Three Ideas Worth Remembering from Wikinomics

Getting through Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything was a long haul for me. It’s not that I don’t agree with their ideas, because I do… mostly. I found it very dry and not nearly as engaging as The World Is Flat or Everything Bad is Good for You. Maybe it was just a little too business-oriented and it took a little too much work to apply their ideas to schools. In some cases it was a fool’s errand to even try to make that connection. But I did mark three pages which I thought captured important ideas for the education community:

  • “The culture of generosity is the very backbone of the internet” – I love this quote and will use it again and again. It comes about in the context of their discussion of open platforms like Amazon‘s e-commerce engine and flickr. It’s part of a very honest and frank exploration of people’s motives for taking the time and effort to put things “out there” – one of the few moments where the book seems more real and less Polyanna-ish. They ask some very hard questions about where people’s willingness to contribute really comes from and if it is sustainable in the long run.
  • “‘The technologies that come along and change the world are the simple, unplanned ones that emerge from the grassroots rather than the ones that come out of the corner offices of the corporate strategists’.” – Boy, do I believe this sentiment expressed by Tim Bray of Sun Microsystems. Real evolutionary (and sometimes revolutionary) change always comes from the bottom. As I continue to look at technology adoption in schools, I become more and more convinced that top-down dictates just don’t work and it’s the creative use of simple technologies by those in the trenches that eventually spreads and hits critical mass. This will be the focus of my short talk at NECC Unplugged. The chapter in which this quote appeared, “Wiki Workspaces,” was my favorite.
  • “Danny Hillis, who founded Thinking Machines and invented parallel computing, says there are two ways to build complex things: engineering and evolution.” – Perhaps just another way of saying bullet #2 above, but I like the contrast between the two. I think that what I’m coming to realize in looking at organizational change in schools is that you can’t engineer it; you can only create conditions conducive to evolution. You create learning communities where people can grow and the organization moves ahead as a result.

Time to read a novel – something enjoyable that will drag me in and keep me reading…

Thunderstruck

I just finished Erik Larsen’s Thunderstruck, the tale of Guglielmo Marconi’s quest to bring wireless telegraphy to the world and the famous Hawley Crippen murder case that finally established its viability and value. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Marconi may have founded the world’s first tech startup, and his company suffered all the trials, tribulations, and breakthroughs that have come to characterize the startup experience a century later. There were fights over intellectual property and patents. There was the conflict between the core team’s R&D efforts and the board’s desire to produce commercial products. There was even a debate over closed protocols versus open standards. There were spectacular breakthroughs, catastrophic failures, and moments when coincidence and luck saved the day – or completely ruined it.

Marconi – in his early 20’s when he first stumbled onto the world stage with his new invention – was the quintessential nerd hacker. He came from outside of the scientific establishment and knew little of the physical laws that governed the workings of his apparatus, relying instead on tinkering and dogged experimentation to forge ahead. He had all of the social graces of the modern-day geek, too, leaving behind him a trail of failed personal and professional relationships which either withered away when they could not compete with his work interests or exploded due to a more or less complete lack of empathy on his part.

Thunderstruck also offers a glimpse at the dawning of a new age of instantaneous, global communication, what the author calls the close of “the great hush.” The world’s fascination at daily reports of the flight of a murderer aboard a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic perhaps parallels the excitement that we all felt 15 years ago when we first read (or published) that first web page. Even then, people were starting to get excited about the power of networks.

Book Review: The Soul of a New Machine

Yes, that’s right: leave it to me to review a book that is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its original publication. I had heard of Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine before and it finally made its way to the top of the pile on my nightstand. Kidder’s book tells the story of a small group of managers and engineers at Data General corporation who, in 1979-1980, designed and built the company’s first 32-bit minicomputer, a machine that essentially saved the company (for the time being). There is probably little point in writing a full-fledged review of this now-famous study of leadership, engineering, and technology, but I will share a couple of quick reflections:

First of all, it is evident to anyone who reads this book that in twenty-five years we have come an awfully long way in our understanding of computers and the expansion of the role that they play in our lives defies description. Kidder devotes entire paragraphs to explanations of computer terms that are understood by second-graders today. The word “software” actually appears in quotes the first time it appears in the text, as though it is some obscure technical term understood by only a tiny cadre of specialists – which, at the time, is exactly what it was. Reading this book, one has the sense of traveling back in time to a period at the end of innocence, the final year or two before we came to know the TRS-80, Apple II, and IBM PC. Towards the end, Kidder recounts speaking with one of the Eagle team members in a cafe in Manhattan and observing the world outside:

“Sitting there, observing the more familiar chaos of a New York City street, I was struck by how unnoticeable the computer revolution was…. Computers were everywhere, of course — in the cafe’s beeping cash registers and the microwave oven and the jukebox, in the traffic lights, under the hoods of the honking cars snarled out there on the street (despite those traffic lights), in the airplanes overhead — but the visible differences somehow seemed insignificant.”

I suppose it’s safe to say that those changes aren’t so invisible anymore. I would imagine that that same cafe in midtown today features wi-fi hotspots and a number of patrons clicking away at laptops, talking on cell phones, and working their Blackberries and Palms. And the interesting thing is that all of those people know so much more about these complex tools than did their predecessors, but they think nothing of it.

To view Soul of a New Machine only as a book about computers, though, is to miss the forest for the trees. In fact, I first heard about Kidder’s work in a book that I was reading for a graduate school course on educational administration. It’s really about how organizations function to achieve a goal, how a leader can help a small group of people working within the context of a large and sometimes stifling organizational structure to come together and produce something that is greater than the sum of the parts. In that respect, this story about engineers working in a Massachusetts basement in 1979 resonates in the faculty rooms of 2006. This was a group of men (the only woman mentioned in the book is the group’s secretary) who, in return for relatively low salaries and little recognition, threw themselves into a project that many outsiders felt could only end in failure. More importantly, it is the story of how their boss, a folk-singer-turned-computer-engineer named Tom West, was able to channel their passion in such a way as to get a machine built and out the door, while he himself harbored tremendous doubt and anxiety.

After reading the book, one appreciates how organizational culture can bolster or inhibit creativity and productivity. To what extent do you allow people to play and experiment? How do you deal with interpersonal conflict? How does a group of people work together to complete a project that is too large and complex for any one of them to understand by him or herself? Working with very rudimentary tools – only logbooks and telephones – these engineers collaborated to create a powerful machine that would define the state of the art. Why can’t a group of 60 teachers work together to revise a curriculum or help a struggling student get to the end of the year? Corporate/School comparisons always leave me uneasy but I think there is much for educational leaders to learn from Kidder’s book.

Presumably, the “new machine” in the title of the book is the Data General Eclipse MV/8000. But, when one considers the passion of the people who created it, their crazed desire to push the envelope and to do so on their own terms, the way that they owned that computer, the “soul” that is being described might just as well be that of the machine I am sitting at right now and the millions of others like it that have transformed the way we work and play. It’s worth reading this book to understand how we got here and how a group of people can work together to turn an ambitious dream into an everyday reality.