Blabberings on technology, the web, mobile world, India, books, events, communities and everything else (Chautauqua: An old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the participants)

Location: United States

Monday, August 14, 2006

Happy Independence day, India

Out here in Virginia one can feel Fall quietly making its way into the air, into people's moods, conversations and melodies. The last time I wrote nostalgically about India was when Spring was making a similar entry, when the dogwoods were blooming and the season's last snow flakes were quietly settling on my window. Strange. Maybe it's a change of season thing. Or maybe it's just fall, come fall and it's the festive season in India (at least where I grew up). The weather tonight is like late September in India. And that's what it reminds me of.

It reminds me of streching and yawning, trying to continue sleeping on the cot in the moist freshness of dawn. It reminds me of long hours spent drinking with friends by the canal under a low moon waiting for the shadowy train with its windows of checkered light to come. It reminds me of lovers slowly ambling down college roads in the gathering dusk wishing that the girls' hostel was open just a wee bit longer (In my college girls had to be in their dorms/hostels by 9:30 PM!!). And it reminds of stopping by the roadside and drinking tea on a chilly midnight on numerous spur-of-the-moment trips to Kasauli and Dagshai. I think it's a change of season nostalgia. Anyways...

Today, India celebrates its 59th independence day. I haven't lived long enough to recap the 59 years and I'm not wise enough to talk about the 26 I've seen. However, an article in the economist (sorry, password required) sums India's contradictions disturbingly well. Here is an excerpt.

LOOK at the big picture, and India's future seems assuredly bright. It has banished famine and cut absolute poverty by more than half. Economic growth is among the fastest of any country. Its newly confident businesses are spreading their wings. Having long been “hyphenated” with Pakistan as a dangerous trouble-spot, the country is now seen as half of an “India-China” pairing that is transforming the global economy. If this were a race, India, as the younger country, and a vibrant but stable democracy, would seem to many the better long-term bet.

Look at the detail, however, and you may despair at the depth and complexity of the problems India faces. For all its achievements, poverty remains entrenched. Some 260m people survive on less than one dollar a day. Nearly half of the country's children below the age of six are undernourished. More than half of its women are illiterate. Half its homes have no electricity, and in one state, Chhattisgarh, 82% are not even connected by road. Nor is there a huge pot of money to throw at these shortages. The government's average budget deficit, from 2000 to 2004, was exceeded only by that of Turkey. Even when it does spend money, the pipeline between government coffers and the intended beneficiaries is corroded by corruption, and cash seeps out.

As the World Bank notes in a new report (“India. Inclusive Growth & Service Delivery: Building on India's Success”. World Bank Development Policy Review, 2006), this contradiction puzzles fresh observers in three ways. First, they find the rampant economic optimism hard to swallow: it seems to exaggerate changes in the fundamental shape of the Indian economy. Second, even though the economy is booming, the performance of the public sector seems to go from bad to worse. Third, India “is the best of the world, it is the worst of the world—and the gaps are growing.” India's top technology colleges set global standards. Yet “many, if not most, children finish government primary schools incapable of simple arithmetic.”

The article however ends with hope. Here are the last two paragraphs:

All of this reads like a list of reasons for gloom about India. Far from it. The beauty of reducing the country's myriad problems to two big, related, ones, is that of all simplification: it makes the solutions seem simpler, too, even if this economic diagnosis of India's ills suggests cures that are mainly political.

Most recent Indian governments, and the present one above all, have a clear and sensible idea of their priorities: investing in infrastructure, health and education, and in improving agricultural productivity. It is not the policies that are failing so much as the machinery for implementing them. In electoral politics, good policy is often forgotten for vote-grabbing promises of jobs, contracts and subsidies. And the Indian civil service, like bureaucracies everywhere, is adept at resisting reform. But India is big enough to have plenty of stories of successful reform that can be imitated: most involve making providers of taxpayer-financed services more accountable for their delivery. Spreading those lessons should not be beyond the world's biggest democracy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The influence economy

n. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially one that operates without any direct or apparent effort: relaxed under the influence of the music; the influence of television on modern life.
Stories, case studies and articles abound; tales come and go; and debates keep getting sparked about how 'social media', 'citizien journalism', 'web 2.0', 'network journalism' etc. etc. etc. is changing the way we do business. And it is...I contend that this is the age of influence, where competetive advantage in businesses will come from being able to influence consumers, where the barrier to entry will be influence (not knowledge, not technology but influence). So, what we're seeing is the movement from a knowledge economy to an influence economy.

Jamie Oliver sparked a reform in the school-meal-industry in UK (Read this post on Communities dominate Brands), the Indian government had to act quickly to remove censorship from blogs after the blasts (read here); Cluetrain, Naked Conversations, Communities Dominate Brands, books on blogging, are big hits. Youtube is growing at breakneck speed. The blogosphere continues to double every five months. There are more hits on myspace than google. There are people who read blogs on their phones and blog from their mobile phones. What on earth is going on?

So, the first question is 'Why are more and more people blogging/Youtubing/Myspacing'? Why are people like Jamie Oliver standing up? Why are we seeing more and more participation from the people?

The World Values Survey may provide some answers or at least a basis for a reasonable hypothesis. If you take a look at this figure (click on Introduction to World Values Survey on the lower left hand corner) from the survey, you'll see some interesting trends.

The report says (I believe that this data is from year 2001):

A central component of this emerging dimension involves the polarization between Materialist and Postmaterialist values, reflecting a cultural shift that is emerging among generations who have grown up taking survival for granted. Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, tolerance of diversity and rising demands for participation in decision making in economic and political life. These values also reflect mass polarization over tolerance of outgroups, including foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality. The shift from survival values to self-expression values also includes a shift in child-rearing values, from emphasis on hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to teach a child. And it goes with a rising sense of subjective well-being that is conducive to an atmosphere of tolerance, trust and political moderation. Finally, societies that rank high on self-expression values also tend to rank high on interpersonal trust.

I believe that we are indeed finding evidence that all those observations are true. For instance, take the number of non-profit startups in the last couple of years and the attention they are drawing, or consider all the people talking about meditation and yoga (the number of people has gone up 10 times in the last few years). We are indeed moving into a world (especially in the developed countries) where self-expression, trust and a meaningful existence seems to be gathering more value everyday. So, falling back on my education, the utility (don't you love that term) of self-expression and interpersonal trust is much higher today than it has ever been and is continuing to grow.

The second question then is, given that the societal values seem to be changing, what are people and businesses doing about it?

Easy enough to answer. We saw the advent of technology that would support self-expression (static websites to blogs). We saw this technology move from mere text (blogging) to multimedia. We saw ways of distribution of this user-generated content differ from conventional ways (syndicated content - RSS and atom.; list sharing - OPML). We saw podcasting, we are seeing Youtube. We saw content being bookmarked and ranked socially by those who consume it (social bookmarking). On the other side, we saw the facebooks, friendsters, myspaces, Cyworlds flourish. And I'm sure each one of us can name plenty of companies in all the areas I named above (and we all have our darlings that we'll put our money on!). However, the social revolution began even before these things happened. It began with pagerank (see Ajit Jaokar's post on pagerank as web 2.0 here).

People on the edge who created these things or understand them and write about them started becoming more and more known (aka influential) and then (as expected) we had ways of ranking them (See Technorati's top 100 for example). Alan Moore recently wrote about how many CEOs are beginning to blog. Stowe Boyd had an interesting observation here. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel's book is full of anecdotes of how blogging helped. Why? Because blogging is about self-expression and inter-personal trust (things with high utility in this day and age).

It's not just blogging or user-generated content. We have started seeing the emergence of "community" as a buzzword. People have started forming Communities of practice and started engaging in debates about how communities differ from teams and how to build communities. Business academics have begun studying "Social Network Analysis". Engineers have started looking for opportunities for Operations Research and Management Sciences in this social network world (did I ever tell you that my MS research was on stochastic network algorithms? I would say buy my book, but its probably useless to you!). :-)

And it's not over yet. We are seeing more and more non-profit startups (look at the world values survey paragraph above). Anywhere we look, I see a bright young person starting something developmental for the society (take the increasing numbers at TED). See my last post about TED. We are seeing Jamie Olivers and Bombay helplines.

So, my last question is what does all of this mean? What does it mean to see more CEOs blog? What does it mean to see that TV selling power is falling? Why are people studying communities? And if things will work this way...what does it mean for the future?

Well, I think it means we're moving into an influence economy. Think about it, if organizations are going to start functioning as communities of practice, the formerly used ways of authority to get work done are not going to work. What will work is a leader's ability to influence members in the community to get work done. That's internal management. Customers are already basing their buying decisions on influence (I'm sure engadget is responsible for more gadget sales than any TV ad campaign. If it isn't, it will be). People trust engadget and reviews from fellow customers more than they trust salespeople (is it a surprise?). And trust leads to the ability to influence. And I'm sure all of you (especially, Alan, Tomi and Shel) will agree that more and more companies will have to blog because it creates trust between the company and its customers. TV's ability to sell is falling because TV commercials provide for less trust (among other things) than blogs.

So, we are seeing that internally in your professional career your ability to influence will take you places. Externally as an organization, you have to rely on building trust (to be able to influence) to be able to sell to consumers. If we extend this a little further it is easy to see that the commodity that businesses will be fighting for will a be a consumer's trust (aka the ability to influence a consumer) influence will become the barrier to entry for other businesses.

Why did we call our economy a knowledge economy so far? Because if you had more knowledge you succeeded personally in your career. If the company had more knowledge/technology the company succeeded. The barrier to entry was and to extent still is intellectual property.

Do I need to say any more that we're seeing the end of the knowledge economy and the advent of an influence economy? If you any examples that support my contention, or invalidate it, I would really like to hear them.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

TED Talks

TED has some of the best people talking about the world. Each one of them is worth listening to and now these talks have been made available to everyone. Click here for the talks. This is yet another example of the internet being the great leveller. More on that later.

Personally, I loved Cameron Sinclair's and Hans Rosling's talks, especially from the point of view of sustainable development for the world. I also really liked Sir Ken Robinson, maybe even more that Cameron's and Hans' talk. I couldn't agree less with Ken on the point that creativity is as important as literacy when we think of education in this day and age. Also, I like the way Cameron says that, today, we have an opportunity...opportunity, not responsibility, to get together and develop socially responsible organizations that work for world development.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Blogging and "the intellectual influence game"

The Economist has an article on why economists spend valuable time blogging. (sorry, I think that link might prompt for an ID and a password). What's interesting to me is that I find more university faculty members from economics, social sciences and the liberal arts blogging than from engineering and the sciences. Maybe it's because the former subjects deal with people and realize the value of influence more than scientists or engineers who spend their lives in laboratories (an atmosphere devoid of human beings). No offence to engineers...I am one too and proud of it!

I have talked about the value of influence earlier and intend to talk about it again in a later post. However, for now here are some excerpts from the article.

“CLEARLY there is here a problem of the division of knowledge, which is quite analogous to, and at least as important as, the problem of the division of labour,” Friedrich Hayek told the London Economic Club in 1936. What Mr Hayek could not have known about knowledge was that 70 years later weblogs, or blogs, would be pooling it into a vast, virtual conversation. That economists are typing as prolifically as anyone speaks both to the value of the medium and to the worth they put on their time.

and later...

So why do it? “It's a place in the intellectual influence game,” Mr DeLong replies (by e-mail, naturally). For prominent economists, that place can come with a price. Time spent on the internet could otherwise be spent on traditional publishing or collecting consulting fees. Mr DeLong caps his blogging at 90 minutes a day. His only blog revenue comes from selling advertising links to help cover the cost of his servers, which handle more than 20,000 visitors daily.

The way it should be - way cool!

The other day some work required me to delve into stuff on 'Communities of Practice' and where the concept evolved from. And as I went looking for some information I stumbled across this picture and just fell in love with it! Way cool! And what do you think Global Deepwater Wildcat Conference is about? Any guesses? It's about deep water drilling for oil...yes you're right. It's that picture of an off-shore oil rig with hundreds of hard core engineers (the civil, mechanical, chemical kinds) milling around. And they could very well have chosen a picture of drilling with engineers in hard hats and some tanks and stuff. But, no...this is the picture they chose to market the conference. It certainly makes me want to go to the conference! This is what I call - way cool!

And this just doesn't have to apply to marketing. This is what makes products fun to use, the "cool factor"..."the A-ha! effect"...the "Damn! That's awesome" expression has to come about from your users. I believe a lot of it comes from everyone in a team understanding what it is that we're making and what value will it add in our consumers' life. At LinknSurf, we had our whole team of developers create blogs to draw their own understanding of what LinknSurf would mean to them as consumers and be able to offer suggestions in terms of how to make it more FUN. In our world today, I have come to believe that you can add a lot of utility to anything by just adding FUN to it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"Quality isn't job one"!

Hugh Macleod rocks!! He's one of my favorite cartoonists and I could cite a number of reasons why he's so good. I love the way he adds color to some cartoons; they're just a visual delight. Most of his cartoons are witty (that means I get most of them!!); he's got a no-nonsense style of saying what he has to and yada yada yada. However, most of all, what I like is his attitude and the fact that I think I'm better looking than him! ;) (kidding...I dont know what he looks like)
Oh, I also have to mention that he's prolific. He just keeps on producing good stuff...keeps going and going and going and going (there's the person you need for your advertisement energizer!)

You should definitely read some of his stuff on 'How to be creative' and 'Hughtrain'. Not only is it fun but it's his take on being passionate about what you do I really like. In fact I have some of his cartoons on my office walls to remind me that startups are about fun, they are about passion, they are about loving what you do and doing it in style and they are about changing things! Come to think of it...that's exactly why LinknSurf exists. Being an entrepreneur, one realizes that there are always times in startups when you hit the point where you think you can't do anything new or can't figure what to do next and yada yada yada...and in that slow phase, suddenly one hears back from a passionate user, just one user, and suddenly it's all worthwhile. The creative juices are flowing again and pieces begin to fall into place, at least for the time being.

And I'm recounting this from experience...yesterday one such user brought me out of the doldrums. I was actually sitting in front of the PC with my IM status reading "looking for inspiration" (Hugh there's the line for your next cartoon...) when this one teenager's email complaining about a bug sparked me back into action. And I know that this one LOVES linknsurf. That in turn makes us want to make it even better!

Kathy, are you listening? You need to write about this sometime...creating passionate users is not only good for our business...but it's what keeps us entrpreneurs alive and passionate. After all that's why we create. So, folks, create passionate users to fire your own passion. It works!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The keitai culture

"Keitai isn't just a new technology, it's a new culture" reads a Wired news story from Feb 2006 that I stumbled upon today. Keitai is Japanese for cell phone. Whether the rest of the world will go the Keitai way or not is for all of us to see. However, I have a lurking suspicion that a lot of us will.

You know what I'm going to say - for entreprenuers, as I keep on repeating, we need to design services for the Keitai culture, for the mobile experience and not just translate web-based services to the tiny mobile screen!

Here are some excerpts from the story:

Walking through Tokyo's Ginza district one Friday evening last month I saw an extraordinary sight that will soon become an ordinary one: A businessman was talking into his keitai (the Japanese word for cell phone), holding it out in front of him rather than to his ear. Suddenly, smiling, he raised the device to his lips and kissed the screen.

It wasn't hard to piece together an explanation -- the man was making a video call to his lover. His lover had asked for a screen kiss, or perhaps they'd synchronized one. It was my first glimpse of this behavior, and it happened in Tokyo, but I knew it wouldn't be my last. Soon enough we will see this scene repeated in New York, London, Paris, Berlin and San Francisco.

...and this...

Increasingly, when I go out here in Osaka, what I'm observing in public places is people silently surfing on their i-mode keitais. I tear myself away from the internet only to enjoy endless vistas of other people using it.

I shouldn't be surprised.
Japan Media Review tells us that there are 89 million keitai subscriptions in Japan. Seventy percent of the population owns at least one keitai.
This saturation has a very literal impact on my movements through the city: it's not unusual to have to jump out of the way of a young man wobbling along Osaka's narrow backstreets on a bicycle, concentrating on the glowing screen of his keitai. Perhaps he's lost and consulting a GPS navigation service, or, who knows, he may even be reading a Wired News column in translated, stripped-down
Hotwired i-mode format. He may be reading me, which would be great, but has he seen me?

And later in the article:

It's also a little worrying to see two girls in a cafe running out of things to say and sitting face to face in silence, each reading their keitai screen. The massive success of keitai culture in Japan is largely due to the decision, taken in the late '90s, to market the phones to women and young people. It would be sad if their online conversations had silenced their cafe conversations.

Then again, information ubiquity is great. You can sew facts into conversations on the fly. It's great, for instance, when you're in the middle of a si- or seven-hour drinking and eating session in a
reggae izakaya, and someone mentions an island where there's an art installation, and with a few clicks you can call up and save the details of exactly how to get there.