Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Reading :: Common Knowledge?

Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
By Dariusz Jemielniak

How does Wikipedia work? I don't mean the software, which seems simple enough, but the social system that produces a seemingly inexhaustible body of knowledge. I've poked around the back end and seen the revision history and chats; I've read some scholarship on dispute resolution and collaboration; but I haven't really looked into the emergent social system that makes the whole thing tick.

Dariusz Jemielniak has. He's a professor of management, an ethnographer, and an active Wikipedian. Drawing on that background, he combines first-person narrative and careful study (including an appendix on his methodology) to provide an inside look at Wikipedia as a social system. In this social system, Wikipedians nominally work within an egalitarian, meritocratic system enforced by rules embedded in software; yet Wikipedia has evolved mechanisms of social control and status that create tensions with this overarching goal (Ch.2). Jemielniak carefully chronicles these mechanisms, noting how Wikipedia's consensus-driven process sometimes leads to intractable conflicts and at least four kinds of conflict trajectories (Ch.3).

Wikipedia's social controls Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, include liquid surveillance: all actions on Wikipedia are recorded and can be used in later disputes, and thus "although Wikipedia is a free and egalitarian community, its members are closely controlled, in some aspects to an unprecedented extent" (p.86). "Wikipedia resembles a Panopticon (Foucault, 1977) or an open-space office: everybody is watched by everybody else, and all actions remain on the record, forever" (p.91). He adds that "Common sense outweighs procedures, and users are expected to do what they believe is good for Wikipedia, using their best judgment, rather than following the letter of the law" (p.96)—but that freedom entails permanent ambiguity, which itself can be a coercive element.

Since Wikipedia rejects credential checking in favor of merit based on Wikipedia activity, Jemielniak argues in Ch.5, trust is instead invested in procedures. Those procedures are instantiated in an "astonishing" set of formalized rules: "Apparently, trust or credential control is substituted with precise behavioral scripts and formalization of discussion rules" (p.120). As Jemielniak argues in Ch.6, "Wikimedia communities are chaotic and rely on adhocratic principles," and "Adhocracy in this case is not incompatible with bureaucracy" (p.127).

All in all, Jemielniak provides a meticulous and thought-provoking overview of Wikipedia as a social system. For those of my readers who study rhetoric, he overviews the rules of argumentation and the conditions of persuasion in this system, drawing on contemporary scholarship in digital ethnography as well as management theory. For those not in rhetoric, Jemielniak's insights extend into the social system and provoke thought on how a nominally egalitarian system works in practice. Take a look.

Reading :: Designing Delivery

Designing Delivery: Rethinking IT in the Digital Service Economy
By Jeff Sussna

Jeff Sussna and I follow each other on Twitter via a mutual contact, and I've been impressed by his insights. His 2015 book is even better. Although it's tackling something that I don't do—the development of software as a service (SaaS)—the insights are well aligned with topics I covered in my own 2015 book. That's because Sussna isn't just talking about development, he's talking about how SaaS makes sense in the context of larger changes in the economy.

Sussna lays down this marker in the Introduction, where he argues that quality in software development must be understood in terms of "how well the service helps its customers accomplish their practical goals and satisfy their emotional needs" and thus "the entire organization must align itself with users' goals. Only when it has a holistic understanding of itself and its relationship with its customers can an organization successfully co-create value with them" (p.xxi). Thus SaaS involves "continual repair" because "Co-creation implies that users contribute to defining solutions through using them. In the process, they generate new problems for designers to solve" (p.xxii).

With this foundation, Chapter 1 examines the turn to post-industrialism, in which the pervasiveness of computerization leads to a shift from products to service; from manual labor to knowledge work; and from stability and continuity to change and innovation (p.3). Sussna systematically examines these transformations, emphasizing co-creation (cf. Lusch and Vargo's 2014 book; he goes on to discuss their concept of service-dominant logic in Ch.6). He also discusses the shift from complicated systems (many moving parts, arranged in navigable and hierarchical structures; p.9) to complex systems (in which simple components have fluid relationships with many other components; p.10) and the issue of emergence that arises from complex systems (that is, characteristics that exist at the system level but not at lower levels; p.10). Complex systems, he notes, are prone to cascading failures (p.11).

Based on this foundation, in Chapter 2, Sussna discusses necessary changes in control due to the shift to post-industrialism. Cybernetics, he says, is a model of control through conversation (p.26); autopoesis, or self-production, provides a way to understand how systems self-produce and self-regulate (pp.30-31). The implication is that "living systems co-create reality through circular influence," via conversation (p.35). One example he gives is that of Lean Startup, in which a minimum viable product is rapidly iterated via continual feedback (p.35).

Given Ch.2's insights, he says in Chapter 3 that IT's new mandate is "serving as a medium for digital conversation" (p.41). He thus argues that post-industrial businesses must "self-steer through empathetic conversations," and he advocates a combination of Agile, DevOps, cloud computing, and design thinking (p.42). The rest of the chapter describes and relates each.

The rest of the book brings in other concepts (such as Jobs to be Done, Service-Dominant Logic, and OODA) to flesh out what post-industrial SaaS development looks like. Since development is focused on self-steering through empathetic conversations, it becomes inseparable from branding and marketing.

All in all, this little book takes a broad scope and pulls eclectically from varying sources in order to pull together a coherent vision of SaaS. Despite its eclecticism, its argument is coherent and well thought out. If you're interested in SaaS, or just what the future of work looks like, I recommend Designing Delivery.

Reading :: Get Backed

Get Backed: Craft Your Story, Build the Perfect Pitch Deck, and Launch the Venture of Your Dreams
By Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis

I wish I had had access to this 2015 book before I taught last fall's Writing for Entrepreneurs course. It's a beautifully produced book that promises to teach you how to "craft your story," "build the perfect pitch deck," and "launch the venture of your dreams." Essentially, it's about how to undertand and craft a pitch deck (Part I) in order to effectively argue for venture funding (Part II).

In Part I, the authors note that example pitch decks are in short supply since entrepreneurs are reluctant to show them; this book presents several and contextualizes them in terms of how long they took to get funded, how much funding they got, and what the sources were. But the authors also discuss the genre at length so we can understand how it fits in the overall argument and how it interacts with other genres (such as the elevator pitch).

Near the beginning of the book, the authors explain that "Pitch decks do three things: they get people to understand, they get people to care, and they get people to take action" (p.10). They say that there are two kinds of pitch decks: one for assisting presentations and one for standalone reading (p.10). Pitch decks are customizable, and in fact the authors encourage us to develop "a whole archive of slides to draw from and sequence for each meeting or presentation" (p.15)—slides that are modular but yet must consistently yield coherent arguments. Their "essential 10" slides include:

  • Overview
  • Opportunity
  • Problem
  • Solution
  • Traction
  • Customer or Market
  • Competition
  • Business Model
  • Team
  • Use of Funds (p.15)
These are similar to, but not the same as, Guy Kawasaki's "Only 10 Slides You Need in a Pitch." The authors provide 1-2 pages of detail on each slide, including multiple examples from real pitch decks as well as descriptions and guidelines. 

After describing these 10 essential slides, the authors discuss how the pitch deck must tell a story. In fact, they say, there are at least three ways that you will use a story in the pitch deck:
  • a narrative arc to create coherence across slides
  • an explanation of one or more individual slides
  • a reservoir of topics for discussions and Q&A (p.39)
They suggest that you'll typically use four story types:
  • the origin story
  • the customer story
  • the industry story
  • the venture growth story (p.40)
Together, these four story types can be layered in the pitch building blocks to create a unified arc (and coherence) (p.52). 

In subsequent chapters, the authors give advice on design (Ch.4) and text (Ch.5). By the time we get to the examples of actual pitch decks (Ch.6), we have the tools to interpret and critique them.

That's Part I. In Part II, the authors discuss how to get backed, starting with a primer on startup financing (Ch.8) and an overview of the five funding sources (Ch.9). Although I was less interested in this section, I was impressed by how clearly the authors laid out the basics of financing and sources—that is, the activity and the audience in which the pitch had to be rhetorically successful.

Overall, I was impressed by the book, and I walked away with a much more thorough understanding of how the pitch deck works and what it accomplishes. The book is a good guide, coherently bringing together advice about the pitch deck that up to this point I've had to piece together from websites and other scattered pieces of information. If you're interested in a primer on the pitch deck and funding, I highly recommend it.