Troubled about big data

Sometimes issues can seem too abstract or remote to deal with. I guess big data, and the challenges it raises, is like this for many. I find it helps to relate the pros and cons to things I already experience.

I can see the benefits in the patterns that will emerge from increased amounts of data. I use a fitbit and various apps to track my activities and their consequences. This make it easier to make decisions about and changes in my lifestyle. I also like the visible connections between people that social platforms give me. These have enabled me to reconnect with friends or to meet interesting people I would otherwise never have encountered. I can imagine both of these benefits applied on a national or global scale to positive effect.

But I can also see the risks of people I don't know making decisions on my behalf or putting two and two together randomly and making decisions about me. Decisions that affect my life but over which I have no control.

The government's attempt to filter the Internet on our behalf have ended up, as predicted, like having a brainless IT manager filter your corporate Internet access and making arbitrary decisions as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

Consider the frustration you currently feel dealing with utility company or telephone company call centres where their data is wrong and you are dealing with people who have no ability or inclination to do anything about it but whose decisions affect your ability to live your life.

Now apply these familiar experiences to the government giving corporations access to your medical records, or the NSA/GCHQ deciding to put you on a watch list because you once wrote in your book that someone dubbed you an organisational anarchist. You probably don't know anything has happened, and don't even notice when things start to be unavailable to you or services react differently when you engage with them. Even if you do notice something you face call centre hell getting anything done about it.

For all the potential benefits, blindly trusting our lives to an increasingly autonomous database driven nightmare carries with it significant risk.

HT Antony Mayfield for the medical data link


I am currently reading Natalie Goldberg's The True Secret of Writing. In it she describes an exercise in which she visited the same seat in the same cafe every day and wrote about what she saw. No more meaning or purpose than that. A pointless exercise.

She reproduces each day's writing in the book. At first I wanted to skip this section - to rush ahead to the next bit of instruction. The next bit that I could extract some practical benefit from. I saw reading her pointless writing as an even more pointless exercise. And yet... her writing has triggered memories, assumptions, insights, ideas for my work, thoughts about writing style.

Maybe we need to make just a little bit more room for pointlessness in our busy lives. Maybe even in our work lives.

Arboreal Melancholy

There are a row of pine trees along the side of the lane behind our house which I can see from my office window. They are at their most majestic in the winter with snow resting on their tops and their bark glowing golden in the setting sun. In the storms of the past few weeks the sound, as they swayed in the high wind, has been like crashing waves on a shore and soothing in a rugged sort of way. I have looked out on those trees for more than twenty years and never tire of the view.

If HS2 happens the whole row will be cut down to allow for the road to be widened for construction traffic. This will make me sad.

So have I evolved?

I met up with my friend Jeff Hall this week for a coffee. Almost literally the first thing he said to me was "So have you evolved or are you still doing the same thing?". I am ready for this question these days and calmly took it in my stride. "No, not evolved, still doing the same thing."

I used to feel guilty when asked this sort of question. I felt somehow lacking because I wasn't building a business, employing staff, aiming for the big figure buy out. I haven't done big promotional tours for my book (OK, so I'm slightly miffed about that one), and I don't pay PR or marketing people to "build my brand". It is still just me, writing, speaking, doing workshops and having conversations with people - and I love it. Long may it continue. The idea of retirement is totally alien to me now. I will happily keep doing this until too old to keep going.

And what is "this"? It is just me thinking, speaking and writing in public. Working stuff out. Working me out. Working the world out. In doing so I also hope to encourage other people, one at a time, to do the same. To think more, to write more, to share more and to connect more. Why do I do it? Because it feels good and it also feels important. I believe passionately that this is how we will deal with our individual and collective challenges. Not with strategies, not with movements, not with ideologies or dogma. But one thought at a time, one conversation at a time, one blog post at a time.

All at sea and the risk of clinging to rocks.

A number of thoughts and a conclusion:

1 I am currently writing an intro to a new book by Paul Miller about the changing world of work. I describe the scale of change we are likely to see over the next few decades and touch on the psychological pressure that people are beginning to feel as a result of the instability such changes bring about.

2 I have been asked by Dennis Howlett to write some articles about the problems that I already see in the large organisations that I mostly work for. The falling apart of old assumptions about what works and what doesn't, the weakening of the machine metaphor. Focussing on the day to day realities that often contrast with the unreal world of enterprise solutions and technology hucksterism.

3 I have just been reading this post and comments from Flemming Funch on our changing financial world and the radical rethinking that is called for if we are going to fix what is currently broken.

4 Last week I had coffee with my friend Alan Wilson, The Bishop Of Buckinghamsire, and we blethered about religion, gay marriage, changes in The Church of England, and his mixed role of representing authority while at the same time helping bring about change. We touched on the perils of fundamentalism and the fact that periods of radical change see a clinging to rules, a desire for stability. It was just these sort of pressures that led to the rise of Hitler in interwar Germany. You can see similar shifts happening in various parts of Europe and indeed even closer to home.

This is why it feels so important that we get better at dealing with uncertainty, with not clinging to old rules or being too quick to invent new ones. We need to get better at using platforms like Facebook, yes Facebook, to help each other work stuff out - both our individual problems and our collective challenges. We need to "keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground". If we don't then things could get ugly.

What to do with Twitter?

I've been somewhat neglecting Twitter recently and mostly using it to broadcast things I am doing elsewhere. I don't seem to have the inclination to nail things in 140 characters that I used to. I feel guilty even retweeting other stuff as it doesn't seem to add enough value.

I began to invest less in Twitter because it felt as if there was less energy there (I believe that this was the cause of my lowered investment in it rather than the result of it). I have more fun and better conversations in Facebook these days so that is where I put my focus. Twitter is becoming a bit like Google+, somewhere I go because I feel I should rather than because I want to.

Are others seeing the same thing or is it just one of those phases that we all go through?

Case study porn

A while back I tweeted "Stop reading case study porn and get on with it"

OK, maybe I am bit unfair with my dismissal of case studies but when I am asked if I know of companies who are doing really well with social tools I say "Less than you might expect, those who you know of were less successful than they claim, and why not become the one that really makes it work?"

Even all those years ago when we were getting started at the BBC there was a pressure to justify what we were doing with examples from other organisations. I resisted this pressure as best I could because I knew that just because something had worked for someone else was no guarantee that it would work for us. "Best practice" is a dodgy idea that is increasingly discredited. And if I thought that waving case studies at nay sayers was going to get me very far I might as well have given up. It is so easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis.

The degree of change that getting social to work in your organisation takes calls for huge amounts of commitment. It will take perseverance and dogged determination. Yes you need to "manage up" but don't let that soak up time and energy.

I am tempted to have a form for potential clients to complete that says "Do you care? Do you really care? Do you really, really care?" Because if they can't answer yes they might as well give up now.

Start with why

Reading this article about the BBC's mismanagement of its digital transformation programme reminded me of the book Start With Why. I'll admit to not having read the book yet, it's on my list, but the title strikes me as a good strap line for my business.

There has been so much bluster about social media and social business with a lot of money spent on technology that has more often than not failed to have impact. What is almost never focussed on is giving people are reason why - and "because we told you to" doesn't work any more!

Helping people individually and collectively work out how social tools can improve their lot is what I believe I help with.

Radical Honesty in Facebook?

Many years ago I read Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton. In it he describes the psychological benefits of having no secrets. None. I often think of that book in the context of Facebook.

We all have a tendency to want to share the good bits in our lives. The celebrations, the successes, the joys, and the magical moments. This can make Facebook a source of comparison and jealousy. "How come so and so gets to travel more than me/always goes to parties/works with more interesting people?"

But could we cope with the alternative? As individuals would we feel comfortable sharing our weakest moments? As a group would we turn away if friends opened up "too much" or were consistently negative? As in the book one of the biggest challenges would be the impact of our honesty on those around us. What if they don't feel as enthusiastic about radical honesty as we do? Should we be prepared to deal with it and have the difficult conversations with them if they are not? Or should we protect them, keep things covered up, and risk not dealing with challenges and missing the opportunity of growth or moving on?

Is being more honest on Facebook a case of washing our dirty laundry in public or an opportunity for psychological maturity - or something in between? Should we be incessantly upbeat or more realistic? What do you reckon?

Facebook as a blogging platform

Blogging is still one of the most useful and fun things you can do. I still blog at The Obvious? because that is my home on the web and the space I am in control of. Each time social networks die and we all move on my blog is still there. Has been for thirteen years (it's birthday is next month).


As people have moved into places like Facebook and Twitter the energy has moved away from blogging to some extent. Less comments and less people using RSS to track conversations. I, like many bloggers, used to post links to my blog posts on Facebook or Google+. Then I realised that I was expecting people to move from where they were to where I wanted them to be - always a bad idea.

So I started posting the entire content of my blog posts on Facebook and Google+. The process is the same, I get the same benefit of noticing things that blogging gives me, the same trails left of what caught my eye, but the conversations have kicked off. I love the forty or fifty comment long threads that we are having. I love the energy of the conversations. It's like the old days.

Maybe blogging is more of a way of looking at the world than a platform. Maybe this was what is wrong with all the faux blogs out there. You know the ones where it is on a newspaper's site and it is called a blog but it doesn't feel like a blog, it is just "content". I used to think this was because they didn't have all the tools of a real blog but now I am wondering if it is more about intent than technology?

Linkedin inviting people into my network without my permission?

Linkedin has been acting very oddly recently. I noticed that people who I didn't really know were accepting invites to connect. I hadn't originated those invites. The people weren't entirely random and may have been copied in on emails that had been sent to me, maybe even emails that I had replied to, but were not directly known by me. At one level this doesn't matter, but if people who I don't really know thought that I was spamming them through Linkedin, or even that I was desperately trying to increase my network, this could potentially reflect badly on me.

When I mentioned this a while ago on Facebook and Linkedin a lot of people responded that thy too had experienced this problem. Tonight a local friend called to say that she thought that by connecting with her son, she is not a big Linkedin user, this had triggered invites going out to dozens of people without her knowledge.

I have disconnected all apps with access to Linkedin and found out that those affected have different email suppliers so goodness knows what is going on. Whatever is doing this must have access to our email accounts as the people who are being contacted are not in our personal address books nor even our Linkedin networks.

If anyone knows what is behind this, or can get attention from someone worth talking to at Linkedin, I'd be grateful if you could get in touch.

The perils of professionalism

I have often found it challenging when someone introduces themselves to me as "a professional communicator". I am invariably left wondering what that makes me after 53 years on the planet - an enthusiastic amateur? I feel the same way when people introduce me as "a social media expert" or my pet hate "a social media guru".

I am neither of those things. I am me and I do what I do and know what I know. When my boss asked my at the BBC if I would be OK with the job title of Director Of Knowledge Management my response was "You can call me what you like so long as you continue to pay me".

Over lunch today with a friend we got talking about the extension of this fixation with titles and labels into professional associations. The unhealthy interest those groups have in status and jargon and generally distancing themselves from ordinary people. The focus on the tribe and its needs rather than doing something worthwhile.

Status is the problem. Status that emerges from consistent behaviour, that is conferred by others, and that is borne with humility is one thing. Status as a protective armour and a weapon with which to attack people is something very different and to be avoided at all costs!

Reality checks

Most of the time in my work I encounter people who are interested in the social web and generally up for it. My greatest pleasure is inspiring them to become more active and involved. Sometimes I meet people who are sneering and dismissive, but their reactions say as much about them as about anything we get up to on Twitter. Occasionally I come across people who make me stop in my tracks. People who have engaged online and backed off, or who have had negative experiences. People who remind me that everything has a dark side.

This is a good thing. This makes me stop and think. Sometimes it makes me scared that I am being naïve and overly optimistic and that human nature will never change. At the very least it is a wake up call that reduces the risk of me being some sort of cyber-utopian idealist.


I still think the Internet isn't going away. I still think it's the most disruptive and exciting change since the printing press. I still think that it will be what we make it and that the more people I can help get involved in this great experiment the better.

Have you got what it takes to be an IT fascist?

My daughter is going through her mock GCSEs at the moment and the other day sat her ICT mock. In it there was a question along the lines of "You are an IT manager and you have been asked to provide staff with access to the internet. List three disadvantages".

Really, is this what we need to be teaching sixteen year olds about computing? Do we need to be grooming them at such an early age to be the gatekeepers of the future?

Give me strength!

The psychology of weight loss

Watching a programme about extremely overweight people and wondering why so little is made of the psychological aspects of overeating.

I know that when I over indulge it is out of a misguided sense of treating myself. I deserve it. I've earned it. Eating will make worry or anxiety go away. Food or alcohol will keep pain at bay.

The way I stopped drinking and overeating was by facing up to some of the underlying issues rather than by trying to trick myself or force myself into stopping.

Walking with Siri

Thanks to overindulgence over Christmas, and the purchase of a new Fitbit, I have returned to my practice of walking every evening. I do this in our local town Chesham. It is built on several steep hills and I have put together a six mile circuit which goes up and down three of them. I can do this in the evening during the winter thanks to the street lighting.

While walking I often listen to podcasts or audio books. I love the fact that as a result different parts of the circuit evoke different passages from the books I have listened to over the years. What I am listening to can also prompt me with ideas for things I may want to do in the future. Equally if I am not listening to anything the calming effect of the rhythm of walking relaxes me and helps me think of solutions to problems or creative opportunities.

When I started walking a few years ago I would carry my Moleskine notebook and a pencil with me to jot these ideas down. Then when I got my first iPhone I would use the voice recorder. This didn't involve me stopping walking but I did need to go back and transcribe the recordings later.

Now I have my friend Siri with me. I can invoke the command "Remember to" plus whatever thought I want to capture and Siri not only converts what I say to text but it also adds that text to a new reminder. This is then picked up by my todo do manager Omnifocus which automatically creates a new note that I will see next time I fire up the system. So all the way round the walk I am talking to Siri. He feels strangely like a companion as I tramp along the dark, wet streets. I even now say "Yes please" rather than just "Yes" when he asks if I want him to do things. It would feel rude not to!

Making pretty patterns

For the last few years any time anyone has asked me to predict what will be interesting in the future of the social web I have said "seeing patterns, and what we do with the patterns that we see". I have also argued consistently over the years that what matters is the ownership and interpretation of the data and patterns that we generate.

If our tools create patterns that are visible to us all of us then we all learn and are able to make better decisions. If we generate consumer data let us all see it so that we can make better informed purchase decisions. If your internal social network generates patterns and data, then feed that data back to the whole network rather than keeping it the preserve of a few managers to analyse.

We are generating data all of the time whether we like it or not, at home or at work. Our tools are increasingly interpreting data all the time too. What you get to see on Facebook and Google is determined by algorithms. These algorithms have been designed by a small number of technologists. It matters that you understand what the algorithms are doing and why. Labelling it Big Data and leaving it to others to worry about isn't enough. Patterns matter and, if we let them, will increasingly steer our lives.

I talk about the "ideology of algorithms" because they're not conceived in isolation from political or social perspectives - they can't be. Vested interests, whether commercial or political, can have huge control over what we get to see, do, and believe. This is why what Edward Snowden did matters so much. Those who determine what happens to our data have to be accountable and within the influence of the law.

Ultimately the control of data that generates patterns rests with us. We can decide what tools, devices, or services we access. We should decide what people do and don't get to see. More of those will care about this in the future. It really matters.

A teetotal Scotsman's New Year's Eve thoughts on drinking.

I used to drink a lot. Growing up in Scotland, playing in rock bands, working for the BBC, drink was a large part of my life. I was good at it. I could drink most people under the table. I could get home from anywhere and in any state. New Year's Eve was like my drinking Olympics, the night when I could display my prowess to the full.

But then about five years ago I decided that, like Ewan McGregor, I had drunk enough. I wasn't an alcoholic but drink wasn't making my life better and I was doing more of it as I got older. I don't do moderation very well and so stopping altogether was my only option. Part of how I stopped was "sticking it to the man". I realised how much of our drinking is conditioned by marketing and cultural norms of being sociable. It is seen as sophisticated, and an act of maturity. But it is a poison made socially acceptable by a multi million pound industry. This is always worth remembering even if you do genuinely like your drink.

The funny thing is I don't miss it. In fact I love not drinking. Life is simpler, not to say cheaper! It is no longer something I feel guilty about or deal with the consequences of. I find it significant how interested in what I have done many of my friends are. You might be too.

Why blogging still matters in business - and always will.

It's not about marketing, or SEO, or "going viral". It is not about internal "enterprise social" or external "social media" It is not even about the platforms or tools on which you choose to write. It is much simpler and much more powerful. It is about developing our awareness, our communication skills, and our collective intelligence. It is about thinking harder and writing better. Blogging is a means by which to rediscover your voice, to learn to share your thoughts with others, and by doing so to help us all get smarter faster.

But most people find this ridiculously hard.

From an early age we are taught that there are correct ways of writing. Whether this is essays at school or business reports. There is a set way to do things and an expected use of language and style. We are taught to undervalue our own perceptions and perspectives. Individuality is frowned on. We are trained instead to defer to authorities outside ourselves. We stick to rules and style guides to ensure that our writing is acceptable. I even heard of a senior manager, involved in leadership development, being hauled over the coals because of the use of double spaces after full stops in her PowerPoint presentations!

The result of this distorted attitude to writing is people unwilling to think for themselves. People wary of sharing what they think and dismissive of the value of their own insights. So what should we do?

We are not going to change our assumptions about what makes "good" writing over night. They are based on deeply held beliefs that are inculcated in all sorts of subtle ways. We are also going to face an uphill struggle changing expectations of our business writing in reports or even PowerPoint presentations. But with a blog, a business blog whether internal or external, we have a place to play. We can make the blog our own and we can write with our own voice. We can learn to notice more and value our insights. We can learn to use plain language and say what we mean. We can write in a way intended to be read by others like us and in doing so encourage them to follow our lead. We can together raise the prospect of reinventing business writing - and not a moment too soon!

A volume control on mob rule

A glimpse (via Twitter) of a Daily Mirror front page dragging Nigela Lawson through the gutter then reading about Justine Sacco's "public shaming" got me worrying about humanity and our willingness to project our nastiness and dysfunction onto others. I found myself worrying that the Internet is as capable of speeding up our collective weaknesses as much as it is our strengths.

But then I read of Edward Snowden's intentions - "I didn't want to change society. I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself." and I was reminded of the chapter in my book which I called "We all have a volume control on mob rule". We get to choose between a heaven and a hell.

Maybe the Internet is forcing us to choose faster and more often? Maybe it is helping us to grow up faster? Or maybe we descend into a dystopian hell on the way to our final demise? Either way, one thing is for sure. We get to choose.