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Journalism and technology

Stay in the game, but let go

The Internet and new technologies have proven severely disruptive for the traditional newspaper business model, leading to falling subscriptions and increased numbers of redundancies of professional news staff. The outcry for a “digital replacement model” in the midst of this distress is understandable, though unfortunately little promising, given that the Internet has eroded the underlying economic model of traditional newspapers.

Old organizational structures are built for centralized industrialized production of information. Given the traditionally high cost of publishing, print journalism used to be built on economies of scale. However, the Internet and new technologies have made publishing costs negligible. Making information available to the public is not a problem anymore – “sources have started to go direct”.

Additionally, the move from print to digital has fundamentally changed the way we consume news. Rather than consuming news in bundles, as it is the case with traditional newspapers, we use feed readers, or headline aggregators like Digg to consume stories individually – often without even knowing in what media the article is actually featured. A resulting, sharp decline in advertising revenues has further weakened the position of traditional newspapers.

Now, there are legitimate concerns about these trends and their potential impact on society that need to be raised. The quality of news is certainly one of these concerns. More content certainly doesn’t mean better content. By contrast, as Jaron Lanier points out, the opposite might happen: a loss of personality and individualism due to an increasing effort to aggregate and consolidate individual sources of information (E.g. Wikipedia, meta-blogs, etc.).

Nevertheless, it is premature to conclude that only professionally trained journalists from traditional news institutions can provide high quality content. What about professional journalists, who write their own blogs? A similar argument for professional journalism exists around providing ideas and inspiration. While this is certainly true, the argument misses the respective feedback loop of journalists getting ideas from their sources.

There is certainly a need in the future for high quality news, but the way it will be provided is still to be determined. The entire industry is still in the process of deep transformation with new and evolving technologies continuously shaking up the status quo. Hence, the outcome of the ongoing technological transition becomes impossible to predict.

So rather than trying to hold on to what worked before or trying to figure out “the next” model” for tomorrow, traditional news institutions need to embrace this transition period and all the various stakeholders that will shape its outcome. What makes this process difficult are the various losses that are implied. Journalists need to be ready to renegotiate their identities as publishers, owners of content, controllers of distribution and beneficiaries of monopolies.

So the hard work that traditional news institutions have to do, is to identify what of the “journalist DNA” needs to be persevered and what needs to be replaced in order to strive in this new environment. The Guardian represents a great example of how a major news institution embraces new opportunities that are offered through the Internet and new technologies. Rather than trying to argue why bloggers cant replace professional journalists, one needs to partner with these important stakeholders to better understand the possible characteristics of future successful business models in within the “information industry”.

As Shirky suggests, the transition we are in now will continue to be messy for a while. “Old stuff gets broken faster than new stuff emerges”. This requires existing industry players to have a stomach for uncertainty and ambiguity. Rather than ceding to internal and external pressures to come up with the “right” model tomorrow, it is more important to emphasis a healthy “trial and error” search process with flexibility and adaptability at its core. News people need to find new ways of inspiring people, rather than trying to fix the “old”. Closer relationship with their readers and other stakeholders will be an essential element in this process.

Wikipedia on Leadership Studies

Given my interest in leadership education, I chose to have a look at the Wikipedia site on “leadership studies”. Though the topic “leadership” has received a lot of attention in various fields of study, there is still significant discussion among scholars and practitioners to come up with a single, agreed upon definition for leadership. Nevertheless, based on a fundamental differentiation from management, several sub-themes of leadership have evolved over the last years, which emphasis different aspects of leadership to explain human interactions and dynamics.

So expecting some sort of controversy reflected in the Wikipedia site, I was still puzzled by what I saw. The site is basically unreadable. It is poor in terms of content, structure and wording. After a random summary paragraph, the site offers two paragraphs, one on “leadership in higher education” and one on “history of leadership as a field of study”. While one would expect at least some sort of chronological overview or categorization of different areas of leadership studies, none of this information is provided in the article in a well-structured manner. The second paragraph cites some known but still randomly selected studies that were conducted throughout the 1940ies and 1960ies, followed by a few “theoretical lenses” on leadership, which should really be listed under a separate header. Areas of leadership studies are described very poorly in terms of content as well as wording, and additionally, they lack proper sources.

To provide an example: “Functional Leadership theory: Suggests that a leader’s primary responsibility is to see that whatever is necessary in relation to group needs is taken care of.” A simple Google search provides a slightly more elaborative explanation: “…useful theory for addressing specific leader behaviors expected to contribute to organizational or unit effectiveness”. So according to this theory leadership means to enhance group effectiveness and cohesion. Would not that be a clearer definition to use? The quick Google search also provides the appropriate sources, which are missing in the Wikipedia article: Hackman & Walton, 1986; McGrath, 1962; Fleishman et al., 1991; and finally Hackman & Wageman, 2005.

Both short paragraphs are followed by partly randomly listed scholars (though the big names seem to be present), journals, and finally organization. Especially the sections on “organizations” and “research centers” lack important institutions such as the Center for Public Leadership at HKS! When I finally saw under the “notable leadership scholars” that they even misspelled the name of my boss, Ron Heifetz, I stopped reading and decided to go to the discussion page.

And guess what, Wikipedia doesn’t have a talk page for this site, as it deleted the previous page! The reason stated seems to be an “inappropriate use of talkpage (22 March 2011). This puzzles me. Since March 2011, nobody had made an attempt to even start a discussion page again. Has the “leadership studies” page pushed Wikipedia to the boundaries of its core concept? Why has nobody since then tried to fix it the page? It clearly cant be due to a lack of people interested in the topic.

In an attempt to answer my question, I visited the Wikipedia “leadership” site. And interestingly a banner of the site mentions, “The article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. It needs additional citations for verification. It may require clean up to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards”. So it is true, leadership is messy! Fortunately, the discussion page is still working.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives

If one is asked to what extent Google has changed the life we life in, three major insights seem to be apparent. Google has changed the way we look for information, Google has changed the way we can generate profits on the Internet through advertising, and finally, Google has changed the way we think about managing and storing data.

The core of Google is its Internet search engine. Google search is based on a mechanism called PageRank, which ranks certain web pages in its search results, based on their importance with regard to the number of web pages that are linked to them. The higher the number of linkages the more important a web page is considered. The PageRank score of a website is then combined with a number of more traditional information retrieval techniques, such as frequency, font size, capitalization, and the position of the keyword to provide final search results.

The power of PageRank was that it got better as the web increased. New sites led to more links, which made specific queries even more accurate. Interestingly, Google’s search engine in return accelerated the growth of the web as better search provided more incentives for people to make new information accessible. This goes back to the “long tail theory” that even the weirdest piece of information can now be accessed by a tiny but appreciative number of people connected to the web.

Google has also revolutionized the way to make money on the Internet. Google’s AdWords allows advertisers to target their ads to actual searches by matching search queries with pre-defined ad words. Ads appear then in the form of small text boxes next to search results without annoying customers too much.

Even more important, while previously companies were billed according to the number of views of the ad, Google’s AdWords scheme is based on billing system that charges per click. So with AdWords, companies only paid when advertising actually worked. Once again, Google was able to target smaller “long tail enterprises” that previously could not afford advertising in mass media. The self-service system makes it possible for Google to sell advertising in small quantities to small companies, while keeping overhead costs low.

In addition, Google launched AdSense as an income generating business model for small “long tail businesses”, such as blogs and small business websites – again using a self-service model. Through Google, small businesses and blogs can now sell space on their websites to potential advertisers, while sharing incoming revenue streams with Google in return.

Finally, Google’s “cloud” has revolutionized the way we think about data and data storage. Data once stored on somebody’s computer, can now be stored in the Internet through a number of Google applications, such as Google docs, making your information accessible wherever you are. And as Gmail has demonstrated, the space available is actually growing. Never again do we have to delete a single email.

Now, Google’s technological advances have obviously blown my mind. Though there is also a lot to learn from Google in terms of organizational leadership and learning – especially for somebody like me, who currently spends more than 30 hours per week working on these topics.

While organizations across different industries are struggling how to improve their organizational learning capacity to adapt more effectively to rapid changes in customer needs, Google’s very core business model is built on the principal of an artificial organizational learning mechanism. By using “logs”, Google is tracing and learning from its collected data beyond mere content. Logs have become key to the evolution of its search engine, as they have allowed Google to capture information such as on how much time one spends per site, how often one goes to the first search result, or how one punctuates.

Google captures information on all aspects of human behavior – how we think, what we do, and what we like or dislike. For example, Google knows immediately whether we are happy or unhappy by tracking “long clicks”, which indicates that somebody went to a search result without returning, versus “short clicks”, where users follow a link and immediately returned. Collecting real time information allows Google to constantly innovate and improve its products and overall organization.

Now, what is interesting from an adaptive organizational leadership perspective is that Google doesn’t innovate in isolation, but it makes use of existing customers to help throughout the design process of its various products. In adaptive leadership education we refer to this mindset as “giving the work back to the people”. Providing free telephone directory assistant to assist the development of Google’s speech recognition ability is one example for this new leadership mindset that Google has successfully adopted. Its self-service mechanisms for AdWords and AdSense are other examples of letting the customer do the work. In order to successfully target the “long tail”, companies must “give the work back” in order to keep their overheads low.

Though, Google also raises several concerns from an adaptive leadership perspective. One of them is the danger of having one person, organization, or entity that is expected to provide the “right” answer to any question we might have. More than 70% of searches in the US are Google searches. So is it really a good thing for Google to have the power of providing the “right” answer or deciding what exists and what doesn’t? Do we really want an algorithm to decide what our life should look like or not look like? I still feel that humans themselves need to decide on their individual and collective purpose, so may be there is indeed also a way for Google to learn from the concept of adaptive leadership?

New technologies allow communities to adopt new behaviors, which lead to social change – this is the main message of Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody”. In various examples Shirky outlines how new technologies are leveraging new forms of taking collective action, by changing the underlying cost structures of forming groups. In economic terms, new technologies have significantly reduced transaction costs of setting up and sustaining groups. New technologies have simply led to the collapse of barriers to group actions. In this regard, new technologies challenge traditional institutions by allowing individuals to self-assemble without formal management structures.

The old institutional logic tells us that we need management, as it is hard to create and sustain group efforts. At a certain scale, we cannot organize ourselves without management structures. The institutional dilemma, however, is managing resources requires resources. Resources have to be devoted to keep the management structure working. Shirky also points out that complexity grows faster than the size of an organization. He refers to it as the Birthday Dilemma: “the count of any two people rises faster than the number of people”.

Furthermore, due to minimum costs of sustaining a management structure, certain group action, which might be of risky but innovative nature, might not have enough value to make them feasible within an institutional structure. New tools are obviously changing this equation, as they significantly lower the cost for coordinating group action. Similar to Chris Anderson in her Long Tail story, Shirky refers to the power law distribution to explain how new technologies allow for great imbalances in contributions to group collaborations. While imbalances in contributions destroy traditional institutions, the drive rather than damage newly formed social systems. This is true for tools and communities such as Wikipedia as well as Flickr.

New social systems are also characterized by a significantly higher tolerance for failure. According to the power law distribution and long tail theory, this is important, considering the large number of failures that are required to general a small number of successes. Platforms, such as Meetup successfully lower the cost of failure by lowering the cost of creating a group.
Similarly, open source networks reduce the cost of failure and not the likelihood of failure. They allow for the participation of as many as possible to enhance their chances of success. In open source trying something is often cheaper than making a formal decision about whether to try or not, given that fact that many users only make a single contribution. Most likely traditional institutions would be forced to ignore these people, since transaction cost would make these efforts too expensive.

Shirky generally differentiates between three different kinds of group undertakings: sharing, collaborating, and collective action. By removing barriers to public info sharing and expressions, new technologies lead to a process to which Shirky refers to as massamateurization of communication efforts, previously reserved for media professionals. Everybody with a computer and Internet access has the opportunity to publish, basically eliminating the previous distinction between broadcasting and personal communication. Everybody can become an expert – and not only in publishing. All types of specialized problem solving professions are affected. These days, even medical doctors are confronted with patients who have access to a vast number of self-diagnosis websites that provide information on all health related issues.

New tools are basically removing two main barriers to collective action: the locality of information and relatively high transaction. By doing so, they challenge the monopoly of larger institutions on large-scale coordination. The Arab Spring provides a powerful example of how these dynamics are being applied in the political arena. New tools are finally providing leverage to a range of communities to express their discontent with the socio-economic realities in these countries. In this regard, social tools don’t create collective action – they merely remove the barriers to it. Shirky is right: “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviors”.

Similarly Shirky claims that new tools create social capital within societies, rather than replacing social behaviors. Tools such as Meetup allow relatively small and dispersed communities with similar interests to connect and actually meet face to face. Without tools like Meetup, transaction cost would simply be too high to allow individuals to connect with each other.

So far, success and failure of groups relying on social tools can be explained by three characteristics: the promise – why somebody should participate, the tool and the goodness of fit with the purpose of the group, and the bargain – the mutual expectations among all group members.

Shirky makes it clear that we have moved beyond the question whether these new tools will reshape society or not. It is already happening. The real question is how these tools are changing today’s societies. One of the main changes refers to the shift from prevention to reaction, a tension that President Al-Assad could extensively comment on.


Hi and welcome to my blog! Most recently sending emails was the climax of my digital performance but now I have joined the world of bloggers. Lets see how that works out. Stay tuned!

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