Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Unfinished symphonies

I met with a group of media and journalism students at Birmingham City University last week. It's something I'd like to repeat. I was interested in how they look at the career ahead of them (entrepreneurial or corporate and or how they could be mixed) and in the approach of people who are genuinely digital natives when it comes to building web services which serve the community first.

But my greatest learning came when we discussed working practices.
I've often heard research quoted about how digital natives, those who have grown up with multi-channel experiences all around them, are able to 'cope' with several different streams of information all at once.
For example, in the UK, the place you are most likely to find mobile television consumed is in the home, often in front of another TV, while the user is also browsing a magazine, listening to music and indulging in an IM chat with friends on their laptop.
The argument goes that this ability to multi-task in this respect is hard-wired in to us as we grow up and can't be changed later no matter how we juggle.

But what I found in conversation with these students is that they ALL (including switched-on course organiser Paul Bradshaw) find it necessary to tune out when they want to really focus on completing a task.

For example, when writing a dissertation (against a deadline) they all agreed that they have to turn off email, IM, TV, radio, music... everything.

Which is nice, because I find that's true of me too. And I'm 42. Perhaps it is universally true?
For example, recently I had to complete a presentation from scratch to finished powerpoint in two hours. I shut down email and twhirl (my twitter client of preference), detached myself from google reader etc etc.
And I got the job finished.

And that's the revelation for me.
When we need to complete, to finish, to put a full stop on, we need to focus... to get the job done.

And we all understand this. We all see the value in ending the process, in getting a final result. I guess we like to complete.

But that's not the way the networked world works. And it's not the best fit with the networked world. It therefore is not the best way to release value in the network.

The networked world is about collaboration, sharing, being connected, evolving an idea not hunting it down, putting a bullet through its head, stuffing and mounting it.

Perhaps this is why I can have other channels open while I write this blog post. A blog post is never finished. If other ideas feed into it, even while it is being written, they are welcome and add value. A blog post is less mine than it is ours. Your comments, interpretations, links to and from, create what it really IS on the network. I just provide a stub. It is always unfinished. It is always evolving.

In the networked world this is true of everything. It's why clever businesses regard themselves and their products as 'always in beta'. Being 'finished' suggests it is the best it can possibly ever be. That no one else can improve on it. It's a kind of thinking built on the centre-out, broadcast/mass industrial hegemony.

Blogs and wikis allow documents to always be in beta. Open source allows software to always be in beta.
Keeping our channels open mean our ideas can always be in beta.

Kind of fits the human condition - and particularly our identity - we're all in beta too.

That doesn't mean you never act, you just act knowing you do so on the latest best guess and not that it may change later but that it WILL change later.

It also raises questions for how we reward. Instead of rewarding greedy introspection, how can we better reward and encourage thinking outloud? In companies and in our educational establishments?

We've placed a great deal of store on 'ownership' when it comes to taking responsibility within organisations. How far has that infected how ideas and often projects are treated?


The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?