Data-centric project requirements?

Several times last week, in different circumstances, I was asked a question containing these three words or their synonyms. That’s not new. It happened previously. But this concentration triggered the write-up that follows. Nothing original and neither is the reason to write it:

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.

— André Gide

Let’s first clarify what is data-centric and then see why it doesn’t go well with project and even less so with requirements.

 

What is data-centric?

The short answer is in these three1Check out all five principles data-centric principles. principles:

  1. Data is self-describing and does not rely on an application for interpretation and meaning.
  2. Data is expressed in open, non-proprietary formats.
  3. Applications are allowed to visit the data, perform their magic and express the results of their process back into the data layer for all to share.

I find these three are the most important data-centric principles, but another reason for selecting them is that they are context-independent. The data-centric manifesto they are taken from is currently with an enterprise-only focus2 After the publication of this article, the scope of the manifesto was adapted, and now it includes the other two scales. . Yes, the problem they address is most severely felt – or rather not felt because of ignoring or misattributing the symptoms – in large organizations. Yet, what is behind these principles is equally important for personal information management and on the open web. Let’s go quickly through all three levels then, from big to small, and see what data-centric means for the world wide web, for corporate IT, and then for personal information management.

The web was designed to be a decentralized system where the agreement on a few standards, basically HTTP and HTML, enabled free choice on just about anything else. People were finally free to express themselves and to choose from where and how to get information. They got free to innovate on building new browsers, websites, and whatever web applications and services they can think of. A system like this, with a self-maintained organization, can work well and have a natural tendency for virtuous cycles. In other words, it can amplify goodness and develop its own immune system for whatever threatens its viability. All it needs is to have the right kind of enabling constraints, for example, the standards I mentioned above, and to allow autonomy of all subsystems. This is the balance between autonomy and cohesion. It works for animals, people, tribes, organizations, society, and a socio-technical system like the web.

So the web flourished as a decentralized system, where people were free to choose and create more choices. And then one day the platforms appeared. They offered good and free services. Or at least they looked good and free at first. In reality, they were (and are) neither good nor free. The platforms are not nearly as good information providers as it was the decentralized web before them. What we see is not what we are looking for, but what their algorithms decide to show us. And the services of these platforms are not free. Quite the contrary. We pay with our data, and we pay twice. Once by being their content providers and a second time by giving them our personal data. Importantly, we don’t give them only our current personal data but also future ones, by allowing them to track our online behaviour. Who’s them? I’m talking of course about IT giants like Google, but the best example of extreme centralization and lock-in is Facebook3This has many facets. Facebook can be looked at as a very successful aggregator or as a prime example of a new form of capitalism.. In this way, the web, a decentralized system, shaped by the users, turned into a hyper-centralized system, shaped by a few powerful corporations4The centralization of the web is not only about the content but also about the infrastructure. The convenience of the cloud increased the dependency of both individual users and companies on the strategy and fate of a few powerful providers, namely Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.. It also formed users’ expectations. In 2019 Facebook and Google announced that it was now possible to copy images from Facebook to Google Photos. That’s the new norm for innovation. Only a few people noted the absurdity. As Ruben Verbourgh pointed out, 50 years after being able to send video signals over a distance of 380,000km, we celebrate that we can finally move a photo by 11km (the distance between Facebook and Google headquarters). A bit dystopian, isn’t it?

Yet, the problems with this centralization are not widely understood. For example, very few people realize how platform-based political propaganda works, and that’s why it works so well. Even fewer relate it to the hyper-centralization of the web. Same with fake news and so on. Maybe the least understood of the damages is how it suffocates innovation. It’s easy to illustrate. Even when you use Google for product search, where it should excel after so many years of work, huge investments, massive feedback, and the use of language models with trillion parameters, it’s really lame. Try searching for a bike below a certain price and certain weight. You’ll get results for bikes above that, but okay, then you can fix that using the shopping filter. Currently, that will not allow you to specify the weight even though it’s available in most technical specifications published online. But even if they add it at some point, the final selection will still exclude the majority of the offerings by smaller companies. As a result, you can’t get an answer to this simple question.

Continue reading

  • 1
  • 2
    After the publication of this article, the scope of the manifesto was adapted, and now it includes the other two scales.
  • 3
    This has many facets. Facebook can be looked at as a very successful aggregator or as a prime example of a new form of capitalism.
  • 4
    The centralization of the web is not only about the content but also about the infrastructure. The convenience of the cloud increased the dependency of both individual users and companies on the strategy and fate of a few powerful providers, namely Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.

Roaming through contexts with Roam: How I use it

This is the last, 5th instalment on Roam. Here I’ll share how I use it. This part will be easier to write than some of the previous ones. What won’t be easy is to keep it short.

Here are the links to the previous post in the series: Part 1: what is it, Part 2: Distinction, Part 3:Self-reference, and Part 4: Organization.

Migrating from Evernote to Roam felt like going backwards and forward at the same time. Before Everone, I used to use Zim. In Zim creating a new note from within a note and backlinks were standard features from the first release1Evernote is lacking them to this date, 17 years after its launch. That’s why it felt like going backwards. And it felt also like a big leap forward because Roam changed the game not only on note-taking but on personal knowledge management in general.

The main difference is that conceptually Roam treats the data as a graph. I’m not referring to the graph visualizing how pages are linked by references. This view shows only a small part of the graph, hiding the main element, the block. Blocks in Roam are basically paragraphs and other content chunks with unique identifiers. Blocks are not something RoamResearch came up with. Many content management tools, for example, WordPress, refer to the content components as blocks. But Roam pushed that idea a few steps further by allowing blocks to quickly be nested, referred to, embedded, created from a piece of text in a block, appear in the sidebar, being searched and queried. Block capabilities can be extended and it has been, beyond what I thought was possible. Yet, for me, the most important thing is that blocks, along with the special kind of block called “page”, are the nodes of my graph.

 

Ontology

To get the most of my graph, I follow certain conventions and practices. As I explained in detail in Part 2, creating a page reference is making a distinction. It is followed by further distinctions. For example, I may create a reference to a named entity such as Paris, Athens, and Alice. In the context of a block, I know if I mean Paris the city, or Paris the street, or Paris the square, or Paris the cafe. I also know if I mean Athens the city or Athens Research, the open-source tool, inspired by Roam. I know that Alice is a person, and I know that I meant Paris the city, and Athens the tool but I want to let my graph know that as well. To query my graph, just like when querying Wikidata or DBpedia, it becomes very important to know the type of a thing. That’s one of the reasons to have a knowledge model, an ontology. Continue reading

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    Evernote is lacking them to this date, 17 years after its launch

Roaming through contexts with Roam: Organization

There are such kinds of tools which, when you interact with them, an organization emerges that modulates the interaction. That organization takes on a life of its own. The design and affordances of some tools for thought enable the emergence, persistence and adaptability of such an organization.

This is the fourth out of five posts of the series on Roam. The first part was about what is Roam likeThe second was about the powerful concept of distinction, and the fourth built on that to explain self-reference in Roam and why it is important. The current one is on organization. The series started in April 2020 with the intention to be published within a couple of months. That wasn’t to be as my workload tripled1pun not intended but is welcome once I realized it: it wasn’t just the volume that was three times more than before but also it was mostly work with triples  by that time. And although the productivity boost coming from Roam made it possible, cutting things was unavoidable and writing blog posts was one of the first things to go. Not go forever though, just wait patiently in the backlog.

Three things happened in the meantime. One, I gathered more experience working with Roam and more observations on how that structural coupling works. Second, my book on what makes organizations work was published in November last year. This means the current essay will be shorter than intended and the curious readers are invited to dive into more supporting arguments and details there. And third, the ecosystem changed. Now, apart from Roam, there are personal knowledge graph tools like Logseq, Athens, Obsidian, Kanopi, Codex, Foam, and Dendron, among others. They all have, in both similar and different ways, systemic properties that enable the interaction with the tool to be like with a living being.

Organization

Roam is a tool for organizing. You can use it to organize your day, project, research, knowledge, life. But there is also another organization, emerging from the interaction it2That doesn’t apply only to Roam, but also to some other PKG tools as those mentioned above.. This organization behaves as if it cares about its viability. It belongs to a class self-sustained systems, where the most typical organizations such as companies, government agencies, and NGOs belong to. Not surprisingly families, clubs, music bands, teams are also self-sustained systems of this kind. But it may seem strange to you if I put habits3Egbert, M., & Cañamero, L. (2014). Habit-based Regulation of Essential Variables. Artificial Life Conference Proceedings 14. MIT Press. and emotions4Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. The MIT Press. in the same class. There are good reasons to do so. Some say hurricanes are something like that too. A friend of mine also sees some dishes as self-sustained systems.

Self-sustained organizations emerge also in simple situations when we are trying to pass each other in a narrow corridor, but that lasts only seconds. Or during meetings. We tend to see meetings only as events. But they are social species, having a mind of their own, emerging from the complex dynamic of intentions, preferences, agendas, personalities, emotions, egos, and tribes, acting within the constraints of norms, rituals, and rules. This interplay between enabling conditing and constraints is always present in self-sustained organizations.

Do you need to interact with a software application for personal knowledge management to enable a self-sustained organization to emerge? No. Luhmann saw his Zettelkasten – not a software, just indexed cards in boxes – as his thinking partner:

As a result of extensive work with this technique, a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate. It proves to be similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, not hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Just because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.

 

Does it happen only when you interact with tools for thought like Roam? Certainly not. It will be a matter of future research to find out when this happens, how, and when interacting with what sort of applications. A type of application that most likely belong to this class are videogames.

[G]ameplay is argued as being the achievement of dyadic and reciprocal coupling between a player and the game. In this reciprocity, gameplay arises as autonomous organization that is both self-sustaining and precarious. Coordination and exploration are offered as constitutive principles of videogame gameplay.

The viability of all these autonomous organizations, habits, emotions, teams, companies, and the one emerging when we interact with interconnected notes, depends on three essential balances. Continue reading

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    pun not intended but is welcome once I realized it: it wasn’t just the volume that was three times more than before but also it was mostly work with triples 
  • 2
    That doesn’t apply only to Roam, but also to some other PKG tools as those mentioned above.
  • 3
    Egbert, M., & Cañamero, L. (2014). Habit-based Regulation of Essential Variables. Artificial Life Conference Proceedings 14. MIT Press.
  • 4
    Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. The MIT Press.

SASSY Architecture 2

I shared previously a short description of what is SASSY Architecture and a more detailed deck here. This is a shorter but more recent deck from my talk at the IRMUK EA Conference in 2019.

(if the slidedeck doesn’t appear, you may need to refresh)

Linked Data uptake

Linked Data is a universal approach for naming, shaping, and giving meaning to data, using open standards. It was meant to be the second big information revolution after the world wide web. It was supposed to complement the web of documents with the web of data so that humans and machines can use the Internet as if it is a single database while enjoying the benefits of decentralisation1This is the balance between autonomy and cohesion – essential for any socio-technical system..

Today on the web we have 1495 linked open datasets, according to the LOD cloud collection. Some among them like Uniprot and Wikidata are really big in volume, usage, and impact. But that number also means that today, 15 years after the advent of Linked Data, LOD datasets are less than 0.005% of all publicly known datasets. And even if we add to that the number the growing amount of structured data encoded as JSON-LD and RDFa in the HTML, the large majority of published data is still not available in a self-descriptive format and is not linked.

That’s in the open web. Inside enterprises, we keep wasting billions attempting to integrate data and pay the accumulated technical debt, only to find ourselves with new creditors. We bridge silos with bridges that turn into new silos, ever more expensive. The use of new technologies makes the new solutions appear different and that helps us forget that similar approaches in the past failed to bring lasting improvement. We keep developing information systems that are not open to changes. Now we build digital twins, still using hyper-local identifiers, so they are more like lifeless dolls.

Linked Enterprise Data can reduce that waste and dissolve many of the problems of the mainstream (and new-stream!) approaches by simply creating self-descriptive enterprise knowledge graphs, decoupled from the applications, not relying on them to interpret the data, not having a rigid structure based on historical requirements but open to accommodate whatever comes next.

Yet, Linked Enterprise Data, just like Linked Open Data, is still marginal.

Why is that so? And what can be done about it?

I believe there are five reasons for that. I explained them in my talk at the ENDORSE conference the recording of which you’ll find near the end of this article. I was curious how Linked Data professionals will rate them and also what have I missed out on. So I made a small survey. My aim wasn’t to gather a very large sample, but rather to have the opinion of the qualified minority. And indeed most respondents had over 7 years of experience with Linked Data and semantic technologies. Here’s how my findings got ranked from one to five:

Continue reading

Roaming through contexts with Roam: Self-reference

It was early November 2020. I escaped for a long weekend to Tenerife where I played tennis for the last time of what turned out to be a 5-month ban back in Belgium. It was over 20°C and sunny, two more things I was going to miss in the long winter of the second lockdown.

I’d been working since dawn on a big terrace overlooking the ocean.

It was a magical moment to see how the ocean emerged out of nothing, made all the more special by its synchronicity with my thoughts. I was writing a chapter note on George Spencer-Brown (GSB) for Essential Balances which was to be published a few weeks later. For it was GSB who showed mathematically how everything can come into being out of nothing.

All I teach is the consequences of there being nothing. The perennial mistake of western philosophers has been to suppose, with no justification whatever, that nothing cannot have any consequences. On the contrary: not only it can: it must. And one of the consequences of there being nothing is the inevitable appearance of “all this”.

Now, a few hours later, I was immersed in work when I got interrupted by some birds’ cries. I lifted my eyes from the screen of my laptop and saw a couple of colourful parakeets that have just alighted in the palm tree in front of the terrace. But they did not hold my attention long. What did, was not an exotic island bird but a boring city one that landed on the corner cap of the railing and posed in a way making the flat cap look like a pedestal. It was then when I remembered I started writing a series of posts about Roam, published two of them, the next one to write being about self-reference. I took a photo of the bird, noted in Roam what it looked like to me, and posted this tweet:

Indeed it’s high time for another Roamantic entry. This is the third instalment in a series of five. The first part was about what is Roam likeThe second was about the powerful concept of distinction, based on George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form. And it was the rigorous study of distinction that led George-Spencer brown embrace what was treated as an error by the western1That wasn’t the case in the East. See for example the logical system Catuṣkoṭi. philosophers and mathematicians before him − self-reference. Continue reading

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    That wasn’t the case in the East. See for example the logical system Catuṣkoṭi.

Corona-induced Cohesion

The balance between autonomy and cohesion is one of the three balances, essential for everything living and social. It’s fascinating to watch when there is a shift both in the balance itself and in the way it is achieved. The times of Coronavirus are exceptionally rich in new ways of maintaining social cohesion.

There are various factors and forces for cohesion. They can be distinguished once in terms of origin and influence, and then for different system scales – individual, organization, society. This way, there are nine categories: individual factors for individual cohesion, individual factors for organizational cohesion, individual factors for the cohesion of society, then organizational factors for individual cohesion, organizational factors for organizational cohesion and so on for all nine combinations.

Some factors work in similar ways at different scales, others not. For example, the need for safety, the need to reduce uncertainty, and the need to increase self-esteem, are individual facts for both organizational and societal cohesion.

Most ways to increase cohesion reduce autonomy. This is the case, for example, when social cohesion is achieved through any form of centralization of decision-making power.

But there can be an increase in cohesion without reducing autonomy. In fact, it can even do the opposite, enable it. Such is the case with the world wide web. On the web, everyone is free to say whatever they want (autonomy) but it can be consumed only if it is shared using some agreed standards (cohesion). These standards ensure a uniform way to publish, identify, and access documents on the web. They enable individuals and companies to invent various web applications (autonomy), but again, these applications could only be widely used if they conform to the agreed standards (cohesion). Of course, such a system is not immune to tumours where the tight integration of data and services can bring a new form of centralization, using the scale of the internet to achieve its internal balance between autonomy and cohesion (example: Facebook) at the expense of that of the web.

If we imagine the dynamics of autonomy and cohesion as a seesaw, we can tell the relative degree of autonomy and cohesion with the respective angles A and C between the beam and the fulcrum base. The balance is achieved when the beam is horizontal.

When angle C is the same as angle A, there is balance, and when it is smaller, there is disbalance caused by too much cohesion.

But not always.

In keeping with the seesaw metaphor, a crisis situation can be imagined as a slope. The next drawing shows the seesaw at the time of crisis when the angle C must be smaller than A to keep the beam is horizontal, in balance.

In time of crisis, maintaining the balance requires either more cohesion or a new kind of cohesion to compensate for the loss of normal cohesion.
Continue reading

Essential Balances, Huizen, 2019

Metaphorum was established in 2003 as an NGO to develop Stafford Beer’s legacy and has organized a series of management cybernetics conferences and workshops over the years.

I attended three Metaphorum conferences so far.

In Hull, 2015, I shared ideas on how some of the findings of the enactive school of cognitive science can enrich the Viable System Model (VSM). Only about 8 minutes of the talk were recorded but the full Prezi and a PDF export of the frames are available.

The next Metaphorum event I attended was in Düsseldorf, 2018. The conference theme was Re-designing Freedom which was also embodied in the conference design, emphasizing different forms of self-organization1For example, this was the first Metaphorum conference to use BarCamp. and held at the premises of a company proud with their agile work hacks.

At both conferences, I tried to point to a promising new area of research. In Hull, it was towards enactivism as a rich source to draw from and fill some of the gaps in the VSM. In Düsseldorf, my invitation was to travel to another uncharted territory. There I tried to put and start answering the question “What can Social Systems Theory bring to the VSM?” You can check out the slides here.

The last day of the conference was a short hacked version of team synthegrity that worked pretty well. My topic was “Burst the VSM bubble” and in the following year, I demonstrated one way to do that.

The 2019 conference took place in Huizen, a beautiful village in The Netherlands, not far from Amsterdam. I decided, instead of delivering a typical management cybernetics talk, to present the Essential Balances.

Management cybernetics has its models and language. They are valuable when discussing with peers and for the advancement of the discipline. Yet, they limit the accessibility of the wider audience to these ideas. What’s more, they limit the spread of the mindset and skills needed for understanding and working with organizational complexity. There is no need to put off people with transducers, amplifiers, attenuators and algedonic alerts. Even using the word “system” is unnecessary. But the first essential balance, the one influenced by the VSM, does not differ only in avoiding the cybernetic jargon. It offers an observer-centric, non-mechanistic way of dealing with organizations, and – importantly – doing so without models and prescriptions.

The next Metaphorum conference is now open for registration. It’s planned for June this year.

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    For example, this was the first Metaphorum conference to use BarCamp.

Buckets and Balls

Linked Data is still largely unknown, or misunderstood and undervalued. Often, people find it simply too difficult. So I keep looking for new ways to make Linked Data more accessible. And with some success. In my training courses so far over 60% of the participants had no IT background. I hope even to increase this percentage in the future.

What seems to be most challenging is writing SPARQL queries. The specification is written for IT people. There are some great courses and books but they also target people with some or more IT experience. If anything, that scares the rest and keeps SPARQL away from the masses.

I keep learning what is challenging. A recurring problem – and an unexpected one – is the concept of variable.

What is a variable in SPARQL? Just a placeholder. But how can you imagine a placeholder? It’s abstract. We have no way of grasping abstract things unless we associate them with something physical and concrete. It’s difficult to imagine time, but once we draw it in space it gets easier. We can’t picture furniture, but we have no problem with chair.

The other issue is how a SPARQL query looks. While working with SPARQL helps to understand how a knowledge graph works, a SPARQL query doesn’t look like one. It is like with symbols in mathematics. “5 doesn’t look like five, while ||||| is five”. The problem with SPARQL is similar:

You want to query knowledge graph.
You want to learn new things.
But your query doesn’t look like knowledge graph.
It looks like lines of strings.

So, how to handle together the problems with grasping variables and with the look of SPARQL?

My suggestion is to imagine every SPARQL query as a graph of linked buckets and balls.

Variables are placeholders but abstract. We need a physical container1The idea of using containers is very powerful. The whole arythmetics and alegbra can be done using only the concept of container as demonstrated by William Bricken. to fill with things. We need buckets. And nodes are like balls. So, think of running2“Running” is also a metaphore and what it stands for can be communicated more gracefully. And that’s important. As you know, language shapes the way we think. a query as filling buckets with balls.

A graph pattern then will look like this:

A bucket ?A should be filled with those balls which have a relation R to ball B.

But it looks nicer when we abbreviate it like this:

This is a graph pattern in Buckets’n’Balls notation. The direction of the relation R is not shown but it’s always from left to right.

The process of writing and running a SPARQL query would then go through the following steps: Continue reading

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    The idea of using containers is very powerful. The whole arythmetics and alegbra can be done using only the concept of container as demonstrated by William Bricken.
  • 2
    “Running” is also a metaphore and what it stands for can be communicated more gracefully. And that’s important. As you know, language shapes the way we think.

Roaming through contexts with Roam: Distinction

This is the second part of the series on Roam. The first part was about what is Roam like. If you’ve read it or if you know already, carry on.

The concept of digital twin became popular thanks to the digital transformation fad. It’s now amplified by both market research companies such as Gartner, and by academics.

Roam is expected to be the digital twin of your brain. Working with Roam is like “building a second brain”, the community echoes, after the training course of Tiago Forte by the same name.

Looking at Roam as a second brain is understandable. It is conditioned by a long history of swapping metaphors between computer science and cognitive science. At first computer science used the brain as a metaphor for the computer. This was reciprocated by cognitive science taking computer as a metaphor for the brain. But, as Lakoff and Johnsson convincingly demonstrated, metaphors are not innocent figures of speech. And indeed, the-brain-as-a-computer was not just a metaphor. It was, and for many still is, a guiding light and a paradigm in cognitive science. As with computer, the brain was understood as both a location of the mind and as a processor of representations. Both computationalist and connectionist schools in cognitive science and philosophy of mind held this view of cognition and still do1The computationalist even saw the mind not just as a processor of representations but of symbolic ones. This goes in line with the symbolic tradition in mathematics which paved the path of many sciences. For the consequences and alternatives, see http://iconicmath.com/ . Now, to go through all the arguments on why this is not the case is beyond the objectives of this article, but the curious ones are invited to follow them2These arguments are well developed in the following books: The Embodied Mind; Enaction; Mind in Life; Linguistic Bodies . Let’s just say that, if you are using Roam with the expectation that it will be your second brain, you might be disappointed. But here’s the good news:

Roam is even better than that.

Continue reading

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    The computationalist even saw the mind not just as a processor of representations but of symbolic ones. This goes in line with the symbolic tradition in mathematics which paved the path of many sciences. For the consequences and alternatives, see http://iconicmath.com/ .
  • 2
    These arguments are well developed in the following books: The Embodied Mind; Enaction; Mind in Life; Linguistic Bodies

Roaming through contexts with Roam

The first note-taking tool I used was Zim. What I liked most about it was that every word or piece of text in a note could be easily turned into a new linked note. And each note showed backlinks to all other notes referring to it. All that is stored as simple text files. Neat and powerful.

Yet, it was a standalone application. Having no native mobile app and no clipping functionality made it difficult to integrate with my workflows. For example, I had to collect and organise my bookmarks and web clipping elsewhere.

So I moved to Evernote. It offered a good mobile app with a document camera. Evernote improved my workflows. A note can be created from a mail message, from any web page or selection of it. Evernote quickly took centre stage in my personal information management, supporting not only note-taking and content collection, but also task management and research. And I found my way of using it, which is not necessarily the way it is commonly used. I’ve described it here.

And I’ve been using Evernote for more than 10 years now. But all that time I’ve been missing the ability to create notes from the context of another note, the ability to effortlessly turn strings into things.

The other lasting frustration has been the required maintenance. Without good filing with tags and notebooks, it’s impossible to make use of the content. And this constant split of effort between core content and managing metadata turned Evernote into more of a storage room than a place for work and creativity.

I heard of Notion and other nice alternatives, but none of them justified the migration cost. I had amassed over 12 000 notes in Evernote.

Enter Roam.

I found in Roam all that I was missing in Evernote. And initially, I thought, that’s all there is to it. It’s just a package of the capabilities I was missing. As it turned out, Roam offered much more than that. Roam is not just useful for supporting any kind of knowledge work, it also stimulates writing and thinking. It has certain affordances by design, which makes it addictive. But unlike drugs, it is a healthy addiction.

What is Roam like?

Continue reading

Problem as Cylinder

Recently a friend of mine told me “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”. I’ve heard that before. I have also heard the opposite and sometimes found it wasn’t the case. That’s why I wrote Variety – part 1 and part 2 back in 2013. Part 3 wasn’t that lucky to get published. But whatever was there and much more is now written and will be published as part of the chapter “Stimuli and Responses” in the forthcoming book about organisational balances. Until then, here’s an elaboration of my response to “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”.

First, as a reminder of the law, I’ll just reuse a paragraph from Variety – part 1 :

It’s stated as “variety can destroy variety” by Ashby and as “only variety can absorb variety” by Beer, and has other formulations such as “The larger the variety of actions available to control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate”. Basically, when the variety of the regulator is lower than the variety of the disturbance, that gives high variety of the outcome. A regulator can only achieve desired outcome variety if its own variety is the same or higher than that of the disturbance.

That sounds way too technical so we need an example. As this medium is text, it will be easier to count the variety of words. The variety of cuckoo is four, as there are four different letters. If your goal is to count the variety of a word, as long as you can distinguish these letters, you have enough variety to achieve your goal. But what about the variety of melon and lemon? It’s five for both of them. If these are two hands of five playing cards, they are exactly equal in strength. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a winner. The cards will be played in certain order. And it is also (and only!) the order of letters that helps us distinguish melon and lemon. The different type of letters, size and order all may participate in measuring the variety of a word. If the font or the colour of letters is different, that would be another criterion for distinction, depending on how it matters for the goal that you have. And then, there was the assumption that the elements of a word are the letters, which is a common and fair assumption. But if your goal is to print them clearly, then you would be more interested in the number of pixels1You won’t have this problem with the sketch below as it’s in vectors. You can scale it up as much as you want without loss of quality..

Like gravity, the Law of Requisite Variety is omnipresent. Whenever there are purpose and interaction, it’s there. To demonstrate this, I can use just the complaint that triggered this post: “I can’t get my head around the law of requisite variety”. It contains this popular idiom “I can’t get my head around” which can be seen as a conceptual metaphor2See Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson. See also here QUTE and Human Resources? for some examples. where certain problem or theory is seen as something physical, and the ability to wrap it, as the ability to understand it.

Don’t improve services, kill ‘em!

Photo by Dana Vollenweider

It could be only in my bubble, but my ears now ache from louder and louder service improvement talk. Ever better ways to map customer journeys, to analyse touch-points, and to improve user experience. I get it. It’s all good, or at least the intention is. But I can’t help thinking how much it resembles the process improvement hype. It lasted until some remembered Drucker’s words that “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”, and embraced Lean. Others embraced Lean on other grounds. In fact, it wasn’t much more than just zooming out. The focus changed from processes to the whole business and improvement included getting rid of unnecessary processes.

That’s understandable, you may say. Processes generate costs. Getting rid of processes cuts costs. Services, on the other hand, generate revenue. No obvious reason to get rid of them but plenty of reasons to come up with new services and improve the current ones.

And yet there are so many services I don’t want to have a better experience with. I want to have no experience at all. Continue reading