Thursday, November 08, 2007

Is there such a thing as a good meeting?

You know how a good meeting feels. It's fast, it engages, it gets to the point. You have the right people there, they have answers and all of the actions are documented. You can see how such a gathering will remove roadblocks and get the job done.

Whereas a bad meeting drags on, has poorly engaged participants - and often the wrong ones - and gets nothing done. There are plenty of questions at such a meeting but few answers. No-one talks in turn and a few people wonder what they are there for. It all gets pushed back to the next meeting, and likely as not no-one took any minutes so you repeat the exercise next time.

Worst of all both meetings cost money as well as time. So how do you fix this? It seems easy enough that you:
  1. plan ahead, investigate the issues and lay them down in a clear way
  2. you appoint a chair (if it's not you)
  3. and make sure beforehand that you have invited the right people: people who know what the topics are and have a stake in the outcomes
  4. you set time limits and stick by them
  5. you also need to control the meeting fairly, make sure anyone with a contribution gets a go and that the group considers all sides
  6. you make sure someone takes minutes and that actions are clearly owned and tracked to completion.
And then it still doesn't work. How about you just decide what needs to be done and either do it yourself or ask the others to do it? Well that may work, or you will miss some insight or not gain the necessary "skin in the game" and fail to "get traction". It comes back to company culture and that willingness to get stuck in - or fiddle-faddle about with bureaucracy.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Care to Google up a robotic car?

You may have noticed the recent DARPA-organised robotic car competition. If you didn't you can read about it here in a Forbes article. It's certainly impressive and looked like a lot of fun. Aside from enhancing research into practical robotics, competitions between robotic cars completing 'races' in urban environments is an interesting look into a Sci-fi future of immense wonder. There must be a business model here for someone.

Just imagine: robotic sports, anyone? Google-search your way to an urban pleasure robot for hire, perhaps? Replace human-driven taxis with robots and cut down on those inane cab-driver conversations? (Unless the robots get speech chips as well of course.) Or robotic buses that eliminate the end-of-shift grumpy-driver syndrome? Or more seriously, competent robotic day-surgery in remote locations without the need for expensive, highly-trained human surgeons "on-site". It's potentially a mix of good and bad, isn't it? More programmers and robotics experts, fewer jobs for real people.

Now I'm not a Luddite, but I do wonder about whether we think these things through. Like Einstein wondering whether his work opened to door to nuclear war.

And sure enough these harmless-looking robot games have a military goal as well, with lives saved if you can send more robots into battle instead of warm bodies. The downside to robotic wars, however, are grim. Without the appropriate programming robots will not show human mercy or simple judgment, and may indeed be programmed to be exactly that - inhumane killing machines. And war with 'thinking' machines instead of people at risk may lower the barriers to war itself. So we get more war with fewer consequences - well, if you are on the winning side, anyway.

Meanwhile Google's 'first privately-owned car on the moon' competition is a bit wacky - and certainly way-out - but hints at where we may be going next in our personal transport. Despite the fun of it all it's possible that our obsession with cars will end on Earth when we run out of accessible, cheap resources; equally it's hard to see how lunar exploration and exploitation will solve our immediate problems. But that's humanity - pressing on, pushing the boundaries and fixing up the broken stuff later.

Friday, November 02, 2007

OpenSocial opens can of worms? Naaaaah.

Google's strategy is clear enough, and it's a good one. They have fingers in all the pies, and a winner in Orkut. But they have a problem. Orkut is big in the wrong places, and not big enough in the markets that to Google (and its shareholders) really matter. It's "first-world-centric" and wrong, but money talks, yes?

So here we are, mired in a world of seemingly endless choice, with social networks all around us battling for the right market to share and the "un-social" networks desperately adding social-like features to boot. Given the popularity and the potential it's inevitable that an aggregator would come along to join the pieces and gang up on facebook. And who better than Google? After all, if you belong to 2 or 3 social networks already, as many of us do, we feel the pain of having to log into different, 'fenced-off' systems. Whilst OpenSocial has some big buddies on board already it still has to woo developers, as well as beat facebook and its locked-down, non-transportable markup. So it's not going to be a quick kill.

Indeed it will be an interesting tussle. But I'd bet on the most integrated approach winning.
And that's Google's plan, too.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Globalisation myth?

You can poke holes in anything if you pick the right stats. I guess that's the great thing about statistics, isn't it, that it can be used so elegantly and persuasively in support or attack of an idea. For example many believe that lowering trade barriers and increasing world connectivity (both of which are patently true - it really has happened, if not yet to the "nth" degree) has resulted in a more level playing field for both individuals (that's you and me) and businesses (big and small) to compete on a global scale. On the face of it that's surely true.

Indeed there are many, many examples of small "local" businesses operating on the web and staking a global market share which would otherwise take major investment in distribution effort. Think of the marketing, sales reps, call centres, support staff, wholesalers and distributors required for a small business to expand beyond its local area. Now think of all the small ebay businesses that have prospered globally, the small shops that garner 10, 20 or 30% of their trade now from a global reach, the companies that leverage Amazon's computer services and back end distribution services. It doesn't take much looking to see new forms of distribution and profit-taking that takes advantage both of lower trade barriers and the near-frictionlessness of global Internet commerce.

Well maybe that's all wrong, or out of proportion, anyway. Apparently Harvard Business School professor Pankaj Ghemawat calls that vision of the early 21st century “globaloney” and has written a book about it. Now you could say right up front that he is saying "it's not so" when he's (a) leveraging the Internet to promote and sell his book and (b) taking advantage of the breakdown of international book distribution cartels by promoting and selling his book globally. But I'm being glib, aren't I?

He has been quoted as saying that international trade today represents less than 10% of most economies. He's criticising a popular "25%" figure but here in Australia I have seen figures for exports alone ranging from 12% in the 1950s to 22% in 1996, and back to 18% of Australian GDP in 2006. Which would indeed support around 25%, if you add in imports, surely? Maybe he's working on some global average when he gets the 10% figure? Even so, surely trade varies by country and fluctuates with exchange rates and commodity prices, so a net exporter of commodities (things like oil, iron ore and coal, notoriously hard to shift over the Internet) will need to look very closely at the figures and do some breakdowns by type of transaction to really draw conclusions that stick. I'm not sure even the OECD has done the sort of work needed to truly even out the stats globally, but probably they have (I'll look it up when I get a chance).

In any case his stance is that most economic activity happens locally, and you can hardly argue with that. Most of us shop at local supermarkets, buy most of our day to day goods and services locally and if we buy a car or build a house - well, there's a global connection with the car but for most of us it involves local trade. Indeed the highest price is paid by the end user and the global component is diminished substantially by margins added along the way.

So I guess I agree with Pankaj Ghemawat, in that local still rules overall. But that doesn't mean that the world hasn't changed, only that some things are more resistant to change than others. It's still hard to beat shopping at a local store where you can examine and receive the goods (especially food and clothing) immediately. However as real-time Internet commerce improves on static images and provides a more immersive shopping experience I'm sure it will garner a bigger share of these 'resistant' products.

And trade barriers have lifted and I can buy imported cars far more easily and cheaply than ever before. I know that's true. Ghemawat also writes of immigration rates falling as some proof that we aren't globalising like we think we are, whereas I know that that my personal contact with the greater world community is at an all-time high. Email, online chat and Web 2.0 has brought us all closer, surely? As well, tourism is at an all-time high. People may not be moving to another country to live, but maybe moving to another country is not so necessary now? Perhaps the drivers of population movement are different in the 21st century? Which is also in agreement with Ghemawat's view, but what actually is he saying by this? That because (for example) Europe hasn't suffered another World War recently and has been at relative peace and prosperity for some time we aren't globalising like we think we are? Is Ghemawat comparing the immigration stats for one period of history with another and drawing weird conclusions? Maybe.

To my mind Pankaj Ghemawat is stating the obvious and making some rather unprofound motherhood statements. Yes, it's true, people are not driven to relocate from country to country like they were. However tourism is up. Yes, it's true, local transactions beat global ones by volume and value. But the types and numbers of transactions made globally have certainly changed and bear some examination. And trade barriers are down and the patterns of world trade have changed.

If that's not enough change to mean we've 'globalised' then that's fine. It just means that what we don't actually have is clear and agreed definition of 'globalisation'. The BNET story that sparked my rave is here by the way.