Book Review – The Social Life of Information


Cover of "The Social Life of Information&...
Cover of The Social Life of Information

What a joy to read an articulate book written by academics that isn’t laden with acronyms, big words and pomp. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid put together an eloquent discussion about the social life of information, re-iterating the importance of societal issues in the management of information which is often overlooked by infocentrics.

This is a series of comments and thoughts about the book as I go through.

Tunnel Design – refers to an information-centric world which blinds us to humanity and ways of the old, although I am an advocate for new technologies and the future management of information I do not believe it should be in isolation to more human matters and cares. The other offshoot of tunnel design sees the development of technology that ‘bites back’ (creates more problems than it solves and it is actually only down to the human society (within an office) that overcome the bugs to live and work with the system. I am sure that I do not speak alone when I say that I have worked in too many companies with patchwork, ‘add-on’ systems that require more work-arounds than if it was done manually.

Technologies as an enabler not a solution, this has been re-iterated through this course and now appears in this book. In addition the importance of other worldly resources that support them must not be overlooked for fear of again building something incomplete, incongruent and inapplicable.

Limits to Information – the problems of over-burdening have a technology to help you, but can’t work it out so you click ‘help’ and are flooded with thousands of pages of information that link to more help and more resources which in turn need their own help. Brown and Duguid talk about how Moores Law (more processing power) will allow more information but without the bandwidth this is not possible – again re-iterating the importance of looking beyond information.

Love this quote which I feel sums up not just feelings but a realistic approach in this information era:
“The ends of information, after all, are human ends. The logic of information must ultimately be the logic of humanity. For all information’s independence and extent, it is people, in their communities, organisations, and institutions, who ultimately decide what it all means and why it matters.” (pp.18)

Over-reliance on information leads to the 6-D notion, despite giving a clear view of how the net influences it does oversimplify:

  • demassification
  • decentralisation
  • denationalisation
  • despacialisation
  • disintermediation
  • disaggregation

Agents and Angels – Here we look at the increasing role of ‘chatterbots’ in organisation (including business, self and social). (Watson, on jeopardy – but limited is deaf and blind). A point stressed in the book, which I agree with is the definition of these bots giving them human titles, narrowing and even blurring the two worlds. We got to this point not on info chatter-bots alone (behaviour aspects), so too should forward development not be blinded by technology that manages information – for simply that is all it is. Different types of agents:

  • Information brokering (search engines)
  • Product brokering (amazon)
  • Merchant brokering (aggregate, price comparison sites)

Limitations are apparent; limited negotiating skills – can not translate / respond to subtle nuances i.e. body language, intonation even if enough information was input so the bots could negotiate (to a greater or lesser level) this could lead to problems of autonomy without accountability. Also humans can exercise rational and shift goals taking into consideration the wider and emotive implications, whereas bots are goal pursuing agents unable to process social trade-offs and experiments by IBM and MIT saw how if bots were used in market trading could lead to destructive behaviour.

Home Alone – end of the organisation man beginning of the entrepreneur man? Personalisation of technology and the continued development of the same will see a return to the population of rural locations, technology as a protector of the old ways. For me I hear people talking about what technology will do to us, whereas i believe that it should be what we are going to make technology do for us. Technology is a tool not a dictator and in isolation of ‘worldly’ resources is rendered isolated and inapplicable.

Chiat/Days disastrous attempt at permanent hot desking demonstrated the importance of the social dynamic in the workplace. This often unaccounted for office help system is a key asset. Orrs study of Xerox reps showed how in their isolated role they resorted to social meeting over lunch / breakfast where talk was about work, identifying problems, solutions and sharing stories (comraderie). So the cost benefits of home-working need to be really measured first and secondly weighed agains the benefits of a social environment.

Interesting productivity paradow, from 1948 to 1973 (US) saw a growth in productivity of 2.5% however, post computers (IT), from 1973 to 1990 saw growth of 0.7%.

Downes and Mui spoke about the law of disruption (all grow, but technology exponentially grows is a disruptive force), and talks about society adjusting to technology. Harking back to my previous comment I see it as technology adjusting to society, whilst allowing ‘dream’ developments, it makes me think of running before you can walk argument – are we going to miss implementing some cornerstones for the future by leaping ahead?

Practice makes Process

Business Re-engineering, championed as the euphemism of ‘downsizing’ to meet with the digital age, another management fad shortly replaced by knowledge management. However there are lessons learnt from this fashion. Hard-nosed but effective often in linear areas of the business (manufacture – pack – deliver – ship) but hard to apply in lateral areas of the business. The ‘buzz’ of six sigma the continual stretch for perfection has its place but, again, not in isolation and not without due regard to other factors. As Brown and Duguid put it “…process is important but it is the practice of people that bring it to life”.

Often difficult for re-engineering to deal with practice as it is often hard-nosed top down driven, it discourages lateral links and is montheistic. It does go hand in hand with the ‘what’ style of practice.

Practice is unpredictable, because it is about humans, is about why, interestingly we see common technologies being adopted in highly individualistic ways by different employees. Knowledge Sharing (Orrs rep study) is a collective process not a collection of discrete parts (where one persons knowledge ends and another starts). This is often shared on a common framework and incorporates narration (general chit-chat over coffee – links to Smith and Raspins argument championing the benefits of capturing scanned information), and improvisation i.e. workarounds.

Processing is valuable element of the routinised behaviour expected and often desired in a workplace (see hot desk debacle), however for a company to generate organisational learning, develop and adapt to remote and task factors, flexibility is a must. Often it is about negotiating across the gap. Words of warning – processes can often being a cloak which says I am rational, worthwhile, official when often it is not. From my experience critical review of business processes need to take place on a regular basis from a holistic and tactical view ideally by an objective individual. This starts a continuous process of business improvement (resource benefits) and working to the society of the business not dictating top down, admin heavy processes that often burden a workforce.

Processes need to strike a balance between longitudinal and lateral business elements, we see how Orrs study of Xerox reps resulted in the business introducing two way radios for continuous peer discussion and Eureka project share tips (like an FAQ) the latter resulted in a $100 million cost saving and importantly gave the employees identity, motivation and a feeling of being valued. A quote referring to the Eureka project FAQ database by Brown and Duguid made me smile:

“Of course, such a database would be not use to anyone if it filled up with everybody’s favourite idea (which is exactly why the web can be so hard to use).” (pp.112)

Brown J. S. Duguid P (2000), The Social Life of Information, USA, Harvard Business School Press

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