Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Micro companies need mega corporations

My previous post highlighted the rise of the micro company - this post will look at the flip side of this trend - the consolidation of power in mega corporations.

For every cottage 'power seller' there has to be an Ebay, for every stall in the 'market place', an Amazon, for every millionaire bedroom software developer, an App Store

The lubricants in the micro company economy are concentrated in the hands of the internet giants. To take an example
  • John sells his screen-printed T-shirts on Ebay.
  • His customers, if they don't find him there, stumble across his Etsy store on Google.
  • They pay by Paypal.
  • The goods are shipped by Fedex.
The paradox of network effects in the modern internet architecture is that structural power is most successfully achieved by devolving power to the masses. The platform is the power.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The rise of the micro-company

I've been reading Tim Ferris' The 4-hour Work Week recently and he identifies that one of the key enablers of the new work is the increasing ability to successfully outsource functions that previously would have had to have been performed in-house.

The theory of the firm supports the existence of large organisations that reduce costs by performing tasks in-house. Thus it becomes cheaper to hire a web designer and pay a full time salary than hiring one only when needed for specific projects.

Decreasing costs of communication and collaboration have flipped this on its head. Sites like Elance mean that professionals can be hired on a project-by-project basis.

There has been tremendous growth in freelance work over the past generation, and in some industries freelance work is becoming so dominant that it is considered bad advice to get a job.

However, there will also be the emergence of 'micro-companies', that are able to serve huge markets with tiny numbers of full time staff. Think Craigslist, with just 23 staff.
37signals called this market the Fortune 5 million.

It's not just internet companies. As Tim Ferris showed in running BrainQuicken, with a virtual assistant and an loose network of support service providers and online affiliate resellers, individuals are able to operate companies that support order books far larger than traditional companies, which require staff to make sales from physical stores.

With the rise of software as a service and online human marketplaces such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk which allow individuals to scale their operations as needed, this could soon become the 'Fortune 1 billion'

Monday, 6 April 2009

The future of work

I would like to take a break from education to look at what comes after education - the world of work, and how technology is likely to disrupt the traditional (in the mass-industrial era) patterns of employment.

The industrial notion of a stable job in a large corporate, with its clear hierarchy and defined experience, is being replaced by an ever shifting landscape of nomadic individuals combining in flexible and fluid organisations.

There are a number of key forces acting on society's current economic reorganisation, including
  • decreasing costs of organisation
  • declining capital costs of tools of value creation
  • rise of the creator economy
  • expansion of education
  • extension of working life
I will try to look at these over the next few posts, and seek to identify how technology is shaping organisations - both from the social perspective of the individual (i.e. relationship with employer) and from the managerial perspective of the organisation (relationship with employee).

Sunday, 29 March 2009

A pause

There's been a brief hiatus where I've been very busy at work.

I am also now using Twitter to highlight interesting articles when I've not got the time to go into greater depth - see the box on the right or follow the updates here

Very interested to see if Twitter represents the hive mind that some view as the future of search.

Having read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds a couple of years ago the idea of emergent properties resulting from individual micro-actions is intriguing. But as with Google, the true impact of Twitter is likely to be some way off as users both shape and adapt the service through improved 'Twiteracy'.
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Monday, 9 March 2009

A response to 'Hacking education (continued)'

I highlighted the Union Square Ventures 'Hacking Education' event in a couple of previous posts here and here.

The event happened recently generated a lot of ideas. (Ken Robinson, who's TED talk I've mentioned before was one of the many attendees)

Fred Wilson has a summary of the key themes of the day here.

My initial thoughts are that current trends in both technology and more importantly society suggest that many of these ideas will become closer to reality quicker than seems possible.

However, we must be careful not to extrapolate too far. A couple of initial thoughts spring to mind around the need to differentiate between education for older students and younger children.

I would guess that a large part of the VC interest in education surrounds the potential to expand the market beyond the traditional school/university model and encourage continual learning/skill development (with the extra revenue potential that this may bring).

People are using technology to communicate and share information in new ways. Many of these will find their way into the education system and this process will bring huge opportunities and transform the ways in which people learn (and are taught - or more importantly, teach themselves).

However I believe that students' ability to take full advantage of these opportunities will depend on them having a solid foundation, laid by caring and attentive teachers. As BF Skinner said:

"Education is what survives when what has been learned is forgotten"

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Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Apple have recently added iTunes U into the iTunes store.

As a longtime skeptic of Apple evangelists, I was somewhat frustrated to find myself joining their camp when I recently got an iPhone.

Without lavishing undue praise on Apple (there are enough sites doing that, and soon even a film) one thing Apple has successfully achieved repeatedly in the past is disruptive innovation.

If there is anyone who can simplify and popularise education it is Apple.

Not only do they have the right brand image to get kids to check out the new offerings, they also have a history of ensuring that ease of use is a priority. The more accessible educational material is, the more it is consumed.

Someone who starts off downloading an Oxford lecture that uses Facebook as an introduction to the theory of the strength of weak ties can easily move on to listening to a reading of Beowulf.

While Apple's move will not revolutionise education overnight (how many schoolchildren have iPhones?), where Apple focuses, others usually follow.

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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Unlocking passion creates outliers

Ken Robinson's new book is about how 'How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything'

Why is this?

Because it enables you to achieve success. Malcolm Gladwell recently popularised the 10,000 hour theory of success in Outliers. Gladwell's theory shatters the myth that some people are inherently more talented than others, attributing success instead to sheer hard work. His examples include the Beatles and Bill Gates, who had spent 10,000 hours programming before he'd even hit college.

That is why enabling people to find their passion changes everything. Nobody has the determination to rack up 10,000 hours doing something they don't enjoy. Yet when you are passionate about an activity, you positively want to invest as many hours as possible - because its not 'work' or 'practice' - it's just you, doing what you love.

The 10,000 hour rule and its emphasis on hard graft explains the virtuous circle that people are good at what they enjoy and enjoy what they are good at.

If education did a better job of helping people discover their passions, then maybe Gladwell's subjects wouldn't be such outliers.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Hacking education (part III)

The title of this post comes from two posts entitled 'Hacking Education' which I read recently.

I referred to the first in my post below. It is written by the venture capitalist Fred Wilson over at www.avc.com.

The second comes from Jeff Jarvis (author of What Would Google Do?)

The fact that venture capitalists are looking to invest in educational ventures is exciting because venture capital has a history of stimulating disruptions by providing the necessary finance to innovative companies.

But I also think that it his post is exciting as he sums up the opportunities that technology offers education
The tools to do this are right in front of us; peer production, collaboration, social networking, web video, voip, open source, even game play. I think we can look at what has happened to the big media institutions over the past ten years as a guide to how to do this...We all have to start participating and engaging in educating each other.
As I outlined before, money alone cannot change things. However Jeff Jarvis sees increasing pressure in both supply and demand:
I’m one among many who believe that there are huge opportunities in education, not just to change and improve it but to find new business opportunities. That’s true especially now, as the economic crisis forces people to reconsider and change paths.

Who needs a university when we have Google? All the world’s digital knowledge is available at a search. We can connect those who want to know with those who know. We can link students to the best teachers for them (who may be fellow students). We can find experts on any topic. Textbooks need no longer be petrified on pages but can link to information and discussion; they can be the products of collaboration, updated and corrected, answering questions and giving quizzes, even singing and dancing. There’s no reason my children should be limited to the courses at one school; even now, they can get coursework online from no less than MIT and Stanford.
However for a true reflection of the potential for education to be 'hacked', I think this video says it perfectly on so many levels

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Where is the money?

The passion is certainly there.

After I posted linking to Ken Robinson's talk on how schools currently kill creativity, I checked the TED talks page.

Ken's speech is the most emailed and the most favourited

But where is the money?

Without funding, the waves of disruption can only go so far.

While great people will work in education for more than just the financial rewards, to really revolutionise teaching, companies and organisations must get involved. Indeed, it is only by changing the current structures of education provision that real disruption will occur

Fortunately, it looks as though funds may looking to invest in innovative new approaches to education.

It's certainly exciting to see that the people behind such internet luminaries as Twitter, Etsy
and Meetup scouting for opportunities within the education space.

However money doesn't always equal success - the first internet boom saw educational ventures raise significant funds, only for some of them to fold during the subsequent bust

What's different this time?

At the risk of inflating yet another bubble - the online experience is very different from the heady days of 1999, both from the providers' and the users' point of view.

Collaboration was in its infancy, user generated content was more of a possibility than a reality, and more than anything, people were not socialising online. During the last tech-boom, the internet was a place where you went to buy cheap goods, rather than a place that you lived your life.

Education has always been about learning more than the curriculum taught in the classroom, and new 'online education' sites offer far more than just a facility for accessing information, they offer a platform for education that is open in the same way that Wikipedia has become such a valuable education tool right the way up to graduate level.

New structures

Ultimately, collaborative sites such as Wikipedia have highlighted that not only do all of us have areas of knowledge, but we are willing to share that knowledge with others if given the opportunity to do so.

If online education is to succeed, then finding ways to integrate the latent desire that people have to share their knowledge into the education system would be a great step forward

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Time to ingnite the passion economy

Can technology disrupt the education system so that more students fulfill their full potential?

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term 'disruptive innovation', certainly thinks so, turning his focus to education in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

I have already written about the game-changing possibilities for education, and Christensen has recently picked a number of disrupters who are looking to challenge the status quo.

Igniting passion

Saul Kaplan has a great post over at The Business Innovation Factory about the need to create a 'passion economy'

What he says mirrors Ken Robinson's TED speech about how the current education system is failing not only the students, but society as a whole, by stifling people's natural passions

He also has a book out which explores how 'finding your passion changes everything'.

The more we encourage and enable people to find their passion, not only do we increase our ability to solve the world's problems, but we also create a better, happier world for everyone.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Innovative teaching methods - making things stick

Teaching methods are another area that offers great opportunities for innovative providers.

Gerd Gigerenzer's Reckoning with Risk shows how traditional methods often leave people with a poor grasp of statistics.

While statistics may sound like a small area of mathematics, Gigerenzer uses examples from medicine and law to highlight the importance of ensuring that we do not misunderstand statistical information

This is best shown with an example:

The probability that a woman of age 40 has breast cancer is about 1%. If she has breast cancer, the probability that she tests positive on a mammogram is 90%. If she does not have breast cancer, the probability that she nevertheless tests positive is 9%.

What are the chances that a woman who tests positive actually has breast cancer?
Presented in this format, most people suggest that the probability is about 90%, as they are confused by the framing of the situation in probabilities.

However Gigerenzer then presents the problem in natural frequencies

Think of 100 women. One has breast cancer, and she will probably test positive. Of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, 9 will also test positive. Thus, a total of 10 women will test positive.

How many of those who test positive will actually have breast cancer?
This way of presenting the numbers clearly shows that 90% of women who test positive would not actually have cancer.

Which way would you prefer your doctor to have been taught?

Gigerenzer goes on to illustrate this with the example of an experiment where American and German students were taught statistics using probabilities and natural frequencies.

German students have traditionally better at understanding probability based statistical teaching, and retain that knowledge better.

However, when taught to convert probabilities into natural frequencies, both groups acheived significantly better results

Even more impressive however, is the difference on retention - in both groups students were able to continue to apply the techniques accurately on later tests, which they were unable to do when taught using traditional probabilities.

As Gigerenzer says, dealing with uncertainty is a crucial skill in today's world, and the better able people are to accurately evaluate outcomes, the better they are able to deal with reality and all its inherent challenges.


However, the more important
development that comes out of teaching students in ways that 'stick', is that everyone enjoys things more when they can do them well.

This changes everything.

While the above example involves maths, the development of new teaching methods to ensure 'stickiness' means that students will face learning with a whole new outlook.

The idea of making things stick comes from the book of the same name by Chip and Dan Heath. Dan co-founded Thinkwell, a company which specialises in new media textbooks.

As Carl Tyson, the current CEO of Thinkwell says "
education and learning are fundamental to making our country competitive in the world".

As detailed in my previous post, I think that education not only offers to make a country competitive, but also improves out chances of solving many of the world's problems.

Although unfortunately I wasn't taught using natural frequencies so I'm not sure how much...!

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The future of education; education as our future?

While researching my previous post on Teachstreet, I came across Edufire.

While Teachstreet generally focuses on offline 'extracurricular' learning (e.g. cooking, music), Edufire offers online video classes (mainly based around languages or exam preparation).

Seeing Edufire in action got me thinking about Chris Anderson's answer to the annual Edge Question, "What will change everything?" - that a web-empowered revolution in teaching will change everything by unlocking the potential of a higher proportion of the world's population.

Anderson suggests that knowledge and inspiration will be the catalysts for this 'great awakening' of human potential

    If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there's a real chance your life will indeed be transformed.

    There are many scary things about today's world. But one that is truly thrilling is that the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater

Anderson is the founder of TED, which clearly aims to offer inspiration, while Edufire is looking to provide the knowledge element of the equation

Certainly Edufire is still in its early stages - the class focus remains very narrow, the audience is unlikely to be children in Africa overlooked by traditional education. But the potential is there.

If companies like Edufire can develop a sustainable business model, then the global rollout of online education may be only delayed by technological limitations, and as Anderson says, "a young girl born in Africa today...might just end up being person who saves the planet for our grandchildren"

Monday, 2 February 2009

Teachstreet - made for the 'Experience Economy'

Teachstreet is a great example of a business that has positioned itself to tap into consumer demand for experiences rather than mere products or brands.

While Trendwatching identified this movement towards skill based status back in the boom-time of late 2006, this trend is only likely to increase as people turn away from conspicuous consumption.

Indeed, as consumers refocus on value, learning new skills offers long-lasting value that few other purchases can match.

As the backlash against credit card debt increases, and people have more free time to occupy themselves they will look to activities other than 'shopping'.

The boom in 'craft' activities and education reflects people's desire to leave behind the throwaway excesses of consumer culture and hark back to a simpler time

Teachstreet's beauty is that they not only encourage community involvement through their now-standard 'social networking' features, but also that their feedback system allows would-be students to overcome their fear of being out of their depth, or ripped-off. Another previously opaque industry gets a light shone into it

Teachstreet's position at the convergence of these trends mean that they have every chance of succeeding if they can generate critical mass