Friday, August 12, 2016

WeChat - Super App

Heading to Shanghai tonight for a week of reconnecting with that dynamic city.

Naturally, our group members have all signed up and are using WeChat.

If you don't live or work in or around China, you may have never heard of WeChat, but as the New York Times reports in this excellent video, WeChat is far more comprehensive than any Western app (at least for now).

Check out how much functionality ('virtality') is built into the app.  Watch video.

The NY Time article claims that, rather than imitating apps from other markets, the Chinese are now leading app developers and have expanded what we think about what apps can do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Serious questions about the future of work

Having just completed a series of alumni talks in Melbourne and Sydney on the popular topic of 'the future of work,' I am left feeling the weight of the topic, given the questions that arose in both of these large and growing Australian cities.

Though attendees were generally upbeat and lively over drinks and nibbles, the Q&A after both talks skipped the 'gee whiz' factor of automation and artificial intelligence technologies and centered on the socio-economic concerns of systemic job loss, structural fault lines and uncertainty going forward into a future where technology may not produce as many jobs as it takes away.

Reading the Financial Review over breakfast, I found Jennifer Hewett's observation matches the mood of responses to my talk. She observes that, along with the benefits of global economic growth and development, '...the dislocation being felt by many in the West due to changes in technology, demand, competition, education and jobs is also real.  For all the advantages, disruptive business models and globalisation can become highly personalised and painful concepts.' (The Australian Financial Review, 27 July 2016, p. 2)

Australia's pain and job loss is more about its reliance on commodities like coal and other extractive industries than it is about technology per se, but the fundamental fear is that when jobs disappear people feel adrift.  When we talk about the future of 'work,' we are also in essence talking about the future of jobs in a world where banks don't ask about the work you do when they are assessing you for a mortgage.  What they really want to know is 'what is your job?' and how will it support your financial future?

In my talks on the future of work, I have to refer to Brynjolfsson and McAfee's book, The Second Machine Age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies.  Our Aussie audience actually illustrated a key point made by these authors, namely that the act of asking questions is what will continue to distinguish human intelligence from artificial intelligence.  As they say:

'Computers are not useless, but they're still machines for generating answers, not posing interesting new questions.  That ability still seems to be uniquely human, and still highly valuable.  We predict that people who are good at idea creation will continue to have a comparative advantage over digital labor for some time to come, and will find themselves in demand.  In other words, we believe that employers now and for some time to come will, when looking for talent, follow the advice attributed to the Enlightenment sage Voltaire: "Judge a man by his questions, not his answers."  (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014, p. 192).

We are proud of our graduates for the questions they are asking.  For me, their questions remind me of how little we still understand about the impact of technologies on human lives.
For an excellent overview of the impact of artificial intelligence and automation on work, see the recent special report, 'March of the Machines' in The Economist, 25 June - 1 July, 2016.

Monday, February 29, 2016

What I learned from Tom Peters

For the second year in a row, Tom Peters has been a guest in my MBA class.

Tom's presence is an awe-inspiring experience for my students.  But, watching my Mentor connect with people is beyond inspirational for me.  Here is what I have learned from watching Tom in action.

10 Lessons for Teachers from Watching Tom Peters

1. When you look one person in the eyes, everyone feels the connection.

2. Audacity is good when you're passionate about things and people other than yourself.

3. Bias is OK, when you own it, and admit it might make you wrong.

4. Being clever is a device, not an end in itself.

5. Talk about things that matter to you.

6. Humility gives you access to everyone you meet.  Ego restricts access to the world around you.

7. Remember that most of the fancy things we say, our mothers already knew and probably told us.

8. Walk around the room to keep your thoughts moving.

9. It's not the content, it's the connections.

10. Be thankful for the opportunity to learn by sharing yourself with others.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Connecting to place

2015 has been the year of artificial intelligence, robots and the Internet of Things.  These phenomena all challenge the notion of physicality and locality.  

Having lived in New Zealand for 24 years, I have come to appreciate the Maori concept of ‘whakapapa,’ that is introducing yourself, not by your credentials or achievements, but where you come from.  Where is your mountain.  Where is your river.  Where is the place and who are the people that brought you here and shaped who you are.

I grew up on a farm from which we looked west into West Virginia and north across the Mason Dixon Line to Pennsylvania.  My mountains are the Allegheny Mountains and my river is the Youghegeny River in Western Maryland. In fact, I have only recently come to appreciate the beauty of these Native American place names.  There were others too, like Monongehala and the Susquehanna rivers—beautiful names.  More beautiful than the more general, more common regional name of Appalachia.

My ancestors were once immigrants like me.  Anna Barbara Kolb came from Germany to seek a better life with her two sons in the mid-1800s and the Kolb family is still farming those acres. My Mom's family have Amish roots, who married my Irish grandmother. The county I was born in hasn’t changed very much over the years, and it was a great place to grow up!  We lived off the land in a culture that I came to appreciate when I studied sociology at university.  

The other significant mountain in my life is Denali (‘The Great One’ or Mt McKinley) in Alaska.  Climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, was a life dream, which gave me the confidence to pursue my other life dream, which was getting my PhD. 

The thing about climbing Denali and running the Grand Canyon and working 20-28 day courses in the Colorado mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert was that I have experienced considerable, unadulterated isolation with minimal or no contact with the outside world.  Such experiences are so rare today.  

Let’s not become dis-placed, disembodied cyborgs.  My experience growing up on a farm and leading people in wilderness environments has taught me the value of keeping our minds and bodies connected. Sociologist Anthony Giddens talks about ‘deterritorialization,’ which refers to mediated and virtual environments lifting us out of our local place.  The danger of losing touch with place and our physical selves is not new, but it is one that is increasing rapidly as more and more of our world becomes increasingly virtual. 

The Maori custom of introductions beginning with a deep sense of place provides important context for human interaction.  Perhaps we all should find ways to 'reterritorialize' ourselves, to the physical places that matter to us.

Have a happy, connected New Year!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Inaugural lecture - Introduction, thanks, why 'connectivity'?

Darl G. Kolb
Professor of Connectivity
Inaugural Lecture
University of Auckland Business School
15 September 2015
Connectivity isn’t everything
(but it’s almost everything)
Connectivity underpins almost every aspect of contemporary life.  From toddlers with tablets and texting teens to smartphone addicts and the Internet of things, we are increasingly able to be connected anytime/anywhere.  But, ubiquitous and near-constant connectivity also comes with a price of fragmented attention, blurred work/non-work boundaries, and even (ironically) social isolation. The democratization of information and media is shifting power to the consumer of everything from hotels to hospitals, amidst unprecedented threats to privacy and security. Moreover, digitization, automation and machine-to-machine connectivity are changing work and organizations, and disrupting extant business models. Socio-technical theories have explained the interaction between humans and machines in the past, but we need new ways to think about information and computing tools that literally go with us everywhere we go. The conceptual and practical challenges are great, but increasing connectivity also brings extraordinary opportunities for news ways of working, innovative business models that can succeed from anywhere, and enhanced personal performance and well-being.


Thank you all for being here today. 

What some people won’t do for a glass of Goldie wine on a Tuesday afternoon. J

As some of you may know, the tradition here at Auckland is to give this lecture in academic regalia.  I like the tradition and my Cornell regalia, but the gown may have to go if it gets too warm in here.

One more caveat on format.  This is an inaugural lecture, not an inaugural TED Talk and while I normally admire and aspire to deliver TED-type talks, I can’t do that for 40 minutes, so if you’re expecting a TED Talk, this will be twice as long and half as entertaining. J

Before I begin, I would like to say a few words of thanks to those who have played a role in my being here today. To Stuart for the cool title.  To the Deans, Alastair (MacCormick), Barry (Spicer) and Greg (Whittred), all of whom have encouraged and supported me in different ways over the years.

To the many great academic and professional colleagues within the School, many of whom are here today.  Thanks for making this such a great place to work for nearly 24 years.  To every teacher who put up with me in class, thanks for your patience and encouragement! And, to my students over the years who have challenged and also contributed to my understanding.

To my parents who encouraged me to go out and see the world, knowing that I might not come back home. And, last, but certainly not least, many thanks to my wife, Joline Francoeur, who pulled me back into the raft in the middle of a rapid 36 years ago and who has helped keep me afloat in many ways ever since.

It is an honour to be giving this inaugural lecture, not just as a Professor of the Graduate School of Management, of which I am very proud, but as the first Professor of Connectivity.  I imagine many of you are wondering what a professor of connectivity does.  Some think I might fix their wireless router, but I am not that kind of doctor. In this talk, I hope to explain what this Professor of Connectivity does.  And, maybe inspire others to join me in this emerging field.

But, first, having lived in New Zealand for 23 years, I have come to appreciate the Maori concept of ‘whakapapa,’ that is introducing yourself, not by your credentials or achievements, but where you come from.  Where is your mountain.  Where is your river.  Where is the place and who are the people that brought you here and shaped who you are.

I grew up on a farm in Western Maryland.  My mountains are the Allegheny Mountains and my river is the Youghegeny River.  The significance of this place was that it was relatively isolated, geographically and socially, but we had a strong connection to the land, something I will return to later in this talk.

The other significant mountain in my life is Denali (Mt. McKinley) in Alaska.  Climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, at the age of 28 was a life dream, and it gave me the confidence to pursue another life dream, which was getting my PhD. 

The thing about climbing Denali and running the Grand Canyon and working month-long wilderness courses in the Colorado mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert was that I was fortunate to experience considerable isolation.  Such experiences are rare today.   I will also return to the importance of ‘solitude’ later in this talk.

So, these are some of the places and experiences I bring with me to this place and time.  Speaking of time, maybe I should get on with the talk. J

Why connectivity?

You may wonder how I came to be interested in the subject of ‘connectivity.’  Well, at the end of the 1990s, I was in the market for a new and ‘enduring problem’ to research. And, so it occurred to me that New Zealand had this problem with distance, which ironically seemed more pronounced after the World Wide Web and the tech boom of the 1990s. I decided that ‘managing distance’ would be my ‘enduring problem.’  So, I began reading the sociology of globalisation and the organizational literature on ‘distance.’ 

A turning point, however, was when my friend Deb Shepherd said to me after a research seminar I had given, ‘Distance is not a problem for most people in the world.  What about looking at the positive side of connectivity?’  And, that turn has made all the difference! Thanks, Deb!

Literature landmarks

From my Inaugural Lecture, 15 September 2015

Title: 'Connectivity isn't everything (but it's almost everything)'

Landmarks in the Literature
While all social science disciplines are concerned with human connections, there are three (3) landmarks in the literature that underpin my work.  These are information theory, social network theory and structuration theory and its variations.

In 1937, Claude Shannon, while a student at MIT, produced what has been called the most influential Masters thesis of the 20th Century. Published in 1938, it contained what we now call ‘information theory,’ the proposition that any and all data can be expressed in binary terms, of zeros (0s) and ones (1s).  Information theory made way for digitization, which underpins, just about everything we experience nowadays. It is estimated that a duodecillion, that’s 10 to the 39th power (1039), zero/one switches take place every second of every day, but that figure seems low to me. :-)

If information theory has created the digital world, the landmark that has transformed our social world is network theory.  In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram and others’ experiments demonstrated that it is ‘a small world after all.’  Milgram challenged his students to deliver a letter to a subject 1000 miles away using friends-of-friends.  The average number of links was 6 and therefore the popular notion of ‘6 degrees of separation’ was born. 
A few years later, Mark Granovetter discovered that we get more and better resources from those more distant and less well known to us.  His article, entitled the ‘strength of weak ties,’ basically explains how Facebook and LinkedIn work.  While the power of Social Network Analysis is debatable, networks are currently seen, not just as a way to find a job or a place to eat, but as a metaphor of society (Castells, The Rise of the Network Society).

The third major landmark in the literature is the social construction of reality, which challenged functionalist views of society and technological determinism.  In my senior year at college, we read Berger and Luckmann’s book, entitled The Social Construction of Reality and it blew my mind! 

Returning to the sociology literature years later I discovered Giddens’ structuration theory and it was slightly easier to understand, but also offers a more compelling case for individual agency or choice in the face of social structures (norms), something I believe is critical to living in a connected world.   In structuration, agency is intertwined (constrained and enabled) with structure in a duality, a relationship that I also found applicable to connectivity. 

A related strand of thinking that is more specifically related to connectivity is the evolution of our thinking about how we socially create meaning through, around and with technology.  The socio-technical school begin in Britain in the 1950s and advanced through Barley and others’ work in the 1980s.  Orlikowski, Scott, Barley et al have since reminded us of the importance of the material attributes of technologies and we now have the ‘sociomaterial’ school of thought. 

Essentially, the sociomaterial view is that while society is still socially constructed, our interpretations, enactments and sense making all involve, and are affected (though not necessary determined by) the material attributes (including design, functionality, look and feel) of the technology and anything in the material world.  In short, we humans make stuff up in our heads, but the stuff outside our heads--and in our hands--still matters!

Based on these foundations, I would now like to highlight four (4) contributions that I having introduced to the literature, namely the:

sociomaterial nature of connectivity,

the duality of connects and disconnects,

attributes of connectivity, and

states of connectivity.