Thursday, June 29, 2006

Human Development

As with the last few posts, I'm recently thinking about human development a lot and how technology could apply better to help it. One of the first things that comes to my mind is better dissemination and use of "poverty information".

Google, luckily, is also hosting sessions on Human Development, which is good, because only very little 'information' about poverty and human development is spread around.

A swedish organization, GapMinder, is spreading the statistics of Human Development in a really cool, interactive and visual way. No more boring statistics and numbers, it actually starts to feel like something. Of course, these statistics don't do anything, but I'm personally convinced that the lack of media attention to human development (since who wants to know about depressing facts?) contributes to how the world looks today.

I think and hope that a couple of projects will come up that will take this further by a couple of levels. I've personally thought at times to create a Google Maps app that shows the Human Development statistics, colored per country. An added benefit of GMaps is that it allows detailed information to pop up, where a server application can generate graphs and comparisons with other countries.

Maybe joining this information with the CIA World factbook provides some further new insights. (Note that this book is considered public domain, as it was created for the government).

So.... let's see what new things come up. A couple of NGO's and organizations are finally starting to recognize and understand the Internet better (they're not techies like everyone else, mostly care about social interaction). I'm thinking of going to the World Social Forum next year. Have been to Venezuela. It takes a while to let things sink down. Then you realize how little you know about social situations around the world.... And then what? (e daĆ­?)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How about a "coin of social exchange"?

I'm thinking recently about the philosophy behind 'running a business'. This is a very new area for me to explore, but this makes it more interesting to the exterior because I do not depend on historical views and teachings. :)

What I think is underlit is the social value that businesses could provide, but unfortunately cannot be expressed in any 'coin' or as a measure of value. How many businesses really provide social value nowadays, only for the purpose of providing that value, not just for money?

The customers of today are not the customers of 100 years ago. In that time, people were shopping for primary needs. Shovels, food, clothes to wear, etc... Money was created as a means to make social exchange easier. It has grown into having a life on its own almost.

Nowadays a large number of products are based on secondary needs and you could say 'tertiary' needs in some cases. Since society has evolved significantly in many countries. The intelligence of these customer has risen dramatically and also with this the desire for novelty. 10 years ago, browsing the Internet was a truly amazing experience for many, nowadays we shrug our shoulders.

If a company sets only monetary goals, but no social goals, it misses out on many things that a company could do. For example being a leader in corporate social responsibility and not just a follower of the law. Shift your company strategy and set social goals as your objective, all within the constraints of your financial capabilities. This stimulates innovation.

"Running a business" successfully does not necessarily and solely mean "making scandalous profits". That's however what American economics and views teach us. It can equally mean providing a sustainable point of interchange between a company and a consumer and expanding this business to new areas, seeing economy as something wider than utility and money, including social benefit as a type of currency in the equation.

You may become stinking rich if you play 'unfair', but at what cost?

If you do focus like no one else on your customers and consider your financial revenue as a secondary consequence, maybe then your company brand might actually mean something to customers! So, a successful formula for this view on business, in the order below:

1. Consider profit secondary to customer experience and feeling of fairness.
2. Maintain financial capabilities.
3. Be innovative with new products, because that will elevate the user experience. New things provide good novel experiences. Old things do not, unless offered in new ways.
4. Develop a brand.
5. Make sure you have one or two things that are slightly "evil" or "evil-obvious" in your policies, but not so evil that it outbalances the customer experience.
6. Back to 1.

The above points give an example of what I would consider "running a business". It doesn't focus on money-making, although it is an important aspect, the primary focus is its reputation and place in society. How do customers perceive you and what can be done about any negative views?

Example of considered-evil companies are software companies. Car companies are not seen as evil, even if they make good profits, because the company makes an effort each and every time when they produce the car. So it is reasonable and fair that the consumer pays for its acquisition. Software companies have made a moderate investment only in the beginning. But afterwards, the same charge is applied for the same software at zero cost of reproduction. This feels unfair, since no effort is spent for each and every company. That feels wrong (if it really is, is left to discussion).

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Poverty and the loss of dignity

I live in Brazil and am frequently confronted with poor people. As many people, I initially understood the essence of the word "poor" to mean "lack of income" or something similarly economic.

The real sense of the word "poverty" however, I think is more associated with a lack of choices and capabilities in the social sense. I watched the Holland game on the Recife beach last week and talked to another Dutch person about the issue of poverty in Brazil. This person was specifically upset about how homeless people have no privacy or intimacy, since they live in the street and there's nothing that is private to them any longer. A specific example was a couple in the street, living under a piece of cardboard with a grudgy blanket, lying close together, with buses and cars driving by.

Many traffic lights in Brazil are used by poor people as a commercial station, since it's the only place where people are required to stop. So, people with cars have at least some money, the poor people depend on that middle-class to sustain themselves, so all traffic lights are full of merchants and window-cleaners.

With poverty thus, I see there are even define-able levels. But the levels are not so much economic, more social.

I found the article on Wikipedia shows some good links and explanations of what poverty really is, rather than just assuming it as the lack of the flow of money:


There are some documentaries running on the issues of poverty that show how poor people also have a need to be recognized, not so much as being a poor person, but simply as a person. This fight for recognition sometimes causes them to do severe things. One guy in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro at one point kept a whole bus hostage for a number of hours, screaming out of the windows and threatening the people inside. He fired some shots, but never at people. He maintained the hostage situation only because cameras were aimed at him. It was clear he was under the influence of drugs. Later he stepped out of the bus with a single hostage and the police promised not to hurt him. A police officer approached from the sides and took a shot, two shots fell and the pregnant hostage was hit, dying on the way to hospital. The suspect himself was apprehended by a number of policeman, protected from an angry mob. The guy was suffocated by police on the way to jail due to the number and manner of police officers piled on top of him.

No mercy?

When you ask people how poverty should be resolved, the one most single answer of them all is: "Education." But this only goes so far. It implies that these people will be able to resolve their problems themselves as far as you teach them the basics of living in society and teach them skills and if everybody has access to education, the problem of poverty is resolved.

After the war in Holland, the politicians organized themselves to construct what is now called the "social welfare" system. 50-60 years later, this system is now under attack from diverse groups that object to paying for family situations that will not (likely) occur to them. For example, some single persons object to paying for the health costs associated with having children (costs like nurses, hospital checkups on babies, etc.). Why should they be accountable for those costs?

This is a view that is individualistic and capitalist. Only pay for what you use in a society and no dime more.

Poverty itself, I believe, also has the properties of a vicious circle. You cannot attack just a single point (education?), or you will fail. If you attack many, are there sufficient resources available to make the change worthwhile?

One of the latest news articles showed an organized crime group that over the past 5 years has bribed government officials in the health department to sluce all money for ambulances and health spending to that particular company. They would charge twice for every ambulance sold basically and divide the profits with the officials and themselves. The total "profit" of this group amounted to something like R$60 million. A good amount of money that would have been happy to enrich the overloaded and under-equipped hospitals in Rio de Janeiro for example with waiting queues of 7-8 hours. Of course, these are "public" hospitals, not "private".

This is the cost of an individualist society which feels no responsibility for others outside the family. A society where politicians do not make choices in favour of society itself but choose to use their appointed post as a source of corrupt income. Only a relatively small layer of society can still thrive in this situation. But the people that need protection the most, the poor, suffer harder and remain deprived of their dignity. It is possible to ignore the poor for some time, until at some point the pressure becomes so high some action needs to be taken.

Final numbers. 10% of the richest people in Brazil, 18.5 million people, were earning 68 times more than 10% of the poorest people in Brazil, another 18.5 million. The same factor in Norway and Holland was 9-12.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Your Media Rights Under Fire

I was looking at the link to the BBC, where the BBC claims that if you watch the World Cup at work on broadband, the business is liable for TV license fees. Legally, they're right. But is it just?

I lived in the UK for 2.5 years. It was an important and interesting time for me. Also, I was under fire from the guys of the TV license because I did not own a television set or any other device set up to receive a TV signal. I got letters almost threatening that non-payment for the license would subject me to 2,000 pounds worth of damages. As if everybody in the UK owns a television and nobody would be excluded. It's true that they find a lot of people that actually do have televisions though.

I also know that the BBC is producing useful and informative programs. Since I live in Brazil now, I see the very difference between 100% commercial television and public television. It would be a bad move to dispose of public television altogether. The information that is available from a 100% commercially run media system is appalling. It is very important to have an objective media system, or at least acceptably objective to inform the public about politics and what goes on in a country. The commercial TV stations do not know or care how to do this properly.

As you may already know, I am reading Lawrence Lessig's "Free Culture", a very interesting and important book on the subject of our culture, our media, our entertainment. Culture is the expression of who we are as human beings, which can extend to social groups like countries, religions, types of music, etc.

More and more, the very essence of ourselves, our culture, is reduced to content, a word I have started to loathe. The copyright laws in the US have been exemplary of the kind of industry control that media companies have over culture and its distribution. Most of those companies have soared on the success of reuse of other works, especially Disney (reusing the Grimms stories in the beginning and even Mickey Mouse is not "original"). And now it is becoming worse:

The RIAA has been very active in campaigns on file-sharing and claims success in this area:

All that society wants to do is share, it's quite natural for it to do so. But the original author deserves compensation for his work, the sense of property needs to exist and I think also needs to continue to exist, up to a certain point. If there were infinite control of an authored work, no derivative works could or would exist, threatening the continuity of our very own culture or its richness.

I think what is important to remember is the idea of "having right to media and information", the right to be part of the consuming part of media or culture. At the moment, the industry is changing this "right" to a "permission", consciously or not, because they feel threatened by the advances of technology that makes the act of copying of authored works cheaper and cheaper. Rather than embracing this technology itself, they choose to hamper it in order to persist old and outdated business models.

What society really wants to do with culture is different than how publishers want to sell. Which side does the law favour? In the case of society, it is probably government to defend the cause of its citizens. This means sensible copyright laws that offer a balance between the rights of the authors and the rights of consumers. But the industry is continuously sponsoring the rights of the author. Who sponsors the rights of the consumers?

Because the publishing companies already have enormous control over what gets published, they also have enormous control over our culture and how our youth experiences and views our society. Basically, the industry has a very high control over how our society shapes itself through the publishing of media. One of the biggest fears of people is the reduction of media and culture to a uniformly shaped mass. No focus on diversity, but focus on mass-dispersal, because that means profits.

I think from a social perspective that the efforts on this control of authored works is wrong:

"I think that people need to be better informed about DRM, its implications and be informed on every disc so they have the ability to choose! Then we will come to some kind of democratic and public decision on DRM and together, we'll form the true opinion what's right and fair."

Monday, June 12, 2006

Holland wins against Serbia Montenegro

I've been watching the game yesterday with other Dutch people in Recife. We joined together in a local pub/restaurant with a couple of tv's, somebody brought in a cake and there were orange shirts and flags everywhere. The public was mixed Brazilian and Dutch. This event was mainly organized by the local NBSO, which is a commercial support organization (check here).

I liked the way the Dutch were playing and the whole of the World Cup so far. Things have been pretty decent up to now with seemingly no violence at all. The biggest fear for me of course, is that Holland will have to play against Brazil :). Everybody in Brazil loves football. It's very big as a sport and there's hardly anything else in the country that generates so much patriotism and emotion. Work officially lets people go home after 1500 when a Brazil match is due to start since it's hopeless anyway to get them to work seriously during a Brazil match.

In the meantime, I'm for Holland and when NL is not playing, for Brazil. When the two meet, I suppose I'll be secretly favouring Holland in their efforts. :)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The need for continuous thought...

This blog entry is mostly focusing on the topic of innovation. The words "process" and "policy" get involved as well.

When a company starts up, it does not have a documented process to follow, even less does it have a certain "policy". The employee needs to use, as his only tools, "common sense" and "domain knowledge" in order to get from A to B. If common sense and domain knowledge are correctly applied, the company makes profit. If the employee makes the wrong decisions all the time, the company tanks and goes bankrupt.

Enter the 5-year old company. Employees have routinely been taking decisions and have established a so-called "process", which is the way how things "are/estar" done. If circumstances do not change, the application and utility of that process can be very successful.
( "estar" comes from Portuguese, meaning a temporary "to be" )

Enter the 30-year old company, 20.000 employees later. Now things are established through "policy". This means, ensuring that "processes" and decisions conform to a certain "grand strategy". This is when things "are/ser" ( meaning the definitive "to be", the Portuguese "ser" ).

Policies can be hyper-destructive, because they are very difficult to change. It is as if they live their own lives, have no owner and no person within the organization generally feels powerful enough to change it. Changes in policy generates enormous quantities of confusion in an organization. Why?

It is funny and sour here that the word "policy" actually means: "A plan or course of action, as of a government, political party, or business, intended to influence and determine decisions, actions, and other matters" (Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).

So, the description of policy does not carry the heavy sense of "mandatory", but the interpretation of employees is exactly that. Making a better decision for the sake of your project success may result in assuming the risk of being put in the spotlight for non-compliance. Policies are suitable and useful as a guideline, when assessing which option to favour if the alternatives are about equal.

The companies function differently, because there is a difference how (much) people use their mind. The startup company requires people to use their mind continuously, but the large corporation can live with a very large number of monkeys that apply a certain process, what they would call "best practice".

The world changes very quickly, so what was established as a process some time ago needs to be re-evaluated every so often. Communication about (requests for) changes in processes generates confusion and a barrage of "re-alignment and re-organization emails".

A process should be a helpful tool in order to define the responsibilities for the parties involved. In that sense, the "process" serves a very useful function. But it is also a potential hiding cover. It gives people the potential to stop thinking and use the process as a cover excuse for lazy-ness (or worse, blame the process as the point of failure, ignoring for now whether the process is actually wrong, incomplete or correct!).

Here we enter an interesting arena. The question is not whether we should dump processes altogether. The question is what we need to understand about each process in order to make it a useful tool in our collaboration. Understanding the process in this way goes much further than knowing how it actually works. People need to understand why it is there in the first place, what purpose the process serves outside the context of the routine or practice it is applied in. This is exactly the definition of responsibilities. Without the understanding of those definitions, nobody can use the process efficiently and elaborate on it (become contributing employees).

If employees do not have experience with alternatives, they will not understand additional reasons why the process is the way it is, simply because they cannot imagine how in practice things can go wrong. This "wisdom" only comes from exploration, which is forbidden in the context of the process because you are required to follow it. Thus, processes have the tendency to train monkeys that never think outside the box.

With this problem of never thinking outside-the-box, other people that do understand are inclined to try to prevent the failure by mounting another process, in an effort to help lesser experienced people. Such processes often formalize the responsibility that the employee should have assumed in the first place. Instead the process provides yet another cover for the employee to hide behind and it can make them even lazier than before, countering productivity.

When the environment or market the company operates in does not change, then the mounting of processes is not necessarily a problem. The process is basically the description of a routine that you must follow like a machine in order to be productive. Factories could do this for example and then you might get good results, everybody happy, no problem.

As in IT especially, markets, environments, tools and "insights!" rotate every three years or so, the process building blocks age very rapidly, which in turn very rapidly ages the organization. If you do not have the infrastructure available to create 'process change or adaptation', you will eventually age until you reach mortification.

People that do think in the organization would already have left by that time. So, losing your key employees is a good indication that your organization is aging too rapidly and not adjusting quick enough.