation today being: Global, Multidisciplinary, and Collaborative and open. This ties in totally with the story I often tell, of how increasing depth of knowledge and specialization requires collaboration between disciplines, which must be global in scope, and requires new models to draw together disparate strands. In its examination of the Future of the Enterprise, the report focuses on networks, also touching on other key themes of strong interest to me, including “reputation capital” and how value is aggregated. Well worth a look.

Microsoft enters enterprise social network software

Very interesting news: As mooted by ZDNet, Microsoft has just announced an add-in to Office SharePoint Server 2007 called Knowledge Network, which will automatically develop profiles of employees’ capabilities and experience. It will then allow people to request to be connected to others in their organization that have specific expertise. See some screenshots here. This squarely puts Microsoft into a space – enterprise social network software – that has previously been populated by Spoke, Visible Path, Contact Networks, and Tacit. Each of these companies has developed fairly mature offerings, and gained traction in the corporate marketplace, with a number of leading audit firms, investment banks, and pharmaceutical companies in the process of implementing their software. Microsoft’s offering – as a new, free download for SharePoint – may not yet be as mature, but as in many other cases, their market clout means they can access more markets, and undercut the often high-priced software of the existing players in this space.

The broader theme here is that there is now unambiguous recognition that social networks are central to organizational performance, and to cracking the “expertise location” issue that is fundamental to any large knowledge-based organization. Unquestionably, good software, well-implemented, can be a powerful enabler. However business processes and culture need to shift too. Many organizations seem to think the enterprise social network software will provide an immediate solution, and many have stumbled already in applying these tools. The real value is harder to tap. Once more organizations implement Microsoft’s Knowledge Networks and related tools, social networks will be brought further to the fore as critical enablers of performance.

Talking about MySpace Generation

Reuters just came out with a syndicated story on MySpace titled As freedom shrinks, teens seek MySpace to hang out. It describes how MySpace has matched its moniker by creating a place where young people can explore their identity under their own terms. The article quotes me about these issues of teen identity, and how technology is a natural landscape for those who have grown up with it. The way I see relational technologies such as mobiles, chat forums, multiplayer roleplaying games, video sharing and so on, is that they extend our capacity as humans to relate. People have a built-in drive to connect with others, and now that has a far wider canvas across which to express itself. We can now discover many of the latent propensities and characteristics of humans, because we have been given new tools to explore our human identity. In some contexts, face-to-face interactions are absolutely superior, however that does not mean that it is not fundamentally human to connect in other ways too. It is the so-called MySpace generation that is exploring these new ways of relating, and as-yet undiscovered aspects of what it means to be a human being.

Social networks, data mining, and intelligence

The uproar over the phone calls records collected by the National Security Agency to search for terrorist activity is actually a network phenomenon. Supposedly the numbers called by tens of millions of Americans have been provided by AT&T, BellSouth, and Verizon to the NSA. I have no doubt that the analysis techniques used on this data were primarily network mapping, using software such as Netmap, which I described in an earlier article on social networks and intelligence applications. Searching for patterns in this data is a network analysis application, and the state of the art is pretty good now. So as long as the government (or whoever) can get sufficient data, the patterns and anomalies of your life will be evident.

Speaking at the Network Roundtable

Last Wednesday was the Network Roundtable conference at Babson College in Boston, continuing the great work since the consortium was established almost two years ago. A little while ago I wrote that organizational network analysis is going mainstream, and the conference indeed showed the maturity of this management discipline. The presentations will be available soon at the Network Roundtable website.

One of the key themes of the event was knowledge worker productivity. Both Tom Davenport of Babson College and Marshall van Alstyne of MIT discussed recent compelling research which shows unequivocally that a person’s social networks is the single most important determinant of both personal career success, and productivity inside the organization. Organizations such as Raytheon, Hill & Knowlton, and Accenture shared some of their recent advances in the field. I spoke about applying networks to sales and relationships, looking from both supplier and client perspectives, tag-teaming with Ted Smith, Senior Vice President at CNET, who went into more depth on the study which I recently completed for them on technology purchase influence networks, and how this has uncovered a whole range of new, actionable insights not possible through more traditional research processes. I also discussed some of the other studies I’m doing on client-supplier connectivity, including current work on a very large technology outsourcing relationship, which shows in detail how a large financial services organization and its primary technology services firm are connected. The day rounded out with some fun and valuable views on networks from Tiziana Casciaro on the work featured in her recent Harvard Business Review article, showing the organizational implications of the people we can recognize so readily, such as the “competent jerk”, and “lovable fool”. It’s great to see the power of the network view of organizations beginning to reach its potential.

Exploring new models for creating content

This in from Shannon Clark of MeshForum fame: A Swarm of Angels is an experiment for a new model for content creation, well worth a look. Its objective is to raise a £1 million pound movie from contributions, and freely distribute the resulting movie to 1 million people, all within one year. This creates collaborative effort, bypassing Hollywood, and allowing the outputs to be shared and remixed, by issuing it on a Creative Commons license. There’s a good chance that they’ll create something worthwhile, with their explicit intent to make a cult movie. The fund-raising model here is difficult to scale, but it can carve out a niche. The point is we need to explore new models for content creation and ownership – the experiment with this new model may uncover new possibilities that will indicate some of the many paths forward media creation will take.