Systems, ecosystems and control (anything but the one stop shop)

The ecosystem theme seems to be echoing around me at the moment. I realise that this is not a new theme but it has given me pause to think as it orbits. Some interesting remarks from contacts on LinkedIn in a recent discussion further added to the musings. What follows are some top of mind thoughts on the topic (for now…).

There is a powerful impulse at play in IT organisations I believe – it is the urge to tidy up the apparent mess of systems and technology tools at large in the business. As a senior IT stakeholder, there is cost, stress and error at every turn and greater control feels like an obvious response. It is one powerful reason to pursue the single system strategy or the dreaded ‘one-stop-shop’. Neither the “one ring to rule them all” or the “there can be only one” approaches have ended well, however. technology progress and development will inevitably add more ‘mess’.

There is a desire for parental control at play here, I further believe. A view that the best outcomes for users are those that are managed for them (with their best interests at heart, of course). Where there is a parent, there are children, however, and that is not the role a modern workforce really wants to play. (I sincerely doubt it was a satisfactory role for any workforce but has been the tradition nonetheless). As users, we approach the digital consumer landscape as agents of choice. Having that agency removed is a pain. It is a pretty drab reality that many organisations deny the use of consumer tools in the workplace to defend the apparent order of official systems and we step back in time as we pass through the revolving doors at reception.

The LMS is one of the worst offenders in the controlling parent role, replete with allocation, access control and approvals. There are even sanctions for poor behaviour: if you don’t eat your compliance greens, you can’t have your password pudding. This is not born from an atmosphere of trust and openness.

These are not the only reasons for the flourishing of the organisational ecosystem of tools and technologies but they are significant. The ability to swiftly offer a well designed tool focused on narrow and painful use cases is chipping away at the foundations of  traditional systems in all walks of professional life. It is frequently, if not always, quicker and cheaper to use a cloud based web service for work tasks. App store marketplaces have created a very effective environment for testing and developing useful tools. Most often the tools of our every day lives are our first choice in our work, having had their value tested and honed by literally millions of users and use cases. The fact that these tools are in different products and owned by different businesses is no real barrier to their utility in our private worlds, so what is the problem in the organisation context?

It is important to distinguish a true ecosystem of from a series of available tools. If an ecosystem is “a community of interacting organisms and their environment”, then there are, I suspect, few of them out there. There are plenty of organisations with multiple tools and technologies (a development to be embraced), the interaction criterion is more difficult to satisfy though. This does not devalue the utility of the tools but it might make the usability of the ecosystem weaker as data and content does not pass between products. It is likely that meaningful interaction between systems falls into the ‘big and difficult’ project bucket and is tackled less often as a result.

One of the great liberties of avoiding the one-stop-shop, is the freedom to test and add tools as a need arises or possible value is in sight. The recent arrival of many chatbot tools on the landscape is a case in point. There are plenty of authouring tools to create bots and messaging systems to release them into. A requirement to integrate them first is likely to break a business case to create a swift test.

There are two areas, however, where integrating tools to begin the creation of an ecosystem looks most valuable:

  1. Search and discovery: the ability to quickly and simply search for specific content, people and information that are relevant to your work. This requires some engineering and careful planning but technologies like Elasticsearch and erm, Google are very accomplished at this. Being able to search and browse across content portals, social media, LMS, third-party content services, intranet, document repositories and people directories adds huge value to the tools most organisations use.

    In fact, with good search, who needs a learning journey?.

  2. Data and analysis: being able to see what users do (and don’t do) across multiple technologies is enormously valuable. This can range from simple dashboard reporting of items such as content popularity, routes in and through content, patterns of heaviest users, frequency and depth etc. to more sophisticated analysis of the relationships of certain behaviours with business outcomes. The addition of non-learning data sources is very important here, although organisationally tricky in many cases.

    For those in the learning game, the LRS is an interesting development finally gaining some momentum. For those with broader concerns, many other data storage and retrieval solutions beckon. (Data Lakes have a poetic ring too).

Tackling these two (pretty hefty) challenges will offer an ecosystem owner, or those with ambitions for one, a good steer as to the potential value in integrating the tools and products into a user experience of some kind.

There are many other hypotheses forming in my mind to which I may return. For now though, the ecosystem approach is a definite step forward. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by this approach is offering control and choice (or greater control and choice) to users rather than requiring them to seek permission and approval. This is closer to our experience as consumers – we chose the tools we prefer, when and how to use them. Choice has become a foundational expectation of our digital experience and system owners should be very cautious about interrupting it.


Is the quest for engagement a red herring?

With due apologies for a possible click bait title, I worry that the quest for engaging content is becoming a problem. It may have been a problem for some time and I am slow on the uptake. That has happened before.

There is a risk here that opposing the creation of engaging experiences is, inevitably, seen as opposition to a self-evident good. Engaging experiences are good experiences, don’t you want things to be good? To qualify my perspective a little, I am thinking mostly of corporate or organisation based experiences – the role for entertainment in consumer markets is as clear as day. In the world of work, less so.

My worry is that engagement is too broad a goal to be instructive in deciding what to make. Equally, ‘making good things’ is not a discerning strategic goal. We need to know why something is engaging – what it is good for – and focus on that. Seeking engagement can allow us to pretty much justify any goal but does not guarantee an impact that will make a difference.

The real problem with the quest for engagement is that it excuses the creation of content in which there is little or no interest from the audience. Too often engagement equates to sugaring the pill or placing lipstick on pigs (to say nothing of polishing poop). There is little audience demand or pull, so the push is lubricated with the application of ‘fun’.

Focus on what is interesting and useful.

Back in the earlier days of Twitter (when it was a more temperate and calmer place to bathe) there was much debate about whether there was value in sharing and reading snippets of information within a 140 character limit. Not much of any worth can be captured in these bursts ran the argument. I was a fan of Twitter and seeking justifications of my behaviour. I was struck by Graham Linehan’s argument for using the service and as a guide for who to follow: I focus on what is interesting and useful. (It was a while ago, so I am paraphrasing).

Back in those earlier days, I was working in the search engine industry. (Believe it or not, there was a period when the sector was competitive, before Google swallowed the world). The purpose of the products in the sector is to provide the most relevant response to a users query. Relevance in search is everything. That relevance is personal and is decided by the author of the query not the search engine. A good and abiding definition of personal relevance is what the user finds most interesting and/or useful. Fifteen or so years later, I belive these are the most valuable goals of content creation and of user experience: make it as useful and interesting as possible. The chances of audience appreciation will rise and you might earn the right to do more.

Find things out and get things done

This is why the, perennially excellent, Top 100 Tools For Learning is so instructive. The tools listed there not the tools of fun and entertainment but of productivity, connection and communication. They help us find things out and get things done. Netflix and Xbox, for example, are not on the list. Google search is in the top three ,with that relentless focus on personal relevance.

There is nothing inherently wrong with playfulness. It can be a very important editorial value in the stories you tell. It can signal humanity and empathy. A playful tone might support the usefulness of your products or content. Snapchat worked that out but have not let it get in the way of the utility of their service. It is a playful experience but does not try to be a game.

David James has ridden this hobby-horse to a great destination a few times. The right questions to ask before we make are along the lines of “What problem are we trying to solve?”. “What use or interest is there here for a user”? Certainly, this might be a less exotic palette of flavours but they are satisfying and when done well, they are returned to often. Frequency of use is a great metric to test how helpful content and services are for users. The closer to once a day you can get the better. So often the ‘fun’ is added to help “drive engagement” for experiences that are low down the priority order for users or are the products of compulsion. Make these short and simple, don’t worry about fun.

The, hopefully historic, proposal of a ‘Netflix for learning’ falls at this hurdle. If it was a good idea, Netflix would have created a learning category amongst its giddying array of options. They haven’t. (A YouTube for learning is a much better idea, which is why there is one. YouTube). Netflix works because it is well designed around our desire to be entertained. How about a Netflix for Internal Comms or Policy Documents? No. Me neither.

I propose that we halt the quest for engagement and focus our energy and imagination  on the search for personal relevance. By personal relevance, I mean experiences that are interesting and useful to the individuals using them.