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    Physics, Cities, and Corporations

    Last weekend's New York Times magazine ran a lengthy piece titled 'A Physicist Solves the City', in which the physicist Geoffrey West is profiled and his theories that the growth, prosperity, and occasional demise of urban centers can be quantified and analyzed by the correct application of the right equations.Old City

    For example, given the population of a city, West claims to be able to accurately predict the miles of sewer systems and the average income of its inhabitants. The main idea is that beneath the surface differences in architecture, food, and sports teams, is that all cities are fundamentally the same, and once you understand this 'sameness', you can make better decisions for allocating investment and resources for infrastructure and public and social services.

    It is an interesting, if long, piece that makes for thought provoking reading.  But the most interesting portion of the profile is towards the end, as West turns his attention to the study of the corporation, and more precisely the large corporation. West theorizes that as cities grow they become more successful, mainly by leveraging economies of scale and the relative energy efficiency associate with dense populations. He states, 'In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent'. This increased efficiency of resource use is one benefit, but the other, and more apparent one to the city's inhabitants is that big cities make possible more human interactions, frequent opportunity for the exchange of ideas, and development of enhanced collaborative enterprises

    Simply put, as cities grow larger, they become more energy efficient and more intellectually powerful via the simple process of jumbling and scrambling lots of people and ideas in a small space.

    So you would think the same 'laws' would apply to the corporation, right?  Larger organizational size come withs better purchasing power, longer production runs that reduce marginal cost, and the benefits of ideas and innovation that accrue naturally by bringing more and more diverse (hopefully) and talented people together in the corporate context. But according to West, the opposite happens. As companies grow in size, they become less efficient, at least measured by a widely applied metric profit per employee.

    From the NYT piece:

    West discovered that corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear. As the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. West gets giddy when he shows me the linear regression charts. “Look at this bloody plot,” he says. “It’s ridiculous how well the points line up.” The graph reflects the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy.

    Why should it be such? If cities, more or less unruly and only lightly regulated places seem to get stronger, more sustainable, and vibrant as they grow, why shouldn't the same general rules apply to corporations as they grow?  Why go big companies (generally) seem to stagnate, with ideas and changes taking forever to implement, and exciting new innovations often left to wither and die as they progress from manager to higher manager, from committee to focus group to forgotten?

    Again West offers a theory - 

    Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it alive.

    Interesting idea.  As cities grow they become more unruly, more free, less managed, and despite all this more successful.  As corporations grow they devise and develop more rules, more processes, more top-down control, and erect more barriers in the form of internal structure to random and serendipitous collaboration.

    For organizations struggling with growth, or large companies unable to rekindle their agility and excitement of their formative years, could the answer really be to act more like wild, unruly, and insane cities?


    Birth, School, Work, Death and Ngram Viewer

    Chances are by now you have heard about or seen some examples of Google's latest search-related application, the Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram viewer lets users examine the trends in usage of specific words and phrases in published books, some of which dating back over 500 years.

    The Ngram viewer searches for specified words across about 5 million books, a portion of the huge quantity of works that have been digitized by the search giant. The Ngram viewer tool works rather simply, enter a word or phrase (up to five words), and the tool generates a chart of the frequency of the selected words appearance in books over the desired timespan.

    Since the tool has been released to the public lots of bloggers have posted results of comparative searches for technology-related terms (shockingly, the word 'internet' was not that common in the 1700's), cultural shifts (when does 'feminism' start to enter the lexicon), or sort of interesting but not really all that important (when did 'hot dog' get more common than 'frankfurter').  

    So when I decided to post about the Ngram viewer I felt the challenge to come up with a set of search words or phrases that would be both interesting and relevant to either the technology subject matter this blog normally attempts to focus on, or the more general world of work and talent management. Since the technology related terms would not generally start appearing until the last 25 or 30 years, I ruled out that angle, and decided to shift to a more broad focus, using more common terms that hopefully would shed some light on the culture, and the relative importance and focus on said terms.

    Without further delay - Birth, School, Work, and Death from 1800 - 2008:

    Curiously, 'Birth' tends not to fluctuate much in usage over the last 200 or years, while 'School' and 'Work' both have seen an upward trend over that period.  At the start of the chart, 1800, 'Death' was the most frequent term, probably since in 1800 death must have seemed pretty imminent most of the time.  'Work' passes 'Death' in about 1845 or so, and remains the most commonly used term of the four for the remainder of the chart.  

    What does it mean?  Are we as a culture so focused on work, more so than by birth, school, and death that we have lost sight of what really matters?  Maybe it is 'work' that really matters? 

    Maybe this post was just a cheap excuse to play around with Ngram Viewer and post a classic video from The Godfathers.

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    Before you know you want it

    As the World Wide Web has developed and evolved the methods and strategies utilized for information discovery have also undergone tremendous growth and evolution.  In the late 1990s portal and categorization technology from Yahoo dominated. If you wanted to find something, chances are a walk down Yahoo's categorization hierarchy was your starting point.

    Over time as the web exploded in content and complexity and since human-curated categorization simply could not keep up with the growth, search took over as the primary tool for finding content. This market was led by Yahoo for a time, and eventually came to be dominated by Google.  More recently, social discovery has come to rival search as a primary and important mechanism for surfacing important and meaningful web content.  I know something is important, and quite likely worth my time and attention if a trusted friend or colleague has shared it on Twitter, or recommended it on Facebook.

    But despite the obvious improvements in the underlying technology and usability exhibited by the evolution of discovery tools and methods, there still seems an element of inefficiency and imperfection in the strategies and actions that many of us leverage to find interesting information.  Keeping informed of news and developments in our areas of interest, and perhaps most importantly, surfacing content and expertise in adjacent or complimentary spaces, the kinds of resources that are most likely to expose us to new thinking, ideas, and challenge our conception of the status quo, is increasingly seen as an endless, and hopeless struggle.

    It is only logical that there is something next, something better and more effective than the combination of search and social curation and discovery that most of us have come to rely upon in an attempt to learn, adapt, and stay informed.  What if the next development is a kind of new technology that not only presents you with a collection of relevant resources and links based on your active preferences and the content shared by your trusted networks, but is intelligent enough to predict what you will be interested in next, and offers information and insights based on a more informed prediction about not just what you may have liked in the past, but what is most relevant to you today, and quite likely tomorrow.

    That is the basic premise behind an interesting startup from Finland called Futureful.  Futureful is in the process of developing what they call a 'Predictive Discovery Engine'.  What exactly is 'predictive discovery?' From the Futureful 'about' page:

    Futureful’s predictive discovery engine analyzes relevant information flows to open up the potential future around you. We use a combination of personal, social and contextual filters to understand interests, influences and intentions, and provide you with inspiring seeds to play with. Then its up to you to pick and choose, discover and share. 

    I have to admit that while a little unsure about the specific ability of Futureful to build and successfully deploy the self-described predictive discovery engine, I do think that in time, and perhaps sooner than later a better, and more precise method and technology for information discovery and presentation will have to emerge.  The current, seemingly unsustainable cycle of adding feeds to Google Reader, adding friends on the various social networks, and the development of new and improved mobile devices that provide constant access to all the noise, with only a passing ability to discover the signal will eventually have to change.

    If you are like me, you might feel like you are reading every possible blog, news source, and mass media site you can find.  You may have developed a large, diverse, and valuable set of networks across numerous social platforms.  You are constantly reading, updating, reviewing, and sharing.  But despite all this activity, you never shake the feeling that you are missing something. So you add 'more'. Another feed, another friend, an so on.

    Perhaps we don't need more, we need more precise.

    Perhaps we need a way to see the future before it arrives.

    How about you - what do you do to try and manage the balance between information overload and the sense you are missing something?




    Cards of Change

    I came across the site Cards of Change, a collection of images of business cards uploaded by people in some kind of career transition or crossroads, usually caused by a layoff or other involuntary circumstance.

    Participants take one of their former business cards and imaginatively and creatively edit, adapt, and improve the card's content in a kind of 'rite of passage' that visually and tangibly helps to mark the passage from one career stage to the next.

    The site's mission is 'to collect as many business cards and stories of positive change of people who have recently been laid off and connect them with new opportunities from potential employers, business partners and people who make the effort to look on the bright side of life.'

    Of the many hundreds of cards loaded to the site, there is most often seen an excitement, optimism, and enthusiasm from the recently separated workers.  In many cases reading their adapted cards, cards that with a few pen strokes and cross outs they have turned from 'business' cards to personal ones, we get the sense of relief and release.  We can feel along with the card owner the weight of stress or pressure of having to be someone else for business, and the lightening of their spirit once they saw that weight removed.

    Of course the stress and pressures of being out of work had not likely set in yet as the card owners took to constructing these new creations, but still, I imagine the physical act of transformation of the old into something new has to be seen as at least starting the transition process on the right note.

    The other observation I had from reading through the card collection was that there were and still are a lot of unhappy people out there and when presented with a better and more enriching (both financially and emotionally), opportunity, many of seemingly productive and happy workers will race to the door.

    I wonder if many of us were provided the opportunity or the necessity to design our own cards would they look at all like our 'official' ones? Or if we could, would we start crossing out words and phrases, replacing them with ones that match our truer selves?  

    I recommend checking out Cards of Change, I bet you will spend at least a few minutes looking at the cards and tiny stories.



    Winter Wonderland

    In these parts of the country the arrival of 'real' winter is kind of paradoxical; we know it is coming but we are always surprised when it actually arrives.  We talk about everyone forgetting how to drive in the snow, of towns and cities failing at clearing highways and streets, and of seemingly irrational runs on grocery stores for milk, eggs, and bread.  Essentially if you get snowed in for a few days, a steady supply of French Toast can be prepared.Cold Miser

    In much of the United States Midwest and Northeast the last two weeks have seen the abrupt onset of what looks to be a long, hard winter - snow, wind, cold, even blizzard like conditions in some areas. The winter weather simply overlays a new set of problems and worries on managers and staffs that probably really didn't them. Most organizations are doing more with less in 2011, and adding extra time and stress to the simple task of getting to and from work is just another headache with which to be dealt.

    But for most people and organizations the start of the winter weather season does present very real issues - meetings and events cancelled, or at least shortened; school closings that force employees to make alternate child care arrangements (if they can); morning commutes transformed into multiple hour, gas wasting and frustrating marathons; and if in the case of day of deteriorating weather conditions employees distracted and worried as they stare out the windows wondering if they will be able to make it home or pick up their kids.

    How organizations, and more importantly managers react, respond, and address staff and work issues caused by winter weather conditions says much about what the organization values, and I think, says quite a bit more than anything written down in values and mission statements, or is plastered on the careers web page under the 'What's it like to work here' banner.

    To me, there are only three possible options for managers and organizations when dealing with winter weather and its impacts on work and staff:

    1. The Pioneer Approach

     If we are open for business, then everyone is expected to be here, full stop.This sometimes is a necessity, obviously for retail and other public and customer facing workplaces, or for professional basketball teams. There are definitely many organizations that take pride in toughing it out, and swapping stories about '3 hours to drive 4 miles' stories.  But for newer arrivals to the organization, perhaps that started in spring or summer, this attitude can at first be a shock.  If you manage in one of these environments, you had better make sure the team is aware of your kind of old-fashioned 'uphill in the snow both ways' mindset.

    2. The essential roles gambit

     If you are in an 'essential' role (good luck figuring that out), you are expected to come in, otherwise stay home.  This can work if really all you need to do is keep minimum organizational capability during a snow event, but it certainly can have a negative effect on morale - 'What do you mean, I'm not essential?'. Because even non-essential people pretty soon figure out that the 'non-essential' list is the same one used for the 'budgets are getting cut, who can we let go of' exercise.

    3. We are all adults, use your best judgment

     Truly, the only sustainable approach and the one most likely to succeed over what can be a four or five month winter.  The employee knows best about their commute, their confidence in driving in bad weather, their mental state after or before a nightmare drive, and their family obligations.  The manager should have a good handle on the current work load, the ability of the group to adjust, adapt, and re-prioritize if necessary, and how the overall diminished capacity impacts the larger picture.  Bottom line, the manager needs to understand when and how to handle these situations in a way that keeps employees safe and productive, and makes sure the essential obligations at work are met. Perhaps one way to manage this is to actually prepare, (maybe too late already for this season), and set some general expectations and guidelines for the staff, but always tempered with the 'use your best judgement' conclusion.

    You are not a hero for sitting in your car for three hours to then sit in a cube for three hours, only to get back in the car to repeat the process to get home.  And managers that think a sign of their great leadership is that their entire team fought the weather to make it in to work is misguided.  A real leader or even a good manager has set up an environment and process where using and exercising individual and balanced judgment is valued and demonstrated.