[Esther Dyson, Clay Shirky, Marc Benioff and David Weinberger, people I consider as friends, have said and written things that have influenced this post considerably; the curated conversations between Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere, as recorded in This Is Not The End Of The Book, have also been very influential. Finally, Steven Rosenbaum's excellent Curation Nation helped me bring all this together. Disclosure: I have co-invested with Esther in at least one company, and I now work for Marc Benioff.]
Content may be considered king, but distribution has always been the hand that rocked that particular cradle and ruled that throne.
And distribution had its kingmakers: those who weeded out the vast majority of possibles and probables and selected the content that satisfied their taste, then ordered and organised that content into a cohesive whole, then made that content accessible to the particular audience that mattered.
[For some time now, I've pondered about the distinction between filtering and curation, and my thoughts on the subject are as follows: curation is what happens when filtering is augmented by humans, sometimes expert, sometimes amateur, always passionate.]
Curation is not just to do with libraries and museums. As Steven Rosenbaum describes in his book, Esther Dyson curated a magnificent conference, PC Forum, for many years. And a great journal, Release 1.0; while the journal lives on, the conference, sadly, is no more.
Talking about conferences, I’m looking forward to Dreamforce next week, the annual Jamboree for those involved in cloud computing. Last year, at my first Dreamforce, a columnist from Barron’s described the event more as a political convention than a tech conference. I have some sympathy with that view, it feels like you’re part of a global movement. And that’s what Dreamforce represents, global transformation in the way enterprises drive, participate in and consume information technology.
This year’s line-up includes, amongst others, Eric Schmidt, Neelie Kroes, Vivek Kundra, Neil Young, Alanis Morrissette and Jay Leno. [You may still be able to get a free pass to the #df11 keynotes and Cloud Expo go to bit.ly/oMPVKw ]
Where was I? Oh yes, curation. The SOP of curation, to paraphrase Rosenbaum, is Selection Organisation and Presentation. Curation is about human beings adding their passion to the filtering process, in order to select what should be experienced, put the selections into some cohesive order and then to make those selections accessible to the relevant audience.
Curation is not something that is restricted to libraries and museums; people curate things all the time, all around us. Every DJ is a curator. Every reviewer is a curator.
In a networked, non-hierarchical world, every one of us is a curator. As I’ve mentioned before, I use twitter as a curation device. The people I follow have a good idea of what I’m interested in, and they make recommendations to me. Sometimes they do it via Direct Messages or DMs, sometimes through @messages others can see, sometimes by ReTweeting or RTing; one way or the other, they make sure I am made aware of the thing they want me to be aware of.
Personal social networks are powerful curation devices, a theme that has been tackled by Clay Shirky time and time again. David Weinberger adds a different twist to it in his writings, looking at the role of taxonomies and folksonomies in this context.
Which brings me on to Esther Dyson, whose writings about the future of search have been at the back of my mind all through my thinking about this. In Curation Nation, Esther quotes Bill Gates as saying (at a private dinner) “The future of search is verbs”. She then goes on to explain that “when people search…they are looking for action, not information….they want to find something in order to do something”. If you get the chance, you should read Esther’s writings on the future of search, just google it. In fact there may still be a YouTube video summarising her views.
This action-orientedness that Esther refers to is something that Marc Benioff is passionate about, a passion that shows in the way he thinks about enterprise software. Information flows in the enterprise should always enhance the ability of participants to do the right thing in the right place at the right time.
Which lets me segue neatly into the crux of this post, curation in the enterprise. Every enterprise has its own variant of curator, people who help decide who sees what, when, and in what shape. Information overload is everywhere, the Shirkyian filter failure is everywhere, and into the valley ride the usual six hundred, theirs not to reason why. So in order to understand how enterprise curation should take place, it’s worth looking at some extreme forms of enterprise curation as practises today. There appear to be four main forms:
The Signal Booster
The Spreadsheet Jock
The Signal Booster obtains power by PowerPoint, thinks in bullet points, rarely knows more than what’s on the slide. Acts as a mediation layer between those that do and those that decide. Useful, but often not valuable; can’t take decisions, hasn’t got the depth of knowledge, runs the risk of exhibiting passive aggressive behaviours and operating weak vetos. A fence-sitter who works hard at joining the winning team when victory is in sight.
The Spreadsheet Jock believes there’s safety in numbers, that firms can be managed by algorithmic trading. Runs the risk of past-predicting-the-future, of being anchored, framed and constrained by the underlying assumptions, doesn’t always understand the assumptions, whether implicit or explicit.
The Soulmate is a crony of the powers-that-be, using that association to derive second-order power, and has an unusual effect: an inadvertent tendency to ensure that anything the CEO doesn’t want to hear doesn’t make it to the CEO. An unfortunate and unintended consequence of Soulmate speak, as they spend time interpreting the CEO’s desires and making those desires unintentional filters.
The Sidler is a rare beast, someone who can only thrive in the rarefied environment of “briefing” cultures. They are often seen alongside the CEO, whispering in their ears, advising and commenting on the status of things they aren’t involved in. Sidlers are chameleons, sometimes boosting signals, sometimes driving spreadsheets, sometimes being soul mates. But always sidling.
All these are extreme forms of enterprise curator, responsible for deciding what information is accessible, to whom, when, and in what shape.
And all these are fundamentally inefficient models of curation in the enterprise, since valuable information gets mutated, suppressed, discarded. Most of the time this is done without any malign intent, an outcome of weaknesses in the system and in the process.
If they were that inefficient, why did they exist in the first place? Probably because the structure of the firm, the culture of the people and the technology that supported them were all incapable of achieving much else. In large hierarchical organisations, some form of summarising and filtering takes place in all information flows, from top to bottom as well as from bottom to top.
But today it’s all different. The promise of the social enterprise is a remarkable promise. And this promise is based on a number of key characteristics:
1. The social enterprise is fundamentally based on networks of connected people, within the enterprise, beyond the enterprise into the supply chain and trading partners, and extending all the way to customers and their customers. And products and services.A web rather than a chain, the social enterprise is somewhere where everything and everyone is a node on the network.
2. This reduces the distance between the firm and its customers, between the designer and the consumer; it simplifies the links in the supply chain; more importantly, since it is built around the concept of two-way communication, customers are themselves designers; trading partners are themselves designers. Everyone’s not just a curator… Everyone’s not just a designer… Everyone tries out products and services, and provides active feedback.
3. This ability for two-way communication means that conversations take place without any loss of detail. The need for summarising is reduced, since the cost of hanging on to the detail is low. If you’re looking at a conversation, you can drill into the customer name or the order or the complaint or all of them. Summaries are now just forms of presentation, always with the ability to drill into the detail as required.
4. Drilling into the detail was historically complex for reasons other than just the cost of doing so, or for that matter the distance expressed as the number of levels in the organisation, the divisional silos, and so on. We had the added complexity of security systems that did not differentiate between systems of engagement and systems of record, and as a consequence didn’t know how to handle entitlement safely and securely. Good social enterprise implementations solve that elegantly.
5. It’s not enough to have access to the information, that still doesn’t solve the overload problem. So we need access to expertise. Real domain expertise, sometimes with letters after names, sometimes not. Peer-reviewed and peer-ranked expertise. Again something the social enterprise is designed to do. Find the people that are acknowledged rather than asserted experts, experts because of what they do rather than who they are.
6. Talking about doing, every customer is different, every product and service is different, every problem is different, every situation is different. This makes the traditional process mindset we problem in itself: we spend enormous amounts of time handling exceptions because the process is inadequate. Processes are just not repeatable enough, the volume of exceptions is too high. As we move from the Hit Culture to the Long Tail of problem solving, we need more and more experts, “long tail experts”.
7. Which is where the social enterprise comes into its own. Because everyone can be an expert. Linus’s Law (“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”) plays out very well in any community that is built to scale. So every staff member is empowered to solve problems. Every trading partner. Every customer.
8. Networked non hierarchical models. Involving everyone: staff, partners, customers. Two-way communications. Easy access to domain expertise. In an environment where aggregation takes place without any loss of accuracy or of the source data, where you can “follow an order or a complaint, safely, securely, efficiently, effectively”.
The social enterprise is about bringing the learning from consumerisation and community action and applying them to an environment populated by a new generation using new technologies, social, mobile, open and cloud.
Not surprisingly, I’ve now heard Marc Benioff speak about his vision a number of times. More recently, I’ve come to realise that the Social Enterprise is to traditional software what Skype is to traditional telephony, what Paypal and Square are to traditional payments. Quick and effective. Riding over the top of existing infrastructural investments. Focused on simplifying the customer experience, eradicating traditional frictions, reducing the distance between the customer and the firm. Engaging with the customer rather than with the back office.
In my next post on the subject I shall spend more time on precisely how these characteristics manifest themselves within and beyond the enterprise: Why social, mobile, open and cloud matter, individually as well as collectively.
In the meantime, comments welcome as always.