Friday, May 29, 2009

Reading :: Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing

Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing: The Next-Generation Internet's Impact on Business, Governance and Social Interaction
By J.D. Lasica

So here I am at the coffee shop, typing away on my new netbook, still trying to decide whether this particular machine will work for me. But I'm doing all my work using the same tools that I use on my Mac laptop: GMail, GCalendar, GDocs, and of course Blogger. To a great extent, cloud computing has already been widely adopted and has enabled greater device independence, greater portability, and greater opportunities for interconnection and collaboration.

We don't need a report to tell us that - but this report looks ahead to the implications of cloud computing for "business, governance, and social interaction," as the title states. The report reflects the conversations of a roundtable convened in 2008 at the Aspen Institute of "28 leaders from the ICT, financial, government, academic, and public policy sectors" (p.vii). The principals see cloud computing as an important shift: "Like the migration of electricity in the early 1900s from local generation to an electrical grid with metered service, the cloud signals the movement of hard and soft functions such as storage, software applications and services to an off-premises service industry" (p.vii). And in light of that shift, "What control do we have over our identities, security, and privacy? How will it change economic and business models? What are the implications for governance and cyber-security?" (p.vii). The report reecommends "that a user-centric open identity network system is the right approach at this point" since it could allow people to manage their own identities, customize them, and make identity scalable across the Internet (p.viii).

The report starts by asserting that "digital natives" increasingly see no gap between online and offline lives, asserting that "I am whatever I say I am" (p.1). It was not always thus, Lasica reminds us: not that long ago, it was common to assert that on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. But now identities are much more articulated, defined, and tied to each other as well as offline presence. The roundtable sees this trend continuing and deepening in the future (p.2).

One consequence of increasing cloud computing is that capacity can be distributed. When corporations run their own server farms, costs are unsustainable, "with server resources often idle eighty-five percent of the time" (p.11). Not surprisingly, companies are moving toward "virtualization -- using someone else's computer to do the heavy lifting for you" (p.7). One example is Animoto, "which scaled very quickly from 50 to 3,500 servers" (p.11), and was able to rent appropriate server space as needed. And this nimble approach means that "when companies adopt virtualization technologies and thus lower on-site energy consumption, IT's footprint should go down dramatically" (p.12).

The report quotes Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco Systems, as foreseeing three stages of cloud formation: first, companies offload their IT to private clouds; second, common standards enable companies to move information from private to external enterprise clouds; third, a public or semipublic "inter-cloud" where entities can share and mash up data (pp.13-14).

All three articulations of the cloud, particularly the third one, have implications for identity. "When the Web first became a mass phenomenon around 1993, we were all free to take on whatever persona appealed to us" (p.15), but social networks began to change that, and "Facebook became a game-changer, kicking off anyone who refused to use their real names. On Facebook and a new breed of copycat social networks, identity is front and center, grounded by real biographies, real friends and real media" (p.16). But this sort of identity is quite restrictive. The roundtable participants predict a "third incarnation of online identity - call it identity in the cloud" (p.17). And "this new system would recognize that eaqch of us has multiple identities. We will be able to spoon out bits and pieces of our identity, depending on the social or business context we find ourselves in" (p.17). An open identity system might reveal only the parts of the identity necessary to a particular transaction, working as a trusted intermediary in the same way eBay intermediates between buyers and sellers (p.18). Multiple identities become necessary and manageable, with business, health care, singles, and virtual world profiles, for instance (p.18). This "identity layer resides not in a governmental or company database but in the cloud" (p.19).

The roundtable participants contrast this notion of a cloud identity with Microsoft Passport, the abandoned plan to create centralized identities (p.19). "The course correction came about not because of a newfound altruism but because of the companies' recognition of a new kind of ecological capitalism, where their business interests were intertwined with the interests of customers, suppliers, and even competitors. Competition has evolved beyond a multiplayer zero-sum game into a more complex, cooperative exchange where mutually advantageous outcomes depend on a new kind of rationality in a wider ecology of players" (p.20).

The participants also discussed how these changes could result in new concepts of money, with information replacing money for many purposes (p.27). We already see this tendency "as instant global communications make possible bartering not only for tangible goods but also for text minutes, airline miles, virtual world currency and other non-physical assets" (p.27). In China and India, people already use prepaid mobile phone minutes as an alternate currency (p.32). To scale, such systems need better website reputation systems, systems that can't be gamed (p.31).

The roundtable "identified twelve ways the cloud will transform business":
1. Greater global reach
2. Greater customization
3. Reduced barriers to entry
4. The end of scale
5. Easier entry into adjacent markets
6. Greater specialization
7. Greater innovation and experimentation
8. Greater information transparency
9. Greater organizational complexity
10. Faster turnaround times and greater speed to market
11. Greater competitive intensity and disruption of existing markets
12. A shift from marketing push to customer pull (p.34)
Briefly, scale "is no longer an integral pillar of the new economy" (p.38). People's contributions will become more narrow and specialized across a range of markets, since greater connectivity means finding more precise fits rather than turning the employees in one's proximity into generalists; employees will no longer be units of one, but "fractions," hired for specific tasks (p.39). "Companies no longer pay for employees; they pay for solutions, essentially fractionalizing the employee into ever smaller and more productive slices of labor by enabling co-location in a virtual way through technology" (p.40). And "relationships come together based on a particular product or project and then disband at the end" (p.40). (Longtime readers of this blog will recognize this theme, which runs through my second book and my investigations of freelancers and coworking.)

At the same time, the roundtable anticipates scalable learning across the organization (p.42) and greater organizational complexity (p.44). In this environment, "the real impact of cloud computing may be this: in the future, everyone becomes an entrepreneur" (p.71).

The report concludes with a lengthy list of U.S. policy proposals, including formulating an identity agenda, modernizing the national energy grid, and deploying world-class broadband (pp.73-74).

All in all, this report seems like a strong summary of the issues facing identity in the future. I'm not sure I was really surprised by any of the report, but these threads were brought together well and succinctly, and in language that is easily absorbed. I'd recommend this report to C-level execs and academic departments.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading :: Emergence of Noopolitik

The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy
By John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt

This RAND report is an earlier, longer version of Arquilla and Ronfeldt's FirstMonday article "The Promise of Noopolitik." Like that later article, this report argues that strategists need to shift the US' grand strategy away from realpolitik and toward noopolitik: "the form of statecraft that we argue will come to be associated with the noosphere, the broadest informational realm of the mind" (p.x). "Noopolitik is foreign-policy behavior for the information age that emphasizes the primacy of ideas, values, norms, laws, and ethics - it would work through 'soft power' rather than 'hard power.' Noopolitik is guided more by a conviction that right makes might than the obverse" (p.x). And noopolitik involves more than state actors: "While realpolitik tends to empower states, noopolitik will likely empower networks of state and nonstate actors. Realpolitik pits one state against another, but noopolitik encourages states to cooperate in coalitions and other mutual frameworks" (p.x).

Arquilla and Ronfeldt go on to carefully discuss these ideas, acknowledging that realpolitik and noopolitik will coexist for decades (p.5), but also pointing out that "realpolitik, which stresses the hard, material dimensions of power and treats states as the determinants of world order," makes less sense in a world in which states are not dominant (p.29). The US is actually well positioned to lead in the noosphere, they argue, since "the new organizational ecology is richest in the United States" (p.7). That's important, since the growth of the noosphere depends not only on increased flows of ideas and ideals, but also growth in the stocks of ideas and ideals to which people subscribe" (p.23), and therefore open systems are essential for a global noosphere (p.23). And as systems increasingly become more open, and as these flows and stocks increase, states decline in relationship to nongovernmental agencies, complex transactional interconnections, and global issues (pp.30-31).

In fact, realpolitik is at odds with five trends: global interconnection, growing strength of global civil society, the rise of soft power, the importance of cooperative advantages, and the formation of a global noosphere (pp.35-44). The authors review these in detail, then summarize: "Realpolitik is typically about whose military or economy wins. Noopolitik may ultimately be about whose story wins" (p.53). Noopolitik, that is, is thoroughly rhetorical.

This text, as usual, is full of insights that won't be a surprise to Arquilla and Ronfeldt readers (or Castells readers, for that matter). But the authors carefully develop these ideas, yielding intriguing insights and predictions. I highly recommend it.

Reading :: The Innovation Acid Test

The Innovation Acid Test: Growth Through Design and Differentiation
By Andrew M. Jones

Drew Jones is one of the coauthors of I'm Outta Here!, a book on coworking. When he mentioned he had written another book, I asked him for the name so I could look it up. Not long after that, this book showed up in my inbox gratis. Thanks, Drew.

In any case, it's an interesting book. Like many such books, it discusses case studies from several companies (in this case: Southwest Airlines, Google, Whole Foods, SAS Institute, Starbucks, Innocent Drinks and Shanghai Tang) (p.12). But Jones goes on to examine innovation in those companies, arguing that the "emerging disciplines of innovation" include ethnography, architecture, and design (p.14). (Jones is an anthropologist by training.) These disciplines, centered around design, focus on building the unknown; they contrast with the dominant troika of mathematics, economics, and psychology, which focus on managing the known (p.20). And he argues that shifting from the old to the new paradigm will be crucial to attracting GenX and especially GenY employees (p.23). These new employees should be "T-shaped," that is, empathetic enough to reach across disciplines (p.24; search my blog for "boundary crossing" for some similar thoughts).

In the following chapters, Jones explores the three new disciplines with case studies, then concludes with thoughts about moving toward the new paradigm. The case studies are very business school-ish, relying mostly on C-level interviews and public company data; ironically, they're not ethnographic.

The book, I think, is valuable for thinking through what organizational innovation means. I really prefer ethnographic investigation to interview-based cases, but I see the value in these cases as well, and I certainly see value in thinking through the paradigm Jones outlines here. I expect I'll return to this book frequently as I continue to develop my own ideas about changes in work.

Reading :: The Myth of Leadership

The Myth of Leadership: Creating Leaderless Organizations
By Jeffrey S. Nielsen

On, Jeffrey Nielsen's The Myth of Leadership currently has ten five-star reviews and one one-star review. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to go with the one-star review.

Nielsen's book is ostensibly about how to break away from hierarchical, leader-heavy organizations and instead create peer-based leaderless organizations. Unfortunately, he never actually defines "leadership" except in terms of formal rank, assuming that flattening rank is equivalent to removing leadership. Of course, this approach is really not tenable, so after railing against leadership for 141 pages, on p.142 he introduces the "strategy of rotational leadership" (p.142).

That's an emblematic example of how problematic the book is. But it's not the only example. Frankly, the book's cartoonish depiction of hierarchies troubles me. Nielsen argues that "genuine communication occurs only between equals" (p.4) because "you tell those above you only what you think they want to hear, and you tell those beneath you only what you think they need to know" (p.5) - a statement that is not borne out in my research, certainly, and that I suspect doesn't describe the general workforce. Nielsen builds on this false premise - for starters - by arguing that "secrecy frequently breeds corruption and abuse of power" (p.4). In fact, in the next few pages, he makes incredible, irresponsible leaps:
  • "If the rank-based context of leadership is a primary cause of unhealthy and joyless business organizations..." (p.6);
  • "Whenever we think in terms of 'leadership,' we create a dichotomy: (1) leaders, a select and privileged few, and (2) followers, the vast majority" (p.6);
  • the term leadership "produces a privileged elite who, no matter how sincere they are, will eventually be seduced by their position" (p.6);
  • peer-based organizations involve "no thought of leadership because there is no thought of ranking" (p.7).
These are oversimplifications, but they are also - particularly the last one - empirically wrong across organizations. Nielsen backs up this last point with an anecdote about a pickup game of football that completely undercuts his point. Although we do see where he gets his claim about people becoming sychophants in organizations, since he describes himself becoming a sychophant in a pickup game with an assertive leader (pp.7-8).

Nielsen name-checks Foucault, Gladwell, Castells, and of course chaos theory, without much indication that he understands any of them. He barely touches on some organizational forms (tribal, institutional, networked), but he barely touches on their historical development and he doesn't mention one of the most important factors - the plummeting cost of communication - as a key factor except as an afterthought at the end of the book (p.163). Instead, he portrays hierarchical organizational structure as an inexplicable accident that brings out the worst in people.

In the latter half of the book, Nielsen attempts to articulate some principles and practices for leaderless organizations (including the aforementioned "rotational leadership"). But by then, I had lost faith that he (a) knew what he was talking about and (b) would give a fair shake to criticisms of his ideas. By the time Nielsen lurched to a stop, with the claim that democracy is inevitable (p.165), I had given up on insights and simply decided to finish the book.

I can't recommend this book.

Reading :: Beware the Hubris Nemesis Complex

Beware the Hubris Nemesis Complex: A Concept for Leadership Analysis
By David F. Ronfeldt

I've been really enjoying reading David Ronfeldt's work, which mostly comes to me by way of RAND research reports. Ronfeldt is intellectually curious and roving, rushing ahead at high speed across disciplinary boundaries in order to collect new insights. In this way he seems a bit like Yrjo Engestrom. And like Engestrom, Ronfeldt is working on a grand social theory. For Engestrom, it's activity theory. For Ronfeldt, it's his TIMN framework and his Space-Time-Activity (STA) analysis, about which I have previously blogged.

Ronfeldt is currently retired from RAND, but in this 1994 publication, he was very much involved in thinking through national security problems. One problem is as fresh today as it was in 1994: what personality characteristics are shared by many of the dictators who deliberately and consistently provoke the United States in order to benefit domestically? Ronfeldt has Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein in mind, but we could update it by adding Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Dipping into Jungian psychology, Ronfeldt argues that such leaders represent an "extraordinary dynamic," the fusing of hubris ("a pretention toward an arrogant form of godliness") and nemesis ("a vengeful desire to confront, defeat, humiliate, and punish an adversary that may itself be accused of hubris") (p.5). Put succinctly, for people who hold the hubris-nemesis complex, their hubris involves becoming a nemesis to some other entity's hubris.

In a unipolar world, that other entity is usually the United States. And in setting out to punish that entity's hubris, the actor takes the mantle of "high ideals and a moralization of violence" (p.7). Such leaders tend to become maximalist and pragmatic, Ronfeldt says (p.13), picking their battles in order to strengthen their domestic and global positions.

Analyzing this type through his STA framework, Ronfeldt argues that hubris-nemesis leaders, unlike narcissists, have a keen sense of history (p.27) and have long time horizons - but use crises to "transform the meaning of past, present, and future and break through to a new kind of time" (p.34).

In the last chapter, Ronfeldt acknowledges that his focus on individuals as the kernel for national action "bother[s] social theorists who believe that mankind's history is driven far less by subjective conditions than by objective, material, and structural conditions ... [they] want concepts like the hubris-nemesis complex to be nested in a convincing discussion of the degree to which psychological and other subjective conditions matter in the first place" (p.40). Right, that's a pretty good description of my perspective. But I can also see how Ronfeldt is onto something. As I was reading this report, President Obama had just come in for substantial criticism because he had been photographed smiling and shaking Hugo Chavez' hand. Against this outcry, military historian Max Boot told Obama's critics:

All Obama did was shake the guy’s hand, and offer him a smile. Far from being a disaster, this could actually be a smart strategic move. Chavez, after all, derives much of his demagogic appeal from his claim to be an inveterate enemy of Uncle Sam. He thrives off provoking us and using the resulting reaction to “prove” that we are as bad as he claims.

Obama is a lot harder to demonize than George W. Bush, however, and by shaking hands with Chavez the president may be undercutting his appeal more effectively than anything Bush did. [My emphasis]
In other words, Pres. Obama seems to be in consonance with Ronfeldt's advice on how to handle such personalities. Interesting.