Thursday, October 25, 2012

The world is not flat

Pankaj Ghemawat explores how distance still matters in a global management context.  He challenges Thomas Friedman's famous claim that the world is flat.*  In his recent Ted Talk, Ghemawat offers some surprising data and perspectives on global connectivity (and the lack thereof).

I have always questioned Friedman's thesis too, and in 2007 gave a paper at the Globally Distributed Work conference in Bangalore, India, entitled, "Redefining Distance: Why the World is Not Flat, and Distance can Never be 'Dead'"

A review of the literature shows there are many different ways to define distance, i.e., geo-physical, temporal (time as proxy for distance), 'gravity' (i.e., trade diminishes as we get farther away), the centre-periphery problem, distance in networks, etc.

My position in the paper is that, in an inter-connected world, it makes sense to define distance as 'connective gaps.' So, the connective distance between Point A and Point B may be the physical gap of physical distance, i.e., the number of kilometers between London and New York, or the time (gap) it takes to fly from London to New York, whereas the connective distance is only a few seconds via the Internet.

*To be fair, Friedman does acknowledge in his book that the world is not really flat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rate, rank, review...the cult of verification

Hey, I just heard about a great restaurant.  Let's Google a review of it.

Sound familiar?  This is a great way to take the risk (and adventure) out of day-to-day decisions.  But, are we creating a cult of verification, where everything must be rated, ranked and reviewed?  Do we really need ratings, league table rankings and reviews to make a simple decision?  Apparently so. Trip Advisor, for example, contains over 75 million reviews of travel-related services and gets 60 million page views per month, or about 2 million per day!

Only a small fraction of users write reviews.  But, what motivates them?  For some it is their way to have their say, or to keep commerce honest. The Internet as truth serum.  It turns out, however, that many reviewers are paid evangelists, singing the praise of a place to eat or stay... for a small fee.

Susan Scott and Wanda Orlikowski have been studying the way that on-line reviews and ratings actually change behaviours in the hospitality industry.  Hoteliers and restauranteurs begin their day checking their reviews and ratings.  Behaviour modification you might say.  But, is popularity always a proxy for quality? Recall that historically good ideas are not always popular, and popular ideas are not always good.

Everyone loves a Top 10 List.  Recently, the Academy of Management published a ranked list of the 'top' 384 management scholars.  Of course, no mention was made of the quality of ideas these people had contributed. Rather, citations and web page views were used as proxy for 'impact.' In the end, these astute authors did acknowledge that, 'Our results indicate that top performers in terms of impact inside the Academy do not necessarily have a similar impact outside the Academy' (Aguinis et al, 2012, p.129). If you ever suspected that too many business school academics are more interested in vacuous narcissism than making organizations work better, now you have verification.  Or, at least you have read a review of a review of it.

Good news.  I am currently ranked in the top third of all humans alive, according to my new website: www.PersonAdvisor, where we can all find out exactly where we stand.  :-)

Update 5 May 2013 - New York Times article on how following restaurant ratings (on Yelp) not only can be wrong, but following the crowd diminishes our own individual judgments of and preferences for what is good or not.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The kindness of strangers

When we think of 'networks,' we now typically think of our social networks, that is the people we know and consider 'friends.'

Network analysis can show how we are connected, or can be connected, to people who are otherwise 'far' from us.  This is the 'small world,' or '6 degrees of separation' thesis, which was originally proposed and tested by pyschologist, Stanley Milgram in the 1960's.

The 'network effect' can be a powerful way to mobilize our network connections.  Recent examples of start-ups getting capital (in some cases, lots of it!) from people they have never met.  Of course, these micro-investors are still investors and eventually will want a return, or at least their money back (no guarantees, of course, if you're thinking of investing with the 'crowd').

Another wonderful feature of networks is what can be referred to as 'the kindness of strangers.' Networks have the ability to put us in contact with and receive help from others who don't know us.  One of these systems that I am personally familiar with is the home exchange system. There are several of these exchange networks, some specialised in teachers, others that facilitate 'couch surfing' for younger travellers.  We have used the site for two longer sabbatical trips.  In 2000, we went to Krakow, Poland, Alicudi, a small island off Sicily, Italy and Weinheim, Germany.  This year, we had 3 more great experiences, two in France (Najac and Lyon) and one in Maine, USA. In fact, we have decided to keep our house listed and are exchanging with a couple in Colorado to ski in January.  In exchange, they will come stay in our place in New Zealand when it suits them.

The wonders of home exchanges are many. First, of course, is that your accommodation is taken care of by 'strangers.'  Second, you get to stay in a home (or second home, condo, RV, etc.) rather than a tourist hotel. Relatedly, you get to meet the neighbours and often make friends of your exchangers' friends while you're there. In Alicudi, for example, we became good friends with the local friends of our host during our 8-week stay and when we left the island, we had a wonderful going away dinner that we will always remember.  And, in some cases (but not required), you might stay in touch with and become friends with your fellow exchangers.

Believe it or not, has been going for 20 years and the trend seems to be growing.  As baby boomers travel more, their sense of community and sharing, coupled with their real estate holdings make home exchanges an attractive option for many travellers.  The psychology of exchange is simple: You share a place to stay with us, and we will do the same.  This web-enabled 'kindness of strangers' is not just a way to save money. It is a wonderful way to connect with those far away.