Category Archives: ICM501 Reaction Papers

These posts are required writings for the ICM501 coursework. They are being tagged so that my entire blog doesn’t get aggregated into the course reference slots, just the relevant posts.

Final Reaction

Okay, I finished the Halavais selection last night. It’s a very interesting work, and I see myself buying it when publication is complete. There are some very interesting implications in the way that Google and other search engines have developed, and there’s some interesting cultural, racial, and socio-economic implications that are raised by the first chapter. It’s definitely a topic which will be huge in further studies, bigger than it is right now.

But I don’t care.

Well, let me rephrase that slightly. I’m not the least bit interested in this aspect of studying the internet phenomenon yet. It’s not that I don’t think it’s relevant, because there are some real social implications in the way that the world is using Search Engine technology, and Alex is great at pointing those out.

It’s just that this field is far too broad already, and this is one topic I’m much happier leaving to the scholars who actually feel called to study it. I acknowledge that study of it is rather important and can have some real impact on social issues and technological development, but there comes a point at which you really have to focus on a topic in order to make any headway or advancement in its scholarship.

Searching as a profession

Part of my reluctance to engage in this particular field of inquiry with any depth comes from the fact that I worked for a year as a Recruiter. If there’s any profession which is itching for the latest and greatest search tools and technology, it’s the recruiting profession.

My daily routine included logging in to Monster.com on the employer side, then CareerBuilder.com. Being a Creative Recruiter (as in, recruiting designers and copywriters), I also would look at Portfolios.com and Coroflot.com. Then I would go to mySpace and do a search for locals who indicated Graphic Design as their profession or interests.  All in an attempt to generate 60 new telephone numbers to call, preferrably. Email was frowned upon as a vehicle for sales communication, seen as fishing, not as selling. You don’t email folks until you already have a relationship with them. Then you’re conveniently “not at your desk” when the contacts call unless they’re making you money, and you conduct the rest of the business over email.

That was the daily routine. Kind of like reading the paper. Then, I would hit “Power Hour” when all I did was call those 60 numbers and leave carefully rehearsed messages. Once that was done, around lunchtime I would then be able to spend an hour or so with my good friend Google.

Google & The Smell of Blood in the Water

Google was like a friend of mine, but it was a friend that you need, not a friend that you like. An uneasy friendship existed between the two of us, Google and me. I had graduated from the simple search, and I would mess around with all of the advanced search features.  I wasn’t looking for recruits every lunch hour on Google. I was searching for the Holy Grail, the mother of all search engine requests. I was trying to come up with the magic formula, the search query which, when perfected, would actually get Google to deliver results to me that I could use in my recruiting efforts. Just like programmers spend years developing algorithms for various programming tasks, I was spending a good portion of my day trying to narrow down or innovate new queries which I could type in, hit submit, and then simply print out all of the web pages of folks desperately looking for work as a graphic designer. In my area. With the right education. And a decent portfolio.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

That’s my biggest complaint with search engine technology. I knew that those folks were out there. I could smell the proverbial blood in the water. I just couldn’t find it.

I disagree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of www.fuckingoogleit.com. It’s not so simple as just typing in a few keywords and then getting perfect results. The search begins the search process. Halavais mentioned how teens would start searching for one term and then change the search parameters based on the initial results from Google. This was interpreted in the reading as being the search engine shaping the search, which is true. It assumes, however, that the user changed their mind as to what they were looking for, as opposed to changing their mind about what kinds of terms to enter into the search engine to get to the idea which was held.

Human/Computer Communication Gap 

Think about that for a moment. We are accustomed to the idea that computers are wonderful things. Most people also know that there is a communication barrier between man and machine. Was the user in the example changing their search target, or were they using a technique similar to the linguistic technique of circumlocution? I’ll call it ‘circumlocation’. What circumlocution means is trying to define something by describing it, or using words similar to the meaning.  It’s a technique encouraged in students of foreign languages. If you can’t think of the exact word, try using smaller words to describe it. The hope is that it will allow your audience to understand what you mean and perhaps even supply you with the correct way to phrase it. (It works. We do it all the time in English, too, so it’s not just for foreign languages.)

Circumlocation as a search method

Circumlocation, then, would be using a search engine to try and find something that you know you’re looking for, but don’t quite know how to phrase for the search engine. Computers speak a different language, or at least a different dialect even when they do try to parse human language. The user begins the dialogue by asking for what they think they’re looking for. The search engine dutifully performs exactly as asked. The users looks at the results and makes a decision whether or not those results are what were actually asked for. If not, they refine the search using the results given to try a different language tack until they either find what they’re looking for, or they go off to play on Facebook or mySpace.  Circumlocation.

What’s really annoying is that my searches never really got better. There were plenty of people out there who needed jobs in graphic design, and I had jobs to give them. But finding their websites was very difficult, even with the “magic” that is Google. After spending so long trying to use the tool and not really ever finding much success, I just decided to keep trying in the hopes that the technology would upgrade someday and some of those searches would work.

On it all goes

I’m not sure that any search engine, anywhere, anywhen, will ever correct access inequalities. First page of a Google search is going to get a lot of hits. The long tail exists, but you have to want to find it. The ranking system reports popularity, not relevance because relevance algorithms can’t take things into context. If there is to be hope, it’s going to lie in the Metadata processing. But even there, marketing skews the curve because by judicious metadata use you can hopefully inflate the ranking of your site on any given search.

Definitely a thorny problem. The research and results will be interesting and if time permits, I’ll try and keep up with them. But I leave this one area to other scholars more invested in this arena than I.

The WoWTrons: A modern cosmology of World of Warcraft

I’ve read the articles for class this week. But I have something to share which dovetails nicely with the subject matter. Especially Huizinga’s consideration of “playing” as fulfilling some kind of spiritual need, or applying equally well to childhood romping as it does to organized priestcraft and established religions.

I’ve developed my own philosophy concerning games online, and it has to do with crossing the premise of Tron with the mechanics of WarCraft. Settle in and enjoy the ride, this one is a little bit out there even for me. It developed as I played Warcraft from a newbie to a ‘capped at level 70’ Troll mage named Runika. Yes, there’s some odd questions I get about gender bending, but I didn’t exactly plan for Runika to be my “main” for so long. However, I like the mage, so here I am still, playing a female ‘toon.

Tron Meets World of Warcraft

In the movie Tron, cyberspace was given human form and human societal equivalences to corporate practices which were going on at the time of the movie. In Tron, you play a video game and nanite-sized cyber-people who live in your computer went and actually played in a kind of gladiatorial death-match against each other. When you ‘died’ in the video game, your program person assigned to your login also faced death or destruction.

I don’t keep the death part, but as I faced long hours of grinding through different levels and quests on WarCraft, I found myself thinking again and again about Tron. Over time, I developed a complex spiritual understanding which borrows on animism/totemism and complex social hierarchies. Here it is for laughter and enjoyment.  For clarity’s sake, when I talk about a ‘mob’ it’s a (typically hostile) computer enemy which it is your Warcraft character’s job to defeat.  When I say ‘grinding’, I mean that you go to an area where the mobs are you need to kill based on the quest story arc you’ve chosen to complete, and you pit yourself against them one at a time until you either kill the required number or are given the required quest reward.  Every time you kill a mob, you earn experience points, and when you earn enough experience, you raise in level, power, and prestige within the game world. Levelling is the first part of the game, but there’s a whole other set of game content which is called ‘Endgame’ because you can’t get to it until you’ve reached the highest level available.

The life and times of a WoWTron

Inside the computer are little electronic people I call WoWTrons. When you play World of Warcraft (WoW for short), you have a player avatar or ‘toon’ assigned to represent you. That ‘toon’ is actually a little electronic person that gets assigned to you when you generate the character.  You can only play one character at a time, but you may have up to 8 per server, I believe. The toon WoWTrons represent the highest level of prestige that a WoWTron can accomplish, but not every toon gets played all the way to endgame. Like harem wives in the Ottoman Empire, the toons all vie for your attention when you first log in and select which character you’re going to play that day.  Sometimes a new character just isn’t working out for you, so you trash it and make another. Toon WoWTrons take a bit of a risk, because although they can end up the kings and queens of the gaming world of WarCraft, it takes so long to level one to the high levels that you will tend to only have one ‘main’ character, all the rest will be classified as ‘alternates’ or ‘alts’.   A WoWToon Main is one of the movers and shakers of the cyberworld behind the scenes of the Warcraft Stage. A WoWToon Alt often lingers and languishes, unloved and unattended for far too long, a mere shadow of their potential in WarCraft cybersociety.

Now, there are more than just Toon WoWTrons. There’s a second class of computer denizens who have chosen to follow a different track of advancement. They are the bits of computer programming which run the mobs themselves. When they go to work, they put on a costume and are assigned an area to go stand in, or go wander in. When a player Toon interacts with them (kills them) they receive a fraction of the experience points the player earned against their own separate account.  When they earn enough, they get to move to a different location, rising in ‘level’ the same way that the player Toons do. When a WoWTron actually succeeds in killing the player Toon (it happens all too often for -my- taste), they get the full Experience Point value of that player’s level.  Therefore, the Mob WoWTrons all desperately want to kill your PC Toon WoWTron, because the death of the Toon gives great experience and helps them climb the cyberspace social ladder.

The WoWTron Rat Race

What this means is that eventually a WoWTron will earn higher and higher/stronger and stronger level assignments, wearing the ‘skin’ of many different mobs as time goes on. Eventually, they might become eligible to wear the costume of a Raid Boss, one of the highest powered enemies run by the computer on the server. The Boss fights give the best loot, and they are the reason that everyone enters certain areas, vying for a chance to get some ‘phat loot’.  The risk that WoWTron Mobs run is that when level caps are raised, the previous “endgame” content becomes just another dungeon on the way up the ladder of advancement, so the King of the Hill in Raid Bosses has a limited lifecycle before they get stuck with no one coming to fight them, and none of their glory, and none of the experience to be earned by killing not just single PC Toons, but entire 40-man (or 20-man) raids of PC Toons.

Because the cyberpeople are formless and shapeless in their native cyber environment, they get given form when they are assigned a role to play within the great stage that is the WarCraft servers. Just like in totemic traditions of animistic beliefs, there is a though that there are no individual ‘animals’ or ‘monsters’ within the game, but that each WoWTron occupies an intersection between the cybersoul and the ‘instance of graphical manifestation’ within the cyberworld of WoW.  What that means is that when you are tasked with going out and killing a certain number of mobs looking for rare loot that they drop, it is best to adopt an attitude of appeasement for the cyberspirits which populate these ‘otherworldly’ realms.

Propitiation of the Totemic WoWTron Spirits 

For instance, one well-known quest in the Hillsbrad region has folks out hunting Grizzly Bears, looking for a certain number of Bear Tongues. My my, but Darwin would be perplexed at all of the Grizzly Bears who, upon examining their bodies after death, are shown to have no tongue at all.  This means that it can be hours before you complete this quest.

Whenever humans are faced with an extra-personal power which seems capricious and definitely in control over some aspect of our experience, we tend to start trying to appease it. Therefore, even though the WoWTrons are motivating the animal graphics, I’ve found it very helpful to adopt an almost shamanic attitude. Every time I kill one of the electronic Grizzly Bears and I find that it is one of the rare ones that has a tongue, I mark an expression of gratitude within the game by bowing over the corpse (you can make your avatar do certain actions or emotes, and bowing or kneeling is one of  them).  Does it do anything to speed the occurrence of random drops of Bear Tongue? Well, I’m not sure, because I’m not about to tempt the Cybergods by refusing to show respect to their cybertotem animals.

What Would Huizinga Do?

While I’m not exactly the most ‘normal’ person to begin with, I’m fairly certain that Huizinga would love to study me because I’m not kidding about the little mental subtext that goes on in my mind when I play WarCraft. It’s a repetitive exercise in many cases, so it helps to alleviate the boredom by giving my imagination something to do, some way of convincing myself that I can actually tip the random number generators in the code. I imagine the WoWTrons lining up to pass by a time clock and waiting for breaks and chatting with their neighbors about the kinds of adventures they had that day fighting such-and-so, or congratulating each other on the promotions of their friends from, say, ‘Grizzly Bear’ to ‘Cave Yeti’. “Only three million more exp and I get to leave Hillsbrad for the Outlands!”

I bring all of this up because it’s real, first of all, though few who don’t know me would believe it. However, my imagination is terminally engaged, so this is just the tip of the iceberg in my own personal episodes of Ally McBeal. (Weird by birth, annoying by choice. Gotta make that a bumper sticker.)

All three of the readings touched upon the idea of how play is an experience, or how experiences are the new source of value. I don’t know necessarily about what kind of ‘value’ I add to my experience of playing WarCraft by spiritualizing the little Tronpeople, but I do know that WarCraft has definitely added value to my experience, and my day, by allowing me to have a little delusion of a system that makes sense and provides rewards at regular intervals.

Maybe that’s what gaming is all about. Since the world refuses to give us the graded steps toward accomplishment and certainly doesn’t break up positive rewards according to a statistical curve for maximum enjoyment, maybe that’s why we play. We play because we can conceive of a time and space where what we do is not only natural and good, it is a part of the greater system as a whole.

Even if that ‘greater system’ is only WoWTrons and their ancestral totemic spirits.

References

No Gnus is Good Gnus (with Gary Gnu)

I’ve about had it with the news industry.  I’m ready to participate in a new social news experiment: try like hell to avoid “keeping up” with the news industry and see just how much better my life can be.

Lemme Splain… no, Lemme Sum Up

Before I go off on the news industry all together, though, let me sum up this week’s reading assignment in very broad strokes to demonstrate that I read them.  We have Bender (2002) and his “Daily Me” recounting how everyone at MIT is ‘oh-so-much-cooler’ than everyone else because while we’ve been playing with etch-a-sketch, they’ve been able to select their own news sources. I grudgingly admit I’m jealous and wondering why more of MIT’s thought leadership hasn’t made it out of the ivory tower into popular use without falling victim to crass commercialism, but then I remembered that we have MIT to thank for Microsoft, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the ‘many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip’ that have come vomiting forth from the ivory circuitboard.

Then we have Sunstein (2004) and his article about Filtering. Sunstein seems to spend much of the article showing that the internet actually allows filtering, and very little of the article building a strong argument for how that actually could damage ‘Democracy’.  He just seems to assume that by pointing out the fact that by filtering our news we’re closing ourselves off from opposing viewpoints and therefore damaging Democracy.  I challenge Sunstein to show me a filtering system that actually works to the level he’s assuming for filtering out diversity under the mistaken guise of ‘undesirability’. Personally I think that the reason we’re filtering in  the first place is because there’s just so many visual voices crying for our attention, and lately, our outrage, that we’re shutting down the influx as a sane act of self-defense.  More on that below.

Bruns (2006) picked up the Wiki aspect of news today and sounded off on the inherent limitations of that method of newsgathering. While informative, Bruns’ Wikinews article didn’t exactly trigger much in the way of new thoughts on this subject for me.

Jankowski & van Selm (2001) seemed incredibly outdated to me and honestly, irrelevant. I know, I know, that’s a -very- loaded word, and I don’t mean that they’re irrelevant to the development of the historical understanding of the internet’s impact on the news industry, but I’m already anti-news to begin with, so the article felt rather irrelevant to the current state of affairs to me. Outdated in the extreme, it’s amazing how quickly ‘state of the art’ research becomes ‘historical curiosity’. What I walked away from Jankowski & van Selm with was a better understanding of how the internet is now critical as a scholarly medium, simply because the pace of change has ramped up and traditional media culture can no longer keep up.

In my anthropology studies I was warned not to use any sources published prior to 1980 because of the tremendous methodology shift that occurred after the GI Bill allowed middle classes access to universities and changed the way that anthropology was studied. I thought that was excessive. In studying ICM, if something is not printed within the last year, I approach it as an historical piece, not as a current document. Some articles older than last year certainly still retain validity, but not as many as we might hope.

I’ve started reading Matheson (2004), but I have to confess that I’m not exactly grabbed by it. With it being an optional assignment, I confess I haven’t made it all the way through yet. What I do like is that Matheson has chosen to address the epistemology of journalism. Quick checking in the Wikipedia entry shows that ‘epistemology’ refers to a ‘theory of knowledge’, a philosophy of knowledge that includes methodolgy and addresses both knowledge and belief.  I like Matheson’s premise in working from this angle because a lot of my own personal diatribe against the news industry comes from an inherent disagreement with the epistemology of journalism to begin with.

On With the Show

I hate the news industry. I really do.

The old adage from the days of print-based primacy goes, “Never piss off a man who buys ink by the ton.” It’s an extension of the aphorism that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In plain English, character assassination trumps physical assassination (for everyone else except the guy who got killed, I suppose).

But really, let’s examine just what the news industry does. First of all, they don’t make their money by writing news. That’s why for any print newspaper there’s the concept of the ‘newshole’ to begin with. (Jankowski & van Selm mention it in their article) I’ve worked at a newspaper (the Poughkeepsie Journal, 1996-7) creating the galley dummy for the next day’s edition as part of my daily tasks. The first thing I did was find out how many sections the press was going to run, and that determined the total ‘column inches’ of space that the paper had to work with. I then worked from the advertising book for the day and put in all of the ads (or all of the placeholders for the ads).  We had a computer program that assisted us in doing this by the time I came along, but the old timers still in the department showed me how to tabulate the space by hand, too.

Only once the ads were all firmly in place in the paper did we call down to the press room with the galleys. The Pressmaster would approve the galley (looking for technical problems), and at that point we would make the phone call up to Editorial to tell them how many column inches they had in which sections of the paper. Once the column inches were determined, the editors figured out what articles they were going to run.

Newspapers are in the advertising business. Make no mistake about it. The fees charged for each copy of the newspaper doesn’t generate the revenue that keeps the papers in business, but the ads sure as hell do. One weekend the Poughkeepsie Journal had to run a special advertising section by IBM. IBM had negotiated with Ad Services and was paying for an 8 page special advertising section to run in Section A of the paper with one strict requirement… the middle spread of the ad section HAD to fall on the Broadsheet Fold of the section… the middle of the section where you open the two pages up to full size and it’s a single sheet of paper with no pages in between.  PoJo had a running style sheet which hadn’t been messed with for years which dictated where the Op/Ed page ran in Section A. Unfortunately, the IBM section ran right through the PoJo stylesheet, based on where the broadsheet fold happened that particular day. The Powers that Be were invoked by the weekend editor because -she- felt that Editorial styles were going to -have- to win out.

I’m happy to say that the IBM piece ran as scheduled, and for the first time in years the Op/Ed page shifted to accomodate it. Even more happily for me, that editor never once challenged Ad Services again since she had been verbally ‘educated’ that the ads pay her salary, and I believe the phrase used by the Editor-in-Chief was “What, you think that we make our money because people actually want to *read* what we write? We’re just the excuse the paper uses to sell ad space. Be happy with what you get if you value your paycheck because this week it’s courtesy of IBM.”

Nothing Gnu About It

There’s really nothing new about the way that online news has changed the basic business structure of news. They still make $0 off of their circulation fees, and 100% of the income comes from ads. It has *always* been this way with the news, and it always will be.

What seriously annoys me about the field of journalism in the first place is that presumption of driving value. Almost a priestly caste of information gatherers whose bias shapes the news and limits or colors what it is we’re exposed to. While I admire Sunstein’s premise in a theoretical ‘extension to extreme cases’, I hold that the dangers to Democracy from news filtering were actually more pronounced in the past when geographical distribution determined which media channels were available to any given person.

Think about it. Unless we’ve lived in metropolitan areas, there hasn’t exactly been much in the way of choices for the local newspaper. If you live near a newspaper outside of the metropolitan centers, then you only lived near one newspaper, usually speaking.  If you didn’t like the opinions of the editor, you could write and complain, but you couldn’t actually get a better newspaper unless you paid for special delivery from one of the metropolitan centers.

This in the past put print journalists into a position of actual power over the information flow of their circulation readers. Part of the reason that journalism developed is because we the People can’t be in every spot at once, paying attention to everything at once. And so a profession developed around the need to provide the service of reporting and distribution.

Sacrifices To Expediency

Why is there a journalistic style of writing as separate from “general” writing in the first place? Why do we have to confine ourselves to the whole concept of writing in terse style, employing a hook, front loading the articles in certain ways to convey opinion without communicating anything but facts? Because of the newshole, that’s why.

When you only have a certain amount of space to deal with, you write to fit. You write to incorporate the limitations of the medium in which you are working. Just as a painter who wishes to produce oil paintings must learn the rules of working fat media over lean media so that the paint doesn’t crack and peel, a journalist had to learn how to adapt the pattern of communication to fit within the limitations of the newshole.

As the night went on in the newspaper, there were often last minute ad insertions which, of course, shrank the newshole. Last minute revisions were frequent and reporters often had to cut material off of their articles to make way for more ads because the newshole was a continually shrinking measure. The editors were the ones in charge of allocation of space within their Section, with the Editor-In-Chief controlling the overall arrangement of sections and topics to begin with.

Because of these needs, and the layout of the medium of newspapers itself, print journalists had to learn how to write in a terse, condensed style to communicate the most amount of information (fact AND opinion) in as short a space as was physically possible, without being ‘dense’. The fact that this style of writing continues to be taught as a professional skillset today means that there must be some perceived value in this kind of writing, but at the same time, we’re breaking beyond the restrictions that caused the need for the style in the first place.

Anti-news for me

I personally resist the news. It wasn’t always this way; at one time I was a news consumer just like everyone else. But then I began working in advertising. When you work in advertising, you start paying more attention to the ads. My partner frequently grumbles about my habits of deconstructing advertisements as I see them broadcast or encounter them in print. It makes watching TV with me slightly disconcerting because I pay attention to the commercials … and then want to discuss them.

That personality tweak aside, I also began to develop an appreciation for the fine art of the subtle sale. Sales pitches began to jump out at me all over the place, and not just in ads or commercials, either. I began to process things with synesthesia. Synesthesia is deliberately mixing or substituting one sensory input or output for another. On a hallucinogenic trip, synesthesia is chemically induced, but it can be used cognitively and on purpose without the chemicals in order to understand how we process data. To understand what I mean, think about what color you associate with ‘Monday’. The concept of days of the week have no color attached to them, but yet I bet that your mind supplied you with an answer to that question.

In my synesthetic processing of external stimuli, I began to imagine every sales pitch as a voice calling out “Look at me! Look at me!” When you look, the voice then says “Obey me! Obey me!” Luckily, I can turn off synesthetic processing at will when it’s self-induced (without chemical cause; I tend to avoid those because reality is strange enough for me to begin with). But literally, I began to notice that the same patterns of advertisements calling out for attention on the page began to trigger for news stories. Watch the nightly news on TV and you can see them using the good ol’ Bait & Switch with news stories, putting the one with the most interesting headline last and continuing to tease you with it and then switch to other news bites.  Look at CNN.com’s layout and you can almost see the news links jostling each other in line for attention.

The Real Value of Online News is Me

With the realization that the news stories have always been a vehicle meant to attract the viewers so that ad space can be charged for, followed by the realization that the internet hasn’t changed that at all, I’ve come to realize that the value in online news lies in me. And you, and you, and you too in the back, there.

The news industry is scrambling because traffic patterns are changing and the newspapers are no longer commanding the bottleneck of attention spans. With so many online sources and options bombarding us from all over the world, all of which are calling for their own form of attention and action, the role of the newspaper is changing. The traffic pattern has shifted, and they are no longer the ones who can charge the multitude for a guaranteed pool of exposure.

The value for online news is in me, and how I choose to find it. And while I will occasionally look at the online news forums, I tend to stick with CNN.com and maybe Salon.com if I want to watch conservative-baiting online. Other than that, I refuse to get all up and into newsgathering online. While I’m participating in the blogosphere, I don’t rely on blogs for my “news” because “news” to me is a commercialized invention imposed on writing in general, and its an imposition I reject. I reject it as a writer (see how long and rambling this post is?) and I reject it as a reader. I’d rather just buy Time magazine and read it on the toilet than worry about subscribing to news feeds beyond a select few topics of personal interest.

I actually like the idea that there’s an entire industry out there scrambling to figure out where the hell *I* disappeared to with my habits online. I like the fact that the bait and switch power is in *my* hands now. And *I* choose not to look anymore. I’ll research what I need to know. I’ll skim Time magazine on the throne to see what I missed that week in terms of general news. But even when the cable is turned back on at home, news will *not* be on the agenda.

References

Project Management: the Networked Solution

This week’s readings were all about Project Management: organizing high performance teams and managing interactive workflows. In a weird sort of departure from the norm, I’d like to return to a consideration from a previous week’s reading. I’ve worked as an interactive project manager before, and I’m pretty up to speed on the mindset that a PMP (Project Management Professional — go ahead and pronounce it “Pimp”, I do) needs to break up complex tasks into trackable and manageable chunks. I’ve never used Microsoft Project, but I have done Gantt charts by hand and created a manual job tracking system using InDesign and Illustrator along with daily To Do checklists for myself. But all of that can be read in any PM book or website. It’s not really open to too much in the way of interesting discussion, because really, Project Management appeals to accountants who decided to take a risk and play with tasks on spreadsheets instead of numbers.

Instead, I’d like to return to a discussion of Ronfeldt, D. and Arquilla, J. (2001). Networks, netwars, and the fight for the future. FirstMonday, 6(10), and Beniger, J. (1986). Control Revolution, Introduction (pp. 1-27). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. No, I’m not going to bring up terrorism when talking about PMPs. But I do want to point to something which I find interesting.

Project-based Business vs. Operations-based

When we look at Project Management’s history of growing influence and acceptance within the business community, we’re really looking at an extension of Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s Network model of behavior creeping into the domain of what was at one time firmly in Beniger’s Hierarchy model of behavior. As the hierarchical system of early 20th century corporate life adapts to a project-based workflow, what we are seeing is not the clash between two titanic models of operation, but rather a means by which the hierarchy has successfully adapted network strategies to formerly hierarchical internal processes. The shift is primarily a change in perspective, looking at Projects (by definition producing a ‘one time’ result) instead of seeing Departments which need to be staffed up to handle ongoing operational-procedures.

Let me put it a better way. Project Management Professionals are the hubs around which networks of personal and professional capital can be spent. With a PMP on the job, you have effectively fragmented and empowered a task-based piece of executive machinery off from the hierarchy of the whole. Whether the team is assembled by the PMP or the PMP is assigned to a pre-existing team, everyone involved knows that while the PMP generally has no direct organizational supervisory power over the team members they are coordinating, they have the ad hoc supervisory power that comes from being ‘the one person’ who is responsible for making the project happen on time, on budget, and at expectations.

Not A Manager of Humans, A Manager of Results

The PM is the decision-making hub around which different resources the Company controls are given structure and form. It’s a temporary solution… just because you’re on the Project Team which generates one website, for example, doesn’t mean you’re always on the same team doing the same thing. This might be the only website that your own professional experience is necessary on. You might be the only human resource which is available at the time that the Project Team was formed. By breaking apart the ongoing tasks of the business into a project basis, it means that Mix and Match becomes the general rule, not the exception. Some teams might be standing teams, but even so there are different requirements for each task, so you might not be working with the same folks day in and day out.

This is the network strength. Given one hierarchy of competencies and direct reports/supervisory and tiered relationships, you isolate one individual and entrust them with an overall goal. Then you assemble the team by allocating those hierarchical resources in a pattern which is decidedly not hierarchical. Usually there’s only one of every professional competency in each team. If the PMP determines that there’s need for additional resources or human capital, then the network changes and grows, or shrinks, as it needs to. At the end of the project, the PMP is evaluated on whether or not they produced the desired results, and how successfully they met all of their goals and expectations. The PMP is not responsible for ensuring the ‘good behavior’ of everyone on their team, except to the extent that good behavior is necessary for the team to work in the first place. A PMP is a manager of results, not human resources, except where managing the human elements of the team is necessary to obtain the desired results.

The Hybrid Case

In ICM501 we discussed briefly the idea that there might be a “sweet spot” where the hierarchical model and the network model could create a harmonious meeting point, capturing the best elements of each and trying to work around the negatives. In Ronfeldt and Arquilla’s ‘netwar’ considerations, they’ve taken the extreme viewpoint of harmful use of networking. If you back off a bit, you can see how the project-based business model actually combines Hierarchy and Network in an internal model. The great thing about Project Management is that it’s a bit like corporate XML – separating the content from the execution. A good PM can be a good PM no matter what the subject matter or area of expertise. They are, frankly, utilizing their organizational skills to lead to a desired result. Provided the team has suitably experienced members on the subject matter, the PM should be able to employ tactics of communication to compensate for their lack of expertise. A decent PM doesn’t set themselves up as the expert, they set the experts up to perform to the best that can be done.

Granted, this hybridization tends to stay closer to the Hierarchy model, but the network structure is employed to good success. How this appeals to the future, however, requires a few more tweaks and some revisions to the existing model of corporate deployment of strategic resources.

Production, Execution, and Strategy

JobDutyGraph

Take a look at the graph above. I don’t know the original source for this, but the concept was introduced to me by my former supervisor at TracyLocke, Sam Moore. It basically shows an idealized view of how the job duties for any career path should change slowly from Production based, to Executive based, to finally Strategic based duties. The idea being very traditional, that first you do, then you help others do, then you figure out what everyone should be doing. Over time, the career duties should reflect that.

This graph is important to keep in mind, because it helps us to think ahead to a potential future business model. Essentially, instead of creating a hierarchy which includes the Production aspect, I believe that some industries will eventually cross over to a business model where the Production staff is not present in the corporate hierarchy. Instead, I can foresee a day where the full time jobs and thus, the ‘staff’ of any company, will port over to include only the Executive and the Strategic duties, and will rely upon outside sourcing to actually see to the Production.

 How Project Management Empowers This Model

The key to making a workforce model like this actually operate will require a stronger core competency along the Project Management skillset. Essentially, if you are going to locate, contract, and manage a mobile workforce with no sense of company loyalty and, importantly, no overhead for things like health insurance and permanent office resources (computers, desks, chairs, etc.) to house the workforce, then you will need to have a well-developed team of Project Management Professionals who will keep everything going.

Under this model of business, the Project Managers will provide the hub and may actually be involved with selection of talent and vendors. Using due dilligence and past performance benchmarks, PMPs will be able to add value to their own company by becoming more directly involved with team selection and oversight. Since the professionals employed on the teams are no longer a full time staff, the bad elements select themselves out of the working model. We see this happening nowadays with freelance talent for Creative and Promotional Marketing agencies.

Utilizing the connectivity and communication model of the Internet, a company can completely reduce their production workforce to zero and still continue to perform adequately, or in many instances outperform expectations. By leveraging the Wikinomics model of collaborative work environments, yet by introducing business controls limiting access to the pool of collaborators, companies can harness the global aspects of the new economy without sacrificing the control over their own assets. With newer technologies like web-based Data Asset Management and Marketing Resource Management, it’s already possible for companies with the right technological infrastructure to begin assembling a global workforce who has access to assets in a controlled manner, and whose daily progress is tracked in a web-based manner. Add in  the web teleconferencing solutions and you can create virtual meetings for any in-person communications that are necessary.

The Upside

While this looks like still further erosion of the role of the professional within the new economy, there is an upside. When Project Managers assemble teams, the payment structure changes in emphasis to the results. Enterprising and efficient professionals who have established good networking skills will be in high demand, and might be able to actually increase their income by taking on projects for a contracted fee, and then dispatching the project requirements with efficiency, freeing up further time resources. Speaking as a freelancer who has been booked for week-long engagements with companies, only to finish the project in the first day and therefore work himself out of money, this is a highly preferrable model.

It also opens the door to more Project Management roles. Since the coordinators of the projects are the ‘full time, health benefits-enabled professionals’, there is a higher reward incentive for organization, communication, and efficiency skillsets than in the traditional model of a 20th century corporate hierarchy.  This repurposing is entirely dependent upon the skills of the Project Managers, who as we’ve seen are spending less time learning how to do any sort of production job, and more time learning how to execute any given project.

Of course, more social infrastructure is needed (like universal healthcare, for example), and the new model creates an even greater dichotomy between the Technology Haves and Have-Nots. It’s not a perfect solution, and any attempt to switch over completely to the new model is bound to turn up serious limitations. However, instead of extreme solutions, perhaps the growing dependency on Project Management skillsets as the interfaces between hierarchies and networks will eventually come to some sweet spot, middle of the road solution.

We certainly seem to already be heading there.

The Death of Design Professionalism, A Mixed Reaction

My first corporate job after getting my Bachelor’s was working as a Purchasing Agent for IBM as a full-time temporary employee. The purpose for having me on site was to provide temporary coverage in the purchasing agent role while the corporation reassigned, transferred, or laid off the full time employees who had miraculously managed to avoid IBM’s massive 1990’s layoffs.  My role was to be a corporate-sponsored bridge demolitionist, enabling the ultimate dismantling of the very corporate structure that employed me.  (Despite having every reason in the world to hate us, the full timers whose job functions we were allowing to be slowly destroyed harbored no overt ill will toward us. I can’t say I would have been as gracious in the reverse of the situation).

Ever since that time, I’ve adopted only one real hard and fast rule concerning my employment habits: never take a job whose ultimate goal is the destruction of that job itself.  I got to witness firsthand the human element affected by the dispassionate realignment of IBM’s internal business structures, and I never wanted to be in a similar position again. After reading a section of Negroponte’s 2003 article entitled Soft Architecture Machines I found myself reacting from a gut-level instinct with outright hostility. Let me explain.

Architecture and Design

The basic premise of the article surrounds the intention or desire to create an interactive technology which would essentially remove or reassign certain priorities in varying professions that traditionally rely on a “contracted expert” or “consultant” kind of model. Negroponte talked about Architecture, but he also used language broad enough to slam home for me when he wrote in broad strokes about professionalism in the world of Design.

The article spoke of what ultimately would severely lessen the role of the professional designer/architect by figuring out a way to create an interactive computer solution which would somehow make available the ‘expertise’ in creating the product (in Negroponte’s case, a house or domicile) and allow the final customer/end user to be able to harness those professional considerations to produce their own desired design. Negroponte immediately touched upon the idea that in order to being making a conceptual or algorythmic model of processing for the computer, we need to first evaluate the underlying component roles present when a professional architect does their thing.

I’m not buying it.

Not from a reaction point of thinking that it’s impossible, but more from the aspect of Pandora’s Box. Quite honestly, as a design professional myself, I look at the conceptual patterns and desires for empowerment of the individual in a subjective process such as design and I shudder away from it because I’m afraid. I’m scared that I’m once again back at IBM and now actively participating in the gradual disintegration of the very structure upon which up until now I’ve depended upon for my livelihood. It’s totally an emotional reaction, which doesn’t invalidate it but also doesn’t really give the ideas a fair shake.

I was slightly mollified by the notion that such a professional-replacing interface has yet to be successfully produced. I’m not surprised:  Aesthetics represents an extremely subjective arena of inquiry, even for only a theoretical model. The diehard professional in me likes to cling to the belief that the reason that I’m a graphic designer in the first place is because of the nebulous idea of ‘talent’. I persist in this emotional attachment even though I know full well that talent, if it even exists or is possible to quantify, only forms the barest minimum of the required skillsets that designers call into play. We are practiced after years and years of thinking visually, we have a corpus of experience behind us that informs us as to what kinds of solutions tend to be received by our clients as successful, and what sorts of things tend not to please the viewer. All of this comes from the accumulated experience of doing the job, however, so I really had to think… what, exactly, am I being paid for?

Damn you, Power Point!

Negroponte made another good point. He quotes Yona Friedman (1971), “With the elimination of the designer (the professional one) from the design process — by vulgarizing the ‘objective’ elements in the process, and by introducing a simply understood feedback concerning potential consequences of individual decisions on the whole  — the paternalistic character of the traditional design process will disappear.” (Emphasis mine). More simply phrased, if you give end users a way to begin to approach doing what the professional designers do, you will profoundly alter the role that the designers play. In Friedman’s way of thinking, you end up ultimately removing the professional from the model.

I have to say that I agree with Friedman, but only to a point. PowerPoint, to be precise. In my own professional experience, as PowerPoint has grown in acceptance among the general business world, the dialogue between my clients and I has also shifted. PowerPoint has given a tool to the non-designers which allows the formation of simple symbolic structures and gives a certain extremely limited degree of control over simple visual representations to those people who generally speaking can be assumed to have had no formal design or aesthetics training whatsoever.  The result of PowerPoint’s ubiquity on the culture of design professionals can be seen by the form that the client communication takes. Whereas prior to the saturation of the market with this “pseudo-design technology” my clients viewed me as a consultant and communicated with me by asking questions, nowadays my clients no longer ask me questions but instead tend to launch right into giving directives.

Gone are the days of the Dot-com boom when everyone knew that what made websites stand out and get results was how they looked. We were coming off of a time when everyone was discovering just how easy HTML coding was, and there were some pretty hideous examples of websites out there attempting to do business and generate revenue.  Back then, there was a certain mystique with which my clients would approach me. I was viewed as the keeper of a mystery, someone who did things with a computer that the average person didn’t know how to do.

Graphic Designers As the New Secretaries

Alas, with PowerPoint on every executive’s desktop, everyone feels like they’re an Art Director. My latest set of freelance assignments had less to do with producing top notch Creative material for various high-end agencies and clients, and was more of a stint being some Marketing professional’s secretary. Just like in days of old when executives dictated letters to their secretaries because they were the keepers of the keys to the typewriters, now I find myself being given several PowerPoint files and horribly amateur graphics and being told to “make them pretty.”

Gone is the aesthetic role of the professional designer in all but the highest positions, which are now surrounded by some of the most intense professional competition you’ll find. Here to stay, apparently, is a corporate culture which views graphic designers as ‘people who understand the computer’, not as ‘people who understand design’. That role, the role of one who understands design, is assigned mentally by each marketing executive whose .ppt files I have to translate magically into some other format or another to themselves.

 PowerPoint has definitely increased the user interaction between the marketing/account executive branches and the graphic designers and print specialists. I’m just not certain that opening up this profession to a level of user-direction like this is doing much in the way of helping the field of graphic design. In fact, I would personally argue from my own experiences that the graphic designer has been stripped even of the level of input into the overall process which could actually help the client achieve superlative results. Unless you feel like fighting for the right to make suggestions, graphic designers nowadays often find themselves wondering where this wonderful career is going to end up. I would be able to make a lot more money for myself as a designer if I were to kowtow to the growing trend and just try to sell my services as a secretary.  Perhaps in the future you’ll see the death of administrative assistants in favor of graphic designers assigned to various high level corporate functionaries. (Egads, let it not come to that!)

Variable Data Printing: Giving Negroponte a Fair Shake

I do have to concede, however, that my reaction to all of this is decidedly mixed. I can certainly think of some very positive possibilities that Negroponte touches on, even within the world of design professionals. However, the success is dependent upon the idea of only going so far down the garden path to user-driven experiences, and no farther. To illustrate what I mean, I’d like to point you to the field of Variable Data Printing, or VDP.

Variable Data Printing is something that is being offered in many places on the web which generated quite a bit of buzz a few years ago. Enough buzz that TracyLocke sent me for formal training to Boston to learn how to use a proprietary solution in the VDP industry, PageFlex.  What PageFlex does is allow you to create template forms that are posted online. End users come to your PageFlex-based site, and they can customize various aspects of the templates that you provide. The data on the page is Variable.

The real dream for VDP is that when it works well, it can completely simplify the ordering process. The proprietary server-software allows for the customization of the printed materials desired by the client, and the software not only generates the overall scheme of what is to be customized and what is to remain static, but it generates a high-resolution output file that can be handled in a few different ways, the most common of which involves being sent directly to a printer/output vendor who then immediately prints on demand the order and then ships it out.

Let’s think about this for a moment in terms of Negroponte. Looking at Variable Data Printing from Negroponte’s article, it becomes clear very quickly that the Pageflex solution (at least the one I was trained in, I confess I have not yet studied up on any new iterations of the software solution) doesn’t actually remove the design professional from the process. Instead it front-loads all of the design work because a designer is still needed to determine which kinds of templates will be offered, what aspects of them need to be customizeable, and every component piece needs to be aligned correctly and coded as user-selected variables.

Not an Exact Match

This doesn’t exactly work the way that Negroponte visualizes the ultimate non-professional solution. For one thing, it’s front-heavy, and the amount of variability is strictly controlled. I personally think that this is to its credit, however. By offering limited choices, professional and aesthetic standards can be maintained. What is needed, however, is some kind of AI algorhythm which understands the component pieces of the design process, or at the very least how the end user works.

In this case, the lack of Negroponte’s desired vision for a viable computer-based means for helping end users to make up their mind or extend their capacity for user input to cross into the professional design realms, this lack is not enough to make us abandon our hopes for PageFlex as an intermediary solution in the world of VDP. Instead, studying Negroponte’s proposed changes for the interaction model can be extrapolated by the designers of the template choices. One of the things that has always been limiting to non-design professionals is the fact that designers are partially being relied on for their imagination. It can be fairly straightforward to see things one way, but it can take an innovative and inventive design professional to be able to suggest solutions or options which not only weren’t explicitly called for in the project specifications, but also weren’t even imagined as possibilities.

To that end, the human component can be very adequately married within the PageFlex-type applications for VDP. However, what it requires is a broadening of the initial offerings of different templates and styles. Because not every user is going to be as skilled as another, there needs to be some level of variation which can allow those who require the hand-holding and slimmed down functionality that I, personally, always associate with Microsoft Products, as well as the talent-empowering robust and feature-rich interfaces that I have traditionally associated with Adobe products.

Still Yelling At the Folks in Marketing

The trouble with all of this is that these tools, being new avenues for how to go to business in the modern sense, need some form of evangelist or champion within any given organization who hopes to turn this product into a healthy return on investment. Because the tool is new, now, it lies outside the typical imagination of the folks who are usually responsible for getting the client to try (and pay for!) new technological advances: the marketing folks. That’s not to imply that marketing folks are unimaginitive, but rather that until someone has been exposed to not just the demo but also seen some practical applications in action, it doesn’t come up as an option.  That, then, is our role within the broader career field to come. We need to find a way to communicate the possibilities in meaningful fashion so that these new technologies can be put through their paces and the boundaries of the possible expanded for everyone.

Beyond what you can doodle with in PowerPoint.

Until that day, I retain my mixed feelings about Negroponte’s idea of stripping away the human professional from the design equation.  And I dread the concept of graphic designers ending up as the secretarial pool of the new millennium, seen not as guides to the world of visual aesthetics, but instead ‘tools’ themselves to compensate for the fact that most business executives don’t have a design eduction, but would really like to be able to tap into one as a form of internal advertising for attention to their projects and ideas.

Damn you, PowerPoint. Let’s hope tech like PageFlex can save the day.

References
Negroponte, N. (2003). Soft Architecture Machines (Selection). In Waldrip-Fruin & Montfort (Eds.), New Media Reader, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Unite, ICM graduates, and take over the world! Bwa-ha-ha!

Referencing:

I’m with Andy’s post. I personally read Ronfeldt and Arquila’s ‘Netwar’ article (2001) and found myself thinking that there has never been a war of any kind in the history of humanity which hasn’t depended upon a social network. War cannot be waged by one individual except hyperbolically… to have a war, you have social conflict of some level, and that requires a network of individuals to bring it about.

Indeed, I hold that the concept of ‘netwar’ is nothing new at all. The vast history of human government is replete with examples of a small network of individuals gaining control of various resources and seeking to impose some kind of order or control upon the society that depends upon those resources. Combine the ideas of Ronfeldt and Arquila’s ‘netwar’ with the writings of J. Beniger’s Control Revolution (Introduction. 1986. Cambridge: Harvard University Press), specifically his assessment of the rise of the bureaucracy as a means for social control as a preliminary reaction to the industrial revolution’s impact on our culture.

Let’s look at it this way. According to Beniger, the industrial revolution led to social changes that caused the model of government to become a bureaucracy. The bureaucracy asserted control, and divorced the individual serving as a functionary from the office and duties with which she was charged. You can’t get mad at the system, because even if this one individual wants to circumvent the process, that functionary is emminently replaceable, so the role or governmental position which they fulfill completely overshadows who they are as people. Or so the model of bureacracy seems to work to me. Don’t believe me? Go visit the DMV without the right paperwork, and try to get the individual on the other side of the desk to give you a driver’s license, and see how far you get.

In a perfect world, the individual operating inside the construct or framework of the bureacracy would be supervised closely and unable to exert personal control. However, the bureacracy—whether it be the government, academia, or the great corporate engine—doesn’t quite work that way. There is always discretionary power of some level from each higher rung of the hierarchy. And there are always opportunities for the bureacracy to slow itself down, all in the name of (perfectly correct!) procedure and process. If an upper rung of authority wants to get certain things done by the lower rungs, then there will always be shifting networks of individual loyalties at work to allow, hinder, prohibit, or encourage different projects from coming to pass. We call this ‘politics’, and it’s the way that bureacracies get things done. How easily you achieve the desired result depends upon how you align yourself with the sub-network of ‘office’ politics which happens to be in control of that asset.

This is pretty commonplace, so I question why Ronfeldt and Arquila need to be so down on the concept of networks. We’ve seen them used in the French Resistance during World War II. We see them used in terrorist cells. I can also see them at work at Quinnipiac. It would be folly to think that we’re not going to come out of this program without some serious network connections in this field. One of the benefits for taking this masters to me is that I’m already getting to know a lot of current and future professionals across the different industries and applications that the Interactive Communications Masters brings. I could try to analyze specifically which structures will make the ‘Masters connection’ qualify as netwar, since after all we are going to be moving forward with intention to cause a desired result… Beniger’s “Crisis of Control” made real (1986).

Of course, to us, we’re just going to be trying to improve the standards of the interactive communications industries, and demonstrate a certain level of flexibility and professional preparedness in the face of this new and sometimes baffling communication technology. Over time, we’ll eventually see some graduates of this program in hiring positions (indeed, many of my classmates already are!), and climbing the ladder in roles in media, PR, advertising, web development, and content management. Are we to be termed ‘economic-elitists’ (or terrorists?) if we look first to each other when it comes time to reaching some consensus or attaining some lofty future goal?

Ronfeldt and Arquila make precisely that kind of assumption with their bias against networks of priority-aligned individuals in their 2001 article, Networks, Netwars, and the Fight for the Future. FirstMonday, 6(10). I personally feel they might have done a better time of pointing out that the organization model is not the culprit of any antagonism, but rather the prevailing conditions, actions, and reactions which have led to the same.

A response to Ruth’s comment

 Glad to see you on and about, Ruth! This is a post inspired by my friend Ruth’s comment.

Exactly my point with the different structures of thought. It can be havoc to sit down at a computer after someone else has messed up your preferences and settings, let alone trying to follow the thought chains of people as they’re ruminating.

But then again, this is the inherent balancing question that stems from Bush, Engelbart, and Licklider’s articles for me. Whenever we make a movement to empower the individual we have to keep one eye on maintaining minimum standards.

I guess that my point to all of this is that there always needs to be some balance point, where the free associative indexing of the individual can be carried out in relative peace with a minimum amount of outside-imposed strictures (to capture the innovative and unique perspective of the individual) … and yet there also needs to be a way of translating that technological personal gnosis, as it were, into something that approaches at least a minimal level of structure to allow for sharing. We’re always allowed to smash the temple walls of community standards and expectations in the name of free thought and innovation, but once we do that we are necessarily forced to reinvent a platform or set of standards in order to communicate on any sort of wide level -at all-.

All the way to grad school and I’m staring squarely at the issue of how to find the balance between community standards which empower communication and the individual’s need for disorganized freedom in developing their own symbiosis with their own technological tools. It seems to be a recurrent theme in my life, no?

Only this time, we’re working off of technological assumptions instead of social or mystical ones. I can sort of cheat because we’re all living with the ‘memex’ that Bush described(1945). And we’re also living with the knowledge of what came next, or concurrently, as the internet was developed…. the data communication protocols which empowered networked sharing; namely TCP/IP.

Which all ties in nicely with Engelbart’s conceptual model of the H-LAM/T system (1962)… something I’ll endeavor to render in diagram format in the near future. Basically one of the interdependent portions of how we formulate complex thoughts has to do with first providing a Language, the ‘L’ in the H-LAM/T. In Engelbart he wrote about the Language in terms of the individual building conceptual and symbolic structures in order to facilitate complex thinking using things that were meaningful and intrinsic to the individual.

My point is that it also extends outwards. We can’t begin to assemble the bits of personally inspired data into meaningful relationships to make it into information (a concept introduced to me in ICM501 course lecture, Alex Halavais, 8/30/07) on any sort of scale unless we’re all writing with the same language first. Language tends to influence thought patterns, and in Augmenting Human Intelligence, Engelbart (1962) points out the theoretical school of cognition that holds that if the language we use to think with doesn’t allow a certain conceptual structure then we’ll never actually think in those terms.

I look at the Language element of the H-LAM/T model and wonder what concepts or conceptual structures we’ve already selected out during the initial phase of coming up with the foundational concepts and terminology which have resulted in the Interactive Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the first place.

 I’ve run into problems that are motivated by differences in individual outlooks before in my role as a Web Producer for TracyLocke. Let me introduce the case study we found ourselves in to highlight exactly what kind of ‘communicatus interruptus’ I’m nodding at when you start dealing with individuals who have self-organized around a vastly different conceptual and methodological model (the H-LAM/T scenario, briefly, states that Human intellect operates based on Language, Artifact use, and Methodology, in which they have been Trained. H-LAM/T.)

Case Study: Aprimo’s-  vs. TracyLocke’s mindset

TracyLocke is an advertising giant which has lasted for over 94 years in the industry. They directly influenced our culture by naming and branding 7-11, Tostitos, and for the Haggar brand they coined the term ‘slacks’ to describe dress pants that weren’t jeans or part of a suit.  They’re not just a company with a history either, they’re a company with forward thinking about technology and the way to use it to augment the traditional roles of marketing and advertising processes.

Part of that technological focus happened while I was employed as a Web Producer with them. TracyLocke had purchased a web-based proprietary software solution to help them manage their projects. Up until that point TL relied upon an outdated database and a cadre of entry-level “Project Managers” who ran around the building literally, chasing jobs down and trafficking hard copy bags and folders. TL was getting to a size where this was prohibitive, and they had purchased a solution called ‘SmartPath’.

SmartPath was only one technology provider for this kind of technology, and given the money and time which was invested in this enterprise-level project, rest assured that senior management had done exhaustive research and due dilligence to make sure they were purchasing the best solution for their needs. One of the competitive products which had been evaluated and ultimately decided against was a company named Aprimo. As it happened, after TracyLock had signed the contract with SmartPath, Aprimo acquired the SmartPath company and rights to its technology. TracyLocke had chosen SmartPath over Aprimo, but now they were dealing with Aprimo directly once again.

I won’t disclose the nature of -all- the agreements between them, since I’m sure I’ll get a nice lawyer’s email if I do, but essentially what happened is that as a condition for going forward with the SmartPath purchase and installation, TracyLocke maneuvered themselves into a unique position… Aprimo was working on the latest release of their own product, Aprimo 8 I believe, and TracyLocke was invited along with a few other select companies in a similar position to provide direct feedback to the development team for Aprimo.  I don’t know the truth to it, but I was under the impression that Aprimo had a significant market share in accounting firms, traditional business offices, engineering firms, etc. Left brain market share, is how I thought of it. Again, I never saw data or numbers, so this is simply hearsay.

SmartPath, however, allegedly had a significant share of what I’ll call ‘Right brain market share’, appealing to creative agencies, media companies, advertising and promotions agencies, etc. Aprimo was sincere in wanting our help. They knew that TracyLocke had, for whatever reason, decided consciously not to move forward with purchasing the Aprimo product. They knew that TracyLocke was a good representation of the right brain market share they were allegedly looking to attract. And there was a contractual clause between TracyLocke and Aprimo that will remain undisclosed just out of courtesy, but basically TracyLocke was in a position where Aprimo not only invited their feedback, they had to at least consider it seriously.

As a member of the larger SmartPath implementation team, I was part of the large group of users who was given a ‘sneak peek’ at the Aprimo product. And I gagged when I saw it.

Now, please understand that Aprimo was incredibly feature rich, and from what I understand still is. A veritable technology leader for its industry niche. I’m not in any way panning their product. But I was invited to give critical feedback, so I did. And as it turned out, I ended up getting called on it to defend myself with specifics and particulars. Not only that, under the advice of a reseller of the Aprimo product, I was invited to write a long email which specifically addressed why the agency world would never buy into the Aprimo product as it stood at that stage of development, which I did.

Why did I pan it? Simply, the user interface was atrocious. Nothing made sense, everything was nested nicely in little logical schema which made absolutely no sense whatsoever. There were appalling visual cues for how to proceed, icons which didn’t match with commonly expected functions, unclear at every turn. The application -was- powerful. Immensely so. But we couldn’t even begin to approach how robust it was because the creative agency team couldn’t understand how to use it.

Communication Attempts

I not only wrote an email, but I redesigned their UI to show them in visual terms just how I would have taken where they had ended up and moved forward with it to make it not only appealing, but also consistent with standard interface conventions. I worked dilligently at it for a week, and wrote several drafts of the initial email. When I was done I thought, “At last! They’ll read this and be able to understand exactly how to approach this market.”

They didn’t. The Aprimo team wrote back that all of my recommendations were nice, but non-essential. The software worked, who cared how it looked or how folks were interacting with it? After all, Aprimo would train folks how to use their machine, so no worries about not knowing how.

A complete miss in communication terms. Here we had two completely different groups of individuals, focused on two completely different areas, which made tremendous sense to each of them individually, but which failed completely to connect with the other group. We were all talking about user interfaces for web-based technology, a bona fide Interactive Communication Technology. 

 It took us two weeks of back and forth discussion and debate over email before we finally began to understand that we were talking to the wrong people in the organization. We were talking to the engineers. From a social discourse level, of course they wouldn’t care about how things looked… that was secondary to the functionality of it. I argued back (because it actually sort of devolved to me phrasing the emails for the team in this one specific arena) that the most amazing tool in the world is not going to do much if no one will use it. TracyLocke already had one imposed solution for this kind of job tracking and project and process management software. It was largely ignored because using the tool was inefficient and didn’t improve upon the basic tasks or processes of the agency. No one understood it, so no one used it.

In the end what bridged the gap between our two sides of the conversation was an email of mine where I tried a different approach. Instead of talking about the Aprimo suite of software in question, I described my workplace. The open architecture, the television sets hanging from the ceiling every few feet. The buzz of energy as a converted warehouse space was used by many different teams to work on creative projects. The personal decorations around everyone’s desk. The fact that we all used Macs and that the majority of employees in the building were art directors who spent every waking moment thinking about image, brand, identity, and the customer/user experience.

Not about functionality. Art Directors don’t need to worry over much about functionality because they have an entire department at their disposal called ‘Studio’ who takes their artwork and figures out how to reproduce it exactly, yet in a way which will allow it to work and be printed. No one worried about how robust their applications were because Photoshop and Illustrator are so powerful that there isn’t a user alive who is expert in every possible way to utilize them. (Or if there is, she’s spending way too much time on the computer.)

When I was able to frame the work environment, the daily tasks, and the overall feel of the agency world as we knew it and lived it at TracyLocke (I miss Beer Cart Fridays and Bagel Wednesdays still), suddenly the connections started firing. The engineers were making a simple mistake, and so were we in the agency. We each assumed that because -we- felt at home and ‘normal’ in our environment, that -we- must represent at least a significant portion of the target audience. After all, we were normal, right? So everyone else must be, too.

This was a communication breakdown which needed two weeks of time before it was identified and resolved. In the business world, that’s an eternity. In those two weeks I was spending a large portion of my time working on that problem instead of actually developing the Rich Internet Applications which were my primary function (before the budget reforecasting took away my bottom line, that is… ah corporations!).  In both scenarios, we were both focusing on Interactive Communication Technologies. We had developed a rapport and a set of expectations which were unique to us as individuals between how our minds worked and how we used our computers.  But we weren’t starting from the same page.

Two individual mindsets had developed their own unique symbiosis in order to handle the processing and furthering of complex thought, yet we were moving to opposite ends of an ideological spectrum and still assuming we stood at center. Not only that, because of those unseen individual expectations we were starting to reach a place where our common language (English) was no longer facilitating the sharing of conceptual structures. Without those conceptual structures in place, we were unable to transfer concept to mental structure (internalize things).

Looking back on it in terms of Engelbart’s conceptual framework of H-LAM/T, we were both trying to achieve the end goal of empowering or augmenting higher intelligence in workers. But they were focusing on the specific artifact repertoire (what the machine could do by itself) and we were looking at the integrated human/artifact relationship as a whole.

End Run for Resolution

We resolved the matter by escalating things from the engineering team to the Vice President of Marketing, who already shared the vocabulary of ‘branding’ and ‘brand experience’ with the agency side. I don’t know whether or not the engineering team ever came around fully to appreciate why a decent user interface was necessary (that’s not really fair — I’m sure they felt it necessary, but we disagreed on what ‘decent’ meant). In my wicked inside self I have to admit I sometimes imagine a cobwebbed and decrepit group of software engineers whimpering softly in some conference room somewhere that they’ve been locked.  But the example is a perfect one to illustrate the broader problem.

When we begin to approach a society of empowered individuals, especially networked and empowered individuals who are able to transcend the limitations of time and place and connect with like minds and sympathetic people all over the world, we start seeing a breakdown in the overall communication efforts. We begin having to augment what previously would have been a simple exercise in language skills by framing them in our own particular frame of reference. We have to not only share the idea through a medium on its own, we have to continually remind ourselves that the key to effective communication in a society of ‘disorganized individuals’ we must also be clear to a lesser or greater extent about how we have arrived at these conclusions or ideas ourselves.

It’s something I can only see increasing in complexity. Since the H-LAM/T system of Engelbart’s is not only interdependent but regenerative and most importantly, compound, the tiny changes in the interaction between individuals nowadays of dissimilar perspectives will only continue to require more and more attention in order to achieve even the preliminaries of a true exchange of ideas.

References

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, July.

Engelbart, D. (1962). Augmented human intellect study, Conceptual framework (Part II, pp 8-46). SRI.

Licklider, J.C.R. (1968). Man-Computer Symbiosis. Science and Technology.