Tuesday, December 2, 2008

IBM and the Numerati

Not too long ago I read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons'. This book introduced me to some people I've vaguely heard of, but didn't really know: the Illuminati. Actually I'm not really sure I know them after reading Brown's book. Are they real? Have they actually done the stuff Brown describes? And are they still active?

The same kind of questions popped up when I recently ran into a new book by Stephen Baker, "The Numerati". Actually I first read some of the buzz on this book and read an excerpt in Business Week. I plan to buy the book and read it soon.

Based on the excerpt and other posts I read on this book, my first impression is: very interesting, thought-provoking stuff. As I understand, the basic question is: how far can you go with data, numbers, digital objects? If you have lots of them, what can you do, has been and is being done with them?

What I like about this question, is the fact that it doesn't relate to the postmodern world we're living in. Postmodernism says, among others, nothing is true, objective. Everything is relative, relational. 'It all depends.' This book seems to say: we can make much more objective than we think. We may even be able to steer and manage employees by continually monitoring them.

Sifting through résumés and project records, the team can assemble a profile of each worker's skills and experience. Online calendars show how employees use their time and who they meet with. By tracking the use of cell phones and handheld computers, Takriti's researchers may be able to map the workers' movements. Call records and e-mails define the social networks of each consultant. Whom do they copy on their e-mails? Do they send blind copies to certain people?

Takriti is the mastermind behind IBM's work to apply 'the Numerati' to their company. The next big step could be "to take tools like this and tie them to scheduling and productivity programs". And this what IBM is doing:

Haren says the efforts under way at places like IBM will not only break down each worker into sets of skills and knowledge. The same systems will also divide their days and weeks into small periods of time—hours, half-hours, eventually even minutes. At the same time, the jobs that have to be done, whether it's building a software program or designing an airliner, are also broken down into tiny steps. In this sense, Haren might as well be describing the industrial engineering that led to assembly lines a century ago. Big jobs are parsed into thousands of tasks and divided among many workers. But the work Haren is discussing is not done by hand, hydraulic presses, or even robots. It flows from the brain. The labor is defined by knowledge and ideas. As he sees it, that expertise will be tapped minute by minute across the world. This job sharing is already starting to happen, as companies break up projects and move big pieces of them offshore. But once the workers are represented as mathematical models, it will be far easier to break down their days into billable minutes and send their smarts to fulfill jobs all over the world.

This sounds scary right? To me it does. And it sound unethical too. But I do want to give it more thought. This could be a good thing too. Takriti says: "As the tools ... make workers more productive, the market will reward them."

Isn't this part of what the web 2.0 world is showing us? Be open, social, transparent and you will be rewarded. Share your knowledge voluntarily and you will be rewarded. Most bloggers say they are more productive. Most micro-bloggers say the same. And non-blogger say we're crazy, too open, you'll loose you identity etc. But, isn't this Numerati-ish? I know, not every keystroke is being recorded, but still, some web 2.0 users seem to be very close to what Numerati describes IBM is doing.

I do have a more philosophical issue with the Numerati, though. I was happy we left the 'old' SECI-KM-model behind. This model basically said we can make all our knowledge explicit (externalize) and when we do so we have a perfect situation in the organization. So, lots of companies went ahead and built big knowledge bases. Nobody ended up using them. Filling them and keeping them up-to-date was very painstaking. And we found that explicit 'knowledge' is not all the knowledge we have. There's lots of implicit knowledge (to keep with the dichotomy).

But what are the IBM Numerati doing? They're taking all the objective data and pretending this is the complete description of a knowledge worker. Everything the knowledge worker does can be related to what he/she does in the digital domain. We all know this is not true. For instance, I can be a C++ programmer. I'm programming all day and this can tell others something about my level of expertise. But I never type into the computer that I am an expert and others don't type that in either. Furthermore, to be a good programmer you need skill you typically don't type in either. So, an important part of my expertise is not recorded...

To round this post up. "The Numerati" definitely sounds like a nice read. It provides good food-for-thought and -discussion. And that's what a good book should do. If you agree with the point of the book or not!

5 comments:

  1. It does sound scary, yes.
    You ask: Isn't this part of what the web 2.0 world is showing us?

    My answer it is completely unlike web2.0!
    In Web2.0 I decide what to share, and with whom, and after I have shared I remain the visible owner of that which I shared. What I share serves me personally firt and foremost: it strengthens my relationships with others.
    What you describe reads more like doing 'a Taylor' on your employees: looking in minute detail at what a person is doing and derive your process and efficiency gains from that. It may create transparancy in a sense, but not of the voluntary kind, the transparancy created is not owned by the originator of the data, and it seems only meant for a couple of people to use. This is more about creating a power difference based on an information advantage than it is about transparancy and sharing information.

    All just from the gist of your description, and Dave Snowdens response from september as well as Luis response, not from reading the actual book.

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  2. Hi Samuel! Very well written blog post, indeed! Glad you brought it into your blog and developed the topic at large. I must say I completely agree with Ton on the approach. It is so much against Web 2.0! Why? Because *I* am not in control of what I share, when I share it and with whom I share it. As soon as a system like that kicks in I lose that control of my own privacy, which *I* define, not the company. I find it much more rewarding that the business value and trusts me for doing the professional job I was hired for, and as such it should understand as well there are some things I would want to share and others I wouldn't want to. That initiative mentioned in the book doesn't certainly indicate there would be choice, which I think is what Web 2.0 nails it down to all along.

    Which is the main reason why I created that blog post sharing a few thoughts from myself as well as some other thoughts from IBM itself and how it stands to it. Yes, I haven't read the book yet, all of these are my two cents from reading the preview, further extensive reviews on the book and other bloggers commenting on the subject. I may be able to read it soon and provide some insights, but thought I would share these comments over here as well.

    Thanks again for this lovely blog post!

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  3. Hi Samuel,

    Yes, this is well written. Indeed, some will never give up trying installing big brother systems. How are we gonna prevent this from happening?

    Harold

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  5. I am very pleased to find this blog. I want to thank for your time for this wonderful read!!! Keep Sharing, I'll surely be looking for more.

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