The C-word: A Saturday night meander

A whole generation of people grew up in the belief that using the C-word in public was just not done. So they avoided doing so. A good thing.

At the same time, unrelated to the original C-word, they’ve managed to obscure and obfuscate a number of other C-words. Not a good thing.

This post is about those other C-words.

Let’s start with “convergence”. Ever since I first saw the 1972 Steven King video, Computer Networks: The Heralds of Resource Sharing, and absorbed it in the context of an earlier, 1968, Doug Engelbart video, often referred to as The Mother of All Demos, I’ve believed in the convergence of computing and telecommunications. Yet, forty years after those events, and at least 20 years since I was being told convergence is happening, we still live in a world where behaviour suggests otherwise. People still try to analyse and regulate this converged world as if computing and communications were distinct and separate. At least that’s the impression I get when I see misguided, often impractical, attempts to regulate aspects of the internet and the web. When are we going to see convergence take place more holistically?

Then let’s move on to “collaboration”. Ever since I left university and started work, the idea that teamwork and collaboration are important have been drilled into me, even drummed into me. Yet, thirty years later, it is still rare for me to see objectives, processes, systems and incentive schemes that reflect this. Yes I’ve seen team objectives and scorecards, but team behaviours remain singularly singular and attempts at team bonuses and reward structures are usually greeted with sniggers and derision. Ricardo Semler wrote Maverick in 1993, chronicling events that took place in 1981, nearly 30 years ago. Yet collaboration, openness and transparency are largely buzzwords in most enterprises, and a culture of secrecy, behind-the-scenes lobbying, whispering campaigns and “briefings” tend to be the norm. Much of what we’ve seen in the wake of Wikileaks suggests that cultural acceptance of collaboration and sharing is low amongst the powers-that-be. So how long before collaboration stops being a concept and moves towards becoming reality.

Which brings me on to “community”. Something that goes back a tad more than the thirty or forty years I refer to in earlier points. Somewhere along the line, many of the concepts of community: shared ownership, collective empowerment, joint accountability, these have somehow become attached to concepts like communism or at least anti-capitalism, and as a result there are regular outbreaks of pseudo-McCarthy-like behaviour, as if belonging to a community should have you investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. You only have to look at the tirades that were launched against opensource; you only have to witness the behaviours exhibited against sharing-related tools like Napster or BitTorrent; you only have to gape at the porcine beings wearing the lipstick of “intellectual property rights”. At which point did individual rights become so much more important than community rights? What will it take to reverse that process?

Let me move on before I get too much on that particular high horse. Next word. “Consumerisation“. Something that’s been around for at least a decade. But not if we are to look at how our corporations behave. With the advent of the millenial generation, consumerisation is no longer theory. It has happened. Yet we still try and convince ourselves that consumers are different from businesses, that staff are different from partners, that partners are different from customers. These distinctions are just not tenable any more, it’s like saying “IT” and “business” are distinct and separate, that “living” and “breathing” can be treated as isolated things. When will we realise that people are people, that putting labels on people doesn’t change that fact?

I could go on and on, but won’t. The point is, things are changing all the time, and the pace of change is itself accelerating. The edges of many things we held as distinct and separate are blurring: the borders between countries, the lines between market segments, the boundaries of firms, the separation of consumption and production in a world of service, the distinctions between staff member, partner and customer. The devices we use are blurring. The professions we follow are blurring. The definitive differences between political parties are also blurring.

Everything is blurring, and at a rate of knots. This is not a new thing: over fifteen years ago, Kenichi Ohmae referred to aspects of this in The Borderless World, five years later Chris Meyer and Stan Davis kept with the theme in Blur, and more recently, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison took it yet further in The Power of Pull.

People don’t know what a country is any more. People don’t know what a political party stands for any more. People don’t know where a company starts and where it ends.

There is some confusion out there. Because the rules for so many things are changing.

But some things are not changing, some things are resolutely refusing to change. The way we account for things. The way we try and manage things. The way we report on things. Stuff like that.

Predictable, in a way. Because we cannot solve the problems of new paradigms using the tools of the old. And we haven’t yet built the tools of the new. Because so many of the things that are changing attack the very basis of power of so many people in incumbency.

So they try to hold on. Not by paving over the cowpaths, which would be inefficient and wasteful, but by trying to make cows out of cars.

A very confused state. One full of opportunity, and of pitfalls, as a result.

Which is why we get valuations like we get for Facebook. The truth is, no one knows what the real valuation of Facebook, or of any post-Web firm for that matter, should really be.

At times like these, there’s a tendency to go back to first principles. Where the behaviour of markets are based on momentum, confidence, fear and greed.

Exciting times.

14 thoughts on “The C-word: A Saturday night meander”

  1. JP,

    You’re in fine fettle as always. Thanks for this piece. Really insightful and full of food for reflective thought. Reminds me of a requote by Merlin Mann from Andy Hunt, something along the lines of:

    ”that the problem at a lot of companies have is they’re trying to herd racehorses and race sheep. And so, in that instance, you are infantilizing people whose job it is to figure out what their job is.”


  2. 2 May 1962, one day cricket began. Other C-words shifted.

    A posit. Adoption of C-words settles at optimal returns.

    Nextgen now competes for attention with openness, till a life changing event occurs. They pick a mate and have children. In order to protect children, openness shifts to privacy.

    Same behavior follows in the Enterprise. Shifts between closedsource and opensource.
    (Sun) (Google) community maintainers (more speed, less cost)

    Shift open to closed, software to cloud (Salesforce), software to appliance (Membase). Life stage of founders, need revenue!

    When the rules are changed (Limited overs Cricket) the C-word game changes. Case in point

  3. JP – thinking further on convergence… decomposing telecom infrastructure into two basic operations: compute and switching. In fact at the electronic or optical layer, these two operations share same implemented fabrics ! we would be out of business right now if each service layer still operate on its own vertically built networks and I’d say we are at that turning point if we keep building compute in many miles/city/country/continent away from where users really are… So in the spirit of new year’s resolution I am still “confused” as to what to do, this blog is very timely – thanks as always. raymond

  4. @raymond I think it was Francis Bacon who said something like “if I begin with doubts I shall end in certainties; if I begin with certainties I shall end with doubts”. I may have paraphrased him inaccurately, but the sense is the same. Look forward to a cup of tea with you soon.

  5. @clive @raymond thanks for the link, Clive. I’d heard mention of OPEN some time ago, read a few things, but hadn’t twigged that it had evolved this far. So the Parulkar presentation is timely. Thanks a lot.

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