Organisational Story-Telling

Steve Neiderhauser points to an interview with Steven Denning. Excerpts:

People think in stories, talk in stories, communicate in stories, even dream in stories. If you want to understand what’s going on in an organization, you need to listen to the stories. Moreover, if you want to get anything done in an organization, you need to know how to use to story to move people.

A springboard story is a story that can communicate a complex idea and spring people into action? It has an impact not so much through transferring large amounts of information, but through catalyzing understanding. It can enable listeners to visualize from a story in one context what is involved in a large-scale transformation in an analogous context. It can enable them to grasp the idea as a whole not only very simply and quickly, but also in a non-threatening way. It works like a metaphor — you tell a story about the past where something has already happened and invite the audience to imagine a future where this isolated example happened much more widely.

There is a growing body of case studies, full of facts, about the impact of story. My book, The Springboard, on the World Bank is full of facts about what happened there. More work is under way. For skeptics who ask: why should I try what you recommend? my reply is: if you have something that’s working, and you’re able to persuade skeptical audiences of transformational ideas with what you’re already doing, then go ahead, be my guest, and use what’s working for you. I can make this offer without fear because the problem is that the traditional approaches actually don’t work at all, when you’re dealing with difficult skeptical audiences. Story works in the hard cases, when nothing else works.

People can’t absorb data because they don’t think in data. They think in stories. If you give people a story, then they can absorb the meaning of large amounts of data very rapidly.

When a speaker simply reads out abstract bullet points [from a Powerpoint presentation], as one hears so often, one doesn’t need to look at the audience to know that they’re not listening. When that happens, then you get the look that I depict here. If on the other hand, the speaker is thinking in stories, and talking in stories, and telling those stories with feeling and imagination, then PowerPoint images can support and underline the main elements of the story. Images can strongly reinforce the story. Amusing images, if well chosen, can be particularly effective in advancing the story.

The good news is however that we are all storytellers. We’ve simply been browbeaten into thinking that this is some kind of arcane skill that only a few people have. As Jerome Bruner has documented, we all do it spontaneously from the age of two onwards, and go on doing it throughout our lives. When we get into a formal setting, we succumb to what our teachers have told us and start to spout abstractions. But once we realize that our listeners actually want to hear stories, then we can relax and do what we all do in a social setting and tell stories.

One of the things I have done in some recent presentations is not to use a presentation aid. I have just stood up and talked, trying to weave a tale around the points I want to make. I have found this much more effective personally – I tend to speak with more passion, and the audience is listening to me, rather than looking to the presentation. While this may not work in all settings, this approach is something which definitely needs more thought.

IBM’s Virtualisation Engine

News.com writes about a primarily mainframe technology that IBM is now making on lower priced computers:

The package, called Virtualization Engine, is designed to make IBM’s Power servers better able to juggle multiple loads and provides a foundation for an infrastructure that can respond automatically to changing priorities in a company’s workloads.

Virtualization is a technology that makes computers more adaptable by breaking the tight link between software and the hardware on which it runs.

One key mainframe feature copied by Unix server designers is partitioning, the ability to slice a server up into independent pieces that each run their own operating system. With today’s Power4-based pSeries Unix servers and iSeries midrange servers, IBM could create as many partitions as there were processors.

With the virtualization technology of Power5, IBM will increase this to 10 partitions per processor. And by extending virtualization from the processor to encompass input-output as well, Big Blue will enable Power5 partitions to share connections to the network and storage systems instead of requiring a separate physical adapter for each partition.

Adds NYTimes:

Many companies are working on data center management and virtualization technologies, including Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Dell, Intel, EMC, Veritas, Opsware and others. And virtualization is even being brought to personal computer technology, enabling several versions of Linux or Windows to run on Intel microprocessors or Intel-compatible Advanced Micro chips. In December, EMC paid $635 million to buy VMware, which makes virtualization software for running Windows and Linux. And Microsoft last year bought Connectix, which makes virtualization software.

I.B.M. will offer some of its new technology on its Intel-based servers, but analysts say the company’s real advantage should come in servers using I.B.M.’s Power family of microprocessors. In the Power machines, the virtualization software is built right into the chip, as microcode, instead of as a separate layer of software. Today, I.B.M. uses the Power chips in servers that run Unix and in its midrange I-series machines, the former AS-400 minicomputers.

But virtualization technology opens the door to eliminating the tight link between a specific microprocessor and a certain operating system. Microsoft’s Windows, for example, runs on Intel and Intel-compatible microprocessors.

Strategically, the I.B.M. approach is quite different from technology leaders, like Intel and Microsoft, that specialize in either hardware or software. “In the future, advantage is not going to be so much in the chip or the operating system, but in the management and control layer of technology,” said William Zeitler, senior vice president of I.B.M.’s computer systems group.

This can be a key enabler for utility computing.

Momentum for Mobility

The Seattle Times has an interview with Microsoft’s Michael Wehrs, who is director of technology and standards at the company’s mobile devices division. Excerpts:

We’re looking at alternate user interfaces. Right now, everybody views a phone as a 12-button keypad and that’s all you can really do with it. Some of the newer phones, (the Microsoft) Smartphone being an example, have softkeys which change their function based on what’s on the menu.

There is going to come a time when there’s enough processing power on these devices to actually have a combined interface of input from a keypad but also some level of voice interaction, more than voice dialing.

If you create this new version of .com that will be the .mobi domain, you can do some very interesting things that mobile devices have unique capabilities of doing. …

Today, you can generally browse through a Web site on your phone but no one can access your phone as a Web server. If you have pictures stored on your device, the only way that you could share them with me is to actually send them to me as a message.

But wouldn’t it be easier if from my Web browser I could just browse to your phone and look at them? In order to do those kinds of functions … I need changes to the way the domain naming systems work. I need them to perform at levels that they currently don’t have to perform at.

[Data networks improved a lot because] I think what happened is the operators recognized that voice will increasingly come under pressure pricing-wise, because there’s little differentiation in voice. When was the last advertisement you saw that said, “Our voice quality is better than someone else’s voice quality”?

It’s no longer the position. It’s all good enough. So the features can go along the fashion side of it color screen, customizable ringtone so you get that thread of user demands that will drive certain devices.

The other one is that wireless data is something that enterprises are willing to pay a lot for. And if customers can do more than just send 120 characters of text, that they’ll pay more for it.

The idea that you have to pick up and dial a phone probably will be gone 10 years from now. The mode switching between doing a data thing or a voice thing, that will all be gone. You’ll generally interact with your device via voice or via screen, but the idea that you’re doing either/or will go away. It will just be integrated in.

The devices will become combined and in general much smaller. The idea of personal area networks where devices share their capabilities and leverage each other, 10 years from now that will all work so that you may have a watch that you talk to. You may have just a headset that that becomes your earpiece and microphone. The actual phone will be something in your pocket or in your PC that you have with you, so it’ll find a radio network to use and let you connect.

Half a gigabyte of storage, gigahertz processors, this will all be the norm five years out. Screen technologies and battery technologies that get you at that level of performance through an entire day of use will be the norm. You’ll see multiple radios five years from now where today that’s somewhat of a novelty.

Mini-Chinatowns in US Suburbs

As I was reading this WSJ story, it reminded me of the analogies to Atanu’s RISC model – a cluster of services offered on a common platform for a distributed (geographically spread) populace so that the cost of doing business comes down for all the service providers:

Nine years ago, James Chih-Cheng Chen built what he calls America’s first “master-planned Chinatown” [on a vacant lot a mile from the Strip in Las Vegas] — and, on the way, helped take immigrant enterprise into new territory. Mr. Chen and a few others, mostly East Asians with capital, have come up with an angle that lets middle-class immigrants move away from the coasts and into America’s inland car culture without leaving their own cultures behind.

These investors have brought to life what might be called the ethnic commercial enclave, a cross between the regional mall and the corner store. Because their customers live scattered in unsegregated subdivisions, instant-Asia shopping centers can park anyplace where the rent is low and the drive-time reasonable. These commercial spaces are taking on all the intimate social functions of the old immigrant neighborhood. The neighborhood is the only thing missing.

Rice-loving shoppers from the suburbs are driving to about 70 stand-alone Asian shopping centers on the coasts — not only in New York and Los Angeles, but Seattle, Baltimore and Miami — and to about 50 in such mid-American cities as Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Capital flowing in from East Asia, itself already full of giant malls, is the main force at work here, along with masses of well-paid immigrants. The U.S. now has 12 million Asians. Their buying power, pegged by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, is $344 billion. In 20 states, Asians make up between 2% and 6% of the population: too few to congregate, perhaps, but enough to ignite a demand for very fresh fish.

Mr. Chen learned that early on. His Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza opened for business in 1995. By 1998, it was complete: an imperial arch on Spring Mountain Road; a golden statue of Xuan Zang’s “Journey to the West” in the parking lot; and a two-tiered shopping center under tiled roofs with dragons at every tip. By mall measures, the plaza is an 85,000-square-foot mini. But it has nine restaurants, shops with Asian goods from jade to ginseng, and an anchor supermarket where tree-ear fungus outsells Cheez Whiz. The place is usually jammed with Asians. In a desert city fixated on fantasy, Chinatown Plaza has matured into an oasis of authenticity.

In suburban Los Angeles or New Jersey, and the old urban enclaves of New York or San Francisco, Asian districts encircle Asian malls. In Las Vegas and young cities like it, the ghettos are gone. Hispanics, more numerous and less affluent, still cluster, but Asians often migrate from the coasts and integrate economically before they arrive. Along with the many others who move to Las Vegas each year, Asians are buying houses in the developments that are advancing into the desert like pink-stucco lava flows. Still, they’re rarely more than 10 miles from Chinatown Plaza.

India needs microcities in rural India – this is where RISC comes in.

SME Resellers

WSJ writes about the challenges selling to small- and meidum-size enterprises (SMEs):

while many small and midsize businesses constitute a ripe market, selling to these companies can be a difficult game that demands just as much sweat as big-company sales, but with a far smaller payoff. Steadily falling prices of software, stiff competition among resellers, and highly cost-conscious buyers make the business tough. And it’s resellers which act as middlemen of sorts, that are doing the sweating.

In 2003, the 8.1 million U.S. small and midsize businesses spent $75 billion on information technology, a 4.1% increase from the previous year, while overall IT spending in the U.S. grew just 0.7% over the same period, according to IDC, a market-research firm based in Framingham, Mass. IDC predicts that in 2004 investment from small and midsize businesses will rise 6.2%, outpacing the 4% expected increase overall.

[The resellers are] the entrepreneurial worker bees of the industry that handles the details of selling, installing and maintaining software for the big technology companies. Often geographically focused, [they] are the only way many big tech companies can reach the mass of smaller companies without employing armies of sales and support staff.

Still, there are some challenges for resellers. Many of those stem from the ever-falling price of software. Microsoft and other software makers use lower pricing to attract smaller businesses to their technology. But resellers feel the brunt of that strategy, since even as prices fall, their costs don’t, making it increasingly difficult to earn a profit.

The pressure becomes particularly acute as customers, with their own financial concerns, often take far more time than in the past to mull what software to buy. To make the sale, resellers have to stick with those customers — preparing demonstrations and answering questions — which raises their costs.

The selling process can be even more prolonged at the smallest companies, many of which are operated by owners who know they need new technology but are particularly sensitive to its cost. “As they’re writing the check they clutch onto the checkbook thinking, in effect, ‘It’s coming out of my own pocket,'” says Ray Boggs, an analyst who covers small and midsize businesses at IDC.

Then there’s the middleman. Smaller businesses often don’t have technology expertise in-house or standard processes for choosing a technology vendor. That places extra demands on the reseller to educate and hand-hold — often at no charge and with little promise of any return. Other times, the businesses hire consultants to guide them through the process.

Fuel Cells

Wired News has an update in the context of marine applications:

On April 8, Mississauga, Ontario-based Hydrogenics, which designs and builds fuel-cell systems, announced an agreement to supply a 10-kilowatt power module to HaveBlue, a Ventura, California, company developing patented hydrogen-related technology for marine applications.

The module will be a key component of a regenerative fuel-cell system designed to propel HaveBlue’s X/V-1, a 42-foot Catalina demonstration yacht, said HaveBlue president, CEO and founder Craig Schmitman. The module will also help power the boat’s lights, navigation and galley appliances.

Whether fuel cells will be winners in the commercial shipping industry remains to be seen. Sailboats require far less energy for motorized propulsion than powerboats or ships, for which viable fuel-cell applications are tough to develop. Efforts to do so are under way, however.

Eatontown, New Jersey-based Millennium Cell has collaborated with Seaworthy Systems, Anuvu, Duffy Electric Boat and others in a U.S. Maritime Administration program to explore the utility of hydrogen fuel to power ships and port facilities, noted as major sources of pollution. The team demonstrated a fuel-cell-powered water taxi on San Francisco Bay in October 2003 for the World Maritime Technology Conference and Exposition.

“We came up with the idea to generate hydrogen on board the vessel, rather than to load hydrogen or strip it from carbon-based fuel,” said Martin Toyen, president of Seaworthy Systems. “That way, we could cut down the size of the (fuel) cell.”

TECH TALK: Letter to Arun Shourie (Part 4)

5. Provide a level-playing field for alternative hardware and software solutions

Most Indian states have Microsoft Office hardcoded as part of the education curriculum. This needs to change. Instead of mandating that students need to be taught and tested on MS-Word, MS-Excel and MS-Powerpoint, generic application categories should be used (word processor, spreadsheet and presentation application). A few years ago, it was probably difficult to consider alternatives to MS-Office because none existed. Now, there are. Many open-source applications including the OpenOffice suite are more than good enough.

It does not matter if the academic versions of MS-Office are available at very low price-points. By eliminating the use of alternatives at source, we are creating a difficult situation down the line either we pay a lot of money for MS-Office later on, or encourage piracy since the need is there and the money isn’t. We do not want to build a nation of Robbers. We want intellectual property to be respected and we want every Indian citizen and business to understand that.

Many government tenders specifically mention Intel-based computers and Microsoft Windows as the base software. This too needs to be eliminated. What users need is computing whether it is served from a thick Intel desktop or an AMD/Via-based desktop or a refurbished computers should not be specified in tenders. Similarly, whether it is Windows or Linux on the desktop should not matter go for the solution which gives the best value.

I am not suggesting that open-source software and thin clients be given preference. All I am saying is that the playing field needs to be made such that they get an opportunity to play.

6. Open up the wireless spectrum

In India, we still have this habit of taking half-measures, which are ill thought-out. Take the WiFi policy which allows its use only for campus and office environments. Why? WiFi should be complete delicenced with the use of 2.4 Ghz and 5.7 Ghz made freely accessible to one and all. This will lead to an explosion in the use of WiFi hotspots across India and potentially WiFi as a medium for last-mile connectivity.

India needs to leapfrog in terms of bandwidth and connectivity. We need to leverage the latest advances in both wireless and broadband, and in fact lead the way in the adoption of new technologies like WiMax which go past the distance limitations of WiFi. Wherever wired technologies are possible, let us go for those. But wherever there are challenges in laying the wire (copper or fibre) for whatever reason, the customers should be able to opt for wireless technologies. Competition needs to abound. Note what competition did for mobile telephony. Something similar needs to happen with bandwidth and broadband availability across India quickly.

I would strongly recommend reading Kevin Werbachs The Radio Revolution. Even though the context is the US, much of what he says is relevant for India.

Tomorrow: Letter to Arun Shourie (continued)