It’s the people, not the network

network by Arenamontanus
Too much networking?:
[Via Cosmic Log]

Open-source communities may suffer from “an overabundance of connections,”
an information policy researcher suggests in the journal Science.

Are geeks guilty of groupthink? A network expert argues that less social networking would produce more radical innovation on the Internet.


This is a provocative statement, that some communities are too connected, thus reducing diversity and the ability to innovate. I would make the statement that the level of connectedness is more reflective of the type of people involved and indicates a community that is not properly constructed to permit innovations to rapidly traverse the community.

That is, the problem stems from the type of people involved, not the network itself.

I’ve written a bit about how communities process innovations, how they propagate and how they are adopted. Each community has its innovators, its early adopters, the early and late middle and its laggards. In most communities, the relative numbers of each of these 5 groups follows a bell curve. Roughly 16% are early adopters and innovators, 16% are laggards and the majority is in the middle.


One of the main differences seen between these 5 groups comes from the number and types of social connections they make. The early and late majorities mainly only connect with themselves and others in the community. These are the greatest sources of groupthink. They are the incremental thinkers, those that get together and talk about how to make small changes. They listen to each other and provide mutual support. They are often skeptical of new things but incremental works well for them.

The key measure of the majority is that they will usually only adopt a new innovation when told to do so by someone, from the community, that they trust and respect. They do not like to be the first one in a community to adopt an innovation. They are comfortable with what currently works.

The innovator group, on the other hand, have a large number of connections outside the community. They bring in the odd ideas, the weird bits of information that can generate new ideas and innovations.

They are the ones who say “Hey, my Uncle Bob heard about someone who fixed the a similar problem, only he used this really weird algorithm.” Innovators love to solve problems and search the world for data that can help them learn.

Now, innovators are generally not held in very high esteem by the community. They are disruptive and as often have ideas that are useless as they do ones that are useful. They love new stuff because it is new, not always because it is useful. They are seldom seen as community leaders and often have greater freedom, either financial or situational, that allows them to pursue the novelties they love. Because of their extensive outside connections, if their work is not supported by the community, they can often leave to find those communities that will support them.

A lack of innovators means that fresh, creative ideas are not easily brought into the community.

Early adopters are the important filters here. They often have enough outside contacts to be able to understand where the innovator is coming from. They are very good at figuring out which of the many ideas that the innovator tosses out are actually useful to the group. They’re the interface between the community and innovators.

Early adopters are usually community leaders. They are the ones that promulgate the great ideas that the innovators come up with to the rest of the community. By being right, by helping the community, they gain a lot of power and prestige.

So, the majority looks to the early adopters to push innovation and change, not the innovators. The latter are just too disruptive to the clean, stable processes preferred by the majority in the middle.

A lack of early adopters means that innovators are not easily supported by the community and that useful new ideas have a much harder time getting the notice of the majority.

There are not enough filters to properly present useful ideas to the community. Innovators simply appear disruptive. Useful new ideas do not traverse the community because there are not enough trusted people presenting creative ideas.

I would suggest that the problem is not the vast number of connections amongst the groups, that the problem is not the internet. It is that these online groups, may have coalesced in ways that diminish the power of this 5 group adoption curve. In most real life communities, at least the successful ones, the innovators and early adopters number about 16%. About 65% make up the early and late middle.

Perhaps these online communities have very different makeups. Perhaps the percentage of the middle is much larger, since it is now so easy to connect, and the middle feels much more comfortable connecting with those that already think like them.

In describing these networks, the author makes the point that they mainly connect to each other. This sounds exactly like a group of early and late majority. If a community is made up of mainly people like this, say 80%, then the lack of enough early adopters could have a strong effect on the adoption of innovation.

The early adopters are the gatekeepers for novel and useful ideas in the community. If the number of early adopters is lower than normal, the number of new ideas that can traverse the community is greatly decreased. Consequently, there will be less support for the innovators, who may very well go find other communities that they can innovate with.

The ease with which the Internet allows connections to be made means that innovators will have many more routes available to them. In real life, they can not easily move beyond the community they inhabit. On the Internet, it is easy. So they may leave to greener pastures.

This may also pull along some early adopters, who, after all, like to be the ones who act as filters and to gain the community respect that comes from helping to disperse new ideas. This could result in a positive feedback loop that greatly decreases the numbers of innovators and early adopters, leaving a community of mainly the middle. This would seem to fit the description of the article.

It is the makeup of the humans involved in the network, not the network itself, that is the problem.

I would suggest that the key bottleneck to innovation in Open Source projects is the lack of a sufficiently high number of early adopters.

This would explain the lack of outside connections, as early adopters and innovators have the majority of these. Without early adopters to funnel their ideas, innovators will leave for greener pastures.

On the flip side, if there were enough early adopters, their ability to pull in innovators who have ideas that would help the community, the key aspect of an early adopter, would allow the flow of innovative ideas into the community.

So how to increase the number of early adopters, which will then attract innovators and permit novel ideas to traverse the community? Well, one could advertise on Craig’s list, I suppose. Far easier would be to find a way to take the early adopter’s in the community already and find a way to increase their power, to artificially raise their numbers.

Many of the ideas suggested in the article, such as skunk work projects, are really just ways to isolate a group from the community. This would tend to increase the relative numbers of innovators and early adopters. They will be drawn to new things like ants to honey.

These are ways to prime the pump, to create a situation in the community where the early adopters have a much larger impact with higher representation than they do in the general community.

But this is somewhat indirect. Why not utilize the metrics available in the network to identify who falls into each group? Some companies are already doing this, because the way an early adopter appears in a network is different than a late majority.

Making a greater effort to identify and accumulate early adopters in the community by using the Internet itself would be very informative. Increasing the impact of early adopters would attract and support more innovators, providing more ideas to the community. If the level of early adopters is less than expected, say under 10% then efforts must be made to increase this percentage, either actually or relatively.

To bring in more early adopters would require a campaign of some sort to attract people with the right connections. Initially, this may not be easy. Better to artificially increase the relative numbers of early adopters.

So, take the early adopters that are already present and create a ‘new’ community, an artificial one, where their numbers would be much higher. Put them together, along with some innovators and let them go at it.

Again, this is kind of what is suggested in the article, but with much less discussion about why it might work. In the real world, early adopters and innovators are usually kept separate from the main group by putting them in places like Research. A difficulty with online networks is that there is not often a defined process to isolate these people and thus increasing their numbers to the point where their talents are actually useful.

In the large, efficient networks that are possible using Internet technology, the early adopters and innovators may get swamped out, becoming too small a percentage to actually affect change.

The solution is to find ways to identify and isolate them from the community but in ways that use their important attributes to help the group.

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Networks in academia

The Networked Path to Breakthroughs:
[Via Dot Earth]

An expert on the history of technological leaps says a vital step is for scientists and engineers to build networks outside of their fields.


This a nice interview that explains how the current methods of providing grants for academic researchers help to isolate scientists from social networks that may be critical for moving research out into society.

The ability to innovate requires social networks but there are few connections between the networks of academic scientists and the people who are needed to transfer technology to wider communities. Finding mechanisms to overcome this bottleneck can have huge effects on the rates that innovations traverse different communities.

As more and more scientific endeavors require collaboration between multidisciplinary groups the insular nature of research will begin to be breeched. But, the bottlenecks and consricted connections to outside networks will also have to be changed, if we are to truly solve the difficult problems facing us.

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An interesting view of IP issues

happy by Pink Sherbet Photography
Potential Confusion Avoided – rPath Video:
[Via Common Craft – Explanations In Plain English –]

Yesterday, we posted about a video by a company called rPath with the title “Cloud Computing in Plain English.” Read about it here.

The blog post came as a result of our unsuccessful efforts over six months to illustrate to rPath that their video, because of the combination of the “in Plain English” title and use of paper-cut outs on a whiteboard, was a source of confusion for Common Craft customers. Because rPath insisted on using legal means to communicate their stance, we chose to take a different route that didn’t involve lawyers.  We simply asked our fans to help us reduce confusion.

Over the course of the last 24 hours, we’ve learned a lot. First, let me say that we couldn’t have imagined the level of your response. We are very lucky to have people around us who feel passionately about helping us protect our brand. Within a couple of hours of the blog post, the message to rPath was clear and as you’ll see below, we have reached a resolution.  We thank you.


So here we have an established organization with a very easily identified image having to deal with a new company using the same approach, possibly causing confusion amongst clients. This is what trademark is supposed to deal with. But in some cases, the look and feel of the approach is also important. In the old days this might have taken a lot of lawyers and money to resolve.

Instead of having to deal with lawyers and pay them lots of money, the community responded to a request for help. It was able to deal with an organization who threatened the health of the community.

Because of the openness and transparency of the Internet, the community took action that allowed everyone else to see what was going on. It then resulted in an accommodation that works for everyone.

All without paying lawyers. While this approach might not work everywhere or every time, it is a nice demonstration of how a connected community can deal with some IP issues.

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Facilitated change

change by seanmcgrath
Winds Of Change:
[Via Chuck’s Blog]

I really enjoy meeting customers. However, not every customer interaction is sunshine and lollipops.

Sometimes, the interactions can be tense at the beginning, but result in an extremely productive discussion.

I had one of those today, and — as I thought about it — I realized I’m starting to see this particular situation more often. It’s a harbinger of things to come.

It Started Out Rough

During a typical briefing, I’m usually asked to lead off the big technology strategy discussion. It’s usually 45 minutes of private cloud / VCE material, with plenty of time for discussion and debate.

Most of the time, it goes very well. Today, it didn’t.

About 3 minutes after I got started, I could tell by the body language that something was seriously wrong. After 5 minutes, the customer intervened.

They were polite, but firm. They didn’t want to hear about technology, or strategy, or anything like that.

They wanted to know how they were going to transform their organization.

Thus starts a nice post about change in an organization, how it happens and the process to accomplish it. More and more companies do not want to know what software to use. They want to know how to leverage their social network for change, making it easier to innovate.

They recognize that for things to work, the culture must change. But cultures are hard to change. So having an understanding of how people adopt a new idea and how it permeates an organization is critical for making the change successful.

I’ve mentioned the 5 steps people go through as they adopt an innovation. The speed that individuals move through these 5 steps places them into one of 5 groups.

And all of this works inside a human social network that must be used in order to accomplish change.

We started by sharing that communications — to all your stakeholders — is a do-or-die mission when contemplating significant organizational change. So much so that we’ve seen IT organizations appoint a communications professional (aka the marketing type) to engage and persuade people across a variety of functions.

I’d consider that a “best practice”, with one caveat. There are a lot of marketing people who know how to do nice newsletters and websites, but really don’t have much of a voice. Find a marketing person with a strong voice, and isn’t afraid of using it.

Yes, I know it sounds ludicrous that an IT organization would hire a marketing professional (don’t we have enough of those running around?) but they’d already considered this proposition on their own — we just confirmed their suspicions.

And, it logically follows that if you’re going to accelerate organizational change, you’re going to be doing a lot of communicating, and that can be a specialized skill.

First you have to engage individuals. Awareness and interest are the first two steps for anyone to pass through as they adopt an change in routine. Effective communication – marketing – is critical. Because the people you want to engage first, the innovators and early adopters, will also be the ones looking most to listen, if the message is presented properly. They are often the most aware and the most interested.

Then the next steps, evaluation and trial can be examined.

There seems to be two generic approaches to getting people to use new infrastructure and processes.

One is the classic “let’s move everything to the new world” approach. Big lists, complex plans, daunting obstacles, unknown risks — this stuff is very hard on the brain. You set yourself up for people to resist.

There are some situations where there is no other viable option, but — in many cases — there’s an incremental approach that has more to do with social engineering than project management. And I have personal experience that it works very well indeed.

Consider building the shiny new thing on a small scale — maybe a small, internal private cloud. Or, perhaps, a new self-service operational process. Anything at all that represents a significant departure from traditional approaches — it really doesn’t matter.

Put some cool people on it. Give it a nice internal brand. Use terms like “pilot” or “proof of concept” to keep people from jumping off cliffs. Communicate widely what you’re doing and why. Make it look like fun, rather than work.

When it’s ready, invite people to try it out. Enlist internal champions to provide coaching and feedback. Ask various executives to give the project a mention in their forums.

If these people like what they see, they’ll tell others, who will be curious as well. Communicate frequently, openly and transparently to anyone who’ll listen or read.

The shiny new thing will attract the innovators, who are always attracted by novelty. And the cool ones are simply another way of describing early adopters. Early adopters are critical for moving an innovation through a community because they are often the important leaders that will be listened to.

The majority of people will only adopt something new when advised to by someone they know and trust in the community. It turns out that early adopters fit this position because they have often had ideas that made everyone’s life easier. They have been successful harnringers of change before to the community. So they are listened to.

The sooner early adopters are on board, the faster things will change as they tell others.

There are many progressive IT organizations that embrace change. And there are more than a few who tend to resist any change whatsoever. This was a big concern for this particular customer.

It’s one thing to convince the business to look at IT differently. It’s another thing entirely to convince IT to look at IT differently. This somewhat paradoxical behavior is not unique to IT people: I’ve seen it in HR, legal, manufacturing, engineering, sales, etc., e.g. everyone has to change but me!

There’s a variety of techniques I’ve seen IT leaders use to combat this problem — rooting out the ringleaders, constant and patient communication, incentive and recognition programs — even bringing a small crew of managed services contractors to show how things *could* be done.

Frankly speaking, there’s nothing specific to IT in this discussion — the same techniques work for any organizational leader to bring the function along to a new world view. The simple approach is to acknowledge it’s a problem, and have a plan to deal with it.

There will always be laggards, those who change very slowly. By keeping communications open and transparent, some of these can be moved over. But there should be recognition that 100% satisfaction is unlikely.

So, find the innovators and early adopters. Move them to your side and help them change the system.

Some of the most impressive IT change agents I’ve met are networking experts.

If your mind immediately went to protocol stacks, you missed the point — these people are social animals. They build relationships across the organization in a variety of places, and they build relationships outside their company, hopefully with people who are doing much the same thing as they are doing.

The best change artists are connected to a very highly linked social network. These include the early adopters who not only have connections inside the community but many outside as well. They are looking for changes that will make their life easier. They are the easiest to get to adopt change, as long as the change is meaningful to their life and work.

Recognizing where people fall along the innovation curve, how rapidly they move through the 5 steps, is critical for making change happen. Find the innovators and early adopters. Give them the tools to help market the change, thus making the change happen from the demand of the community rather than as a mandate from above.

Facilitated change can permit a community to adopt innovations faster and become more productive while being less disrupted.

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