Are books for learning?

BooksNot an entirely silly rhetorical question — in our work world of endless data aggregation and analysis, the reading of books remains a curiously solitary and hard-to-track enterprise.

It’s easy enough to hand someone a book. It’s easy enough to require a signature acknowledging receipt and even demand answers to a compliance question or two to check headline-level comprehension.

But it’s hard to do anything with a book approaching a deep and actionable, let alone shared understanding of the content without classes and clubs — meaning that costly in-person conversations in and around the act of reading are still what makes reading, at least the extended kind, real and useful.

But for the corporate world, the idea of reading as a purely personal pursuit may be changing. Three developments — e-book readers, the advent of technology-mediated social reading and the X API (nee Tin Can) — together make books cost-efficient, communal and reportable in new ways.

e-book readers are now ubiquitous and cheap. Even general-purpose iOS and Android tablets support the e-pub standard. New services like Zola make reading a compelling group exercise (it’s very cool). Established services like Lulu let any company build its own libraries for private, on-demand distribution. The X API means that the reading of a book can be recorded by chapter and task in any competency framework a company may need.

Books Redux.

Home schooling, home college, company college

Peabody Institute Chair Hollis Robbins at Johns Hopkins University just wrote a provocative piece in The Chronicle Of Higher Education on an idea so simple and so intuitively right that it feels like it should already be in wide use. Dr. Robbins looks at the broad skill sets of multi-discipline PhDs and asks why one or some of them banded together couldn’t offer the equivalent of at least the first year of a liberal arts university education on a home schooling basis — and do so with better outcomes (and at lower cost) than the students would likely get at a good private liberal arts college or university; the idea being for the students to earn home college credits and transfer in to “formal” programs after they’ve done the first year or two with the private providers.

As you would expect from a humanities professor, the piece is balanced, subtle and eminently reasonable.

You can read the article here.

It got me thinking. The home college idea begs the question — Why couldn’t companies do the same thing? What a perk it would be for employees to be able to get, on a part-time basis, a top-flight liberal arts education through work. For companies of a certain size, hiring three or four full-time PhDs is a small cost. The professors might easily handle up to 100 company students a year. Smaller companies could band together to share costs.

Though such a program could easily be run by a corporate university, this idea is nothing like traditional corporate universities, which are generally driven by line-of-business needs and are vocational in purpose rather than about explicitly building employees’ personal capabilities.

It’s a radical and I think powerful idea. It’s kind of an anti-MOOC (though there’s nothing stopping any such program from incorporating MOOCs into the curriculum). It could also turn out to be cheaper (and a lot better) than sending an equivalent number of staff to community college.

The benefits to the business of setting up a company college might include:

  • An increase in employee engagement (and thus higher employee retention rates)
  • A reputation boost for the company in its industry and communities
  • A smarter workforce (hat tip to IBM) — let’s be honest, though humanities training does not easily translate into job-specific skill-set libraries, the general truth is clear — over the long run, better people means better business

On that last point, one of the downsides of doing what everybody else is doing is that there’s no strategic competitive advantage to be had in the process: your best outcome is to not fall behind your peers. The upside of doing something different, something like Dr. Robbins’ suggests for example, is that, if it works, you’re in blue water.

Your employer is watching

And listening, and applying predictive analytics at the same time.

Excellent shout-out in Marginal Revolution (a blog by a couple of award-winning economists, not rebel types) on an FT piece (gated for most of us, unfortunately) on how some employers are improving productivity by measuring employee interactions with each other (interestingly not with clients) and noting employee tone of voice in the process.

It seems talking things through with your peers really does make things better. It also turns out that a sustained spike in dulcet tones while mixing it up on break is in fact highly correlated with productivity improvement.

Employers take note: this kind of experiment is the tip of the iceberg and only goes to prove the old saw, “What get measured gets improved.”

Read it here.

A light has gone out

Dr_James_MartinJames Martin died recently. He was 80 years old. He died swimming off his house in Bermuda — there are, I’m sure, worse ways to go.

Dr. Martin was a formative thinker on technology and software development. Many of the ideas we consider foundational today — rapid iterative development, reusable component libraries, fourth-generation software languages — were all ideas he either created or greatly advanced. In his 1978 book The Wired Society Dr. Martin predicted how revolutionary what we now call the Internet would become. He was nominated for a Pulitzer for that book, which was just one of more than a hundred books he wrote.

There would be no agile-development-based, SaaS global talent management industry today without Dr. Martin’s many contributions to computer science. He invented new ways of working for programmers, analysts and engineers. He also made major contributions in other fields. He even, over dinner one night at his house on Agar’s Island in Bermuda, dreamed up the idea for what eventually became known as Bowie Bonds, the bundling of intellectual property like song rights into pre-packaged and market-priced revenue streams (and yes, David Bowie and his wife Iman were guests at the dinner).

When Ray Ruff, Michelle Sparks, Emily Chan and I started NetDimensions in 1999, a lot of people told us we were crazy. They said a Hong Kong-based, globally-focused, enterprise technology company that was not even VC-backed (we were effectively employee owned) had no realistic chance of survival.

One of our few industry friends in the early days was Headstrong, a consulting company James Martin founded and chaired. The Headstrong folks did take us seriously. They liked our approach and were willing to partner with us when we most needed the support of a serious industry player. So I am grateful to Dr. Martin and to all of the Headstrong executives who were willing to listen to a new company with some new ideas, including Steve Kucia, Paul Kidman, Liviano Lacchia and Peter Deacon in Asia, Rinze Koornstra and Cor Broekhuizen in the Netherlands and all of their wonderful colleagues in Chicago.

That was almost 15 years ago and we did survive. Now we’re listed on the London Stock Exchange AIM and traded in the U.S. on the OTCQX. We have offices in seven countries and hundreds of clients productively using our solutions in more than 50 countries around the world. Our software touches millions of lives today.

So we are grateful and I’d like to say thank you to the folks at Headstrong who supported us early on.

On behalf of NetDimensions we wish you well and we remember Dr. Martin with the deepest respect.

SaaS – A “Disruptive Technology” and more (part 2 of 2)

In part 1 of this post we analyzed SaaS as a “disruptive innovation” and what that may entail in terms of value to clients and SaaS providers.

Although SaaS is a well-understood model today, there are differences on how SaaS providers define SaaS (or their preferred flavor of SaaS). A number of leading SaaS vendors have claimed multi-tenancy as a necessary component of any SaaS offering. There is a fair amount of controversy here, but is multi-tenancy what defines SaaS?

As a quick backgrounder, multi-tenancy refers to a software architecture where a single instance of the software runs on a server, serving multiple tenants, where tenants are separate companies, or in a broader sense, any application – either inside or outside the enterprise – that needs its own secure and exclusive virtual computing environment. So how does multi-tenancy come to play?