February 2007

"Give Us Linux!"

February 27, 2007

Dell asked “its market” how it could improve its value to customers and there was just one resounding voice: give us open source software, and invest in developing it. Take a look at this interesting BusinessWeek article.

An Update: On Doc Searl's weblog, he mentions Glyn Moody's proposal for Dell to set up an independent business unit for GNU/Linux development. You can check out the proposal at Dell's Digg-style site, IdeaStorm.

On Management

February 16, 2007

Managers are in the game of organizing work for the sake of delivering recurrent value to a set of customers and constituencies:

  1. Managers design organizational structures, cross-functional horizontal processes, extended open networks, action pathways, management systems & a wide variety of business practices.

  2. Managers design, implement, and develop business roles.

  3. Managers mobilize action by exchanging commitments, caring for others' concerns, anticipating breakdowns, re-interpreting contexts, and assuring customer satisfaction on-time and on-cost.

  4. Managers declare priorities, declare breakdowns, manage risks, and reconfigure capabilities.

  5. Managers develop trust and cultivate productive and creative moods.

  6. Managers contribute to their communities by mentoring people, developing meaningful work, and honoring ethical principles of extended communities.


All that managers do happens in conversations, in a dance of speaking and listening. Productive conversations produce productive managers, and vice versa. Management is fundamentally based in traditions of historical linguistic practices.

Ontological Design

February 15, 2007

In the early 80s, an engineer captivated by the emergence of PCs and networks, working at Stanford University and completing his PhD at Berkeley University, produced a historical philosophical insight. After many years of working with his theoretical breakthrough, he hesitated on how to name it. He tried “hermeneutic pragmatic”, and after a while “pragmatic hermeneutics.” He abandoned both, and never persevered in creating a definite name for his contribution.

His work wasn't particularly theoretical or abstract. On the contrary, he chose very practical issues as the terrain to develop his thinking: software design, management, organizational & processes design, education & skill development. In engineer Fernando Flores' view, most of the difficulties related with productivity, quality, and innovation were rooted in modern understandings of work. His critique didn't target particular management traditions, such as bureaucratic administration, scientific management, rational decision making, or the cybernetic approach. His critique was directed at the philosophical underpinning of all those theories at once.

Inspired by Martin Heidegger – or better, by Hubert Dreyfus' interpretation of Heidegger – and by John L. Austin – in professor Searle's version – Flores claimed that modern understanding of work missed one fundamental piece: a phenomenology of action. It sounded simple, but with that claim, he was turning up-side down a wide variety of management assumptions, organizational development criteria, and software design principles. Furthermore, he was spotting a historical cognitive blindness.

As an illustration, I'm going to point out a few of his claims. He claimed that the essence of work is communication, that human communication in a business context is about engaging in conversations and exchanging commitments, and that commitment always happens in the listening of the involved actors (including the situations in which I'm listening myself). Consequently, he developed a wide variety of theoretical papers that reinterpreted traditional thinking, putting at the center this new perspective language and human coordination. He and his team wrote on a wide variety of subjects including: managing networks of conversations, linguistic ontology of organizations, conversations for action, conversations for possibilities, ontological reconstruction of discourses, team leadership, focalization of strategy, and even subjects that seem closer to psychology than to business, like cognitive emotions and moods.

While exploring the possibilities of his theoretical insight, Flores assembled a diverse team that included computer scientists, biologists, physicians, philosophers, politicians and a variety of business professionals. Among the most active contributors were Francisco Varela, Michael Graves, Richard Owen, Rachelle Halpern, Chauncey Bell, and Bob Dunham. They simultaneously built a company – Logonet, Inc., set up a lab for designing networked social practices (Ontological Design Course ODC), and created a discipline that they named Ontological Design.

In many respects, Ontological Design was a reaction to a pervasive orientation in education, psychology, and management unbalances to be extremely prolific in explaining the past, and extremely weak in shaping futures.

The basic premise of Ontological Design was that the primordial foundation of human realities and human existence is the historical stability of patterns in a wide variety of interplaying and autonomous phenomenological domains. Using technology and networking for distinguishing patterns, observing patterns, assessing patterns, and creating new patterns was at the core of the game.

Flores' insight was that there are a set of linguistic patterns configured and evolved out of human social life, that allowed human beings to share historical worlds and to create new worlds. He called those patterns commitments, and he distinguished four basic forms: Request, Promises, Declarations, and Assertions. The original intuition on this matter came from previous works of Adolf Reinach and John Austin; however, Flores hermeneutic interpretation of these linguistic patterns gave them whole new dimensions. Probably, the change is equivalent in magnitude to what Karl Marx did in reinterpreting G.W. F. Hegel's dialectic.

These linguistic patterns – commitments – become the primordial principles of Ontological Design. Basic human practices like communicating, learning skills, managing a team, dealing with money, or developing careers were complex unities whose components were simple commitments. Consequently, those practices were reconstructed as structures of recurrent conversations built out of commitment.

Following the same approach, valuable historical disciplines like management, finances, education, manufacturing (TPS), politics, software design, among others, were reinterpreted as discourses and practices whose essential value rested in its capacity to synthesize patterns of commitment, and by that, able to disclose possibilities and disclose action pathways to effectively address specific business, social, political, spiritual or any other historical human concern.

The notion of commitment empowered the Ontological Designers to put most of their attention on inventing patterns to shape the future, and to overcome the often wasteful explaining-the-past habit.

The notion of commitment seems obvious, and for that reason is most of the time unnoticed or overlooked. Commitment patterns have some very striking aspects.

  1. Commitments are social practices that allow us to bring forth new futures, by virtue of being celebrated in the present, based in past consensual conventions. We produce action in social networks based in our capacity to invent and celebrate commitments. Basic patterns of commitment are few; they exist in every culture – in their own way; they exist with independence of idioms; and they produce enormous simplicity and focus at the moment of producing action.

  2. Commitments are at the heart of language, and make us sensitive to the facticity that, in speaking and in listening, we are never describing an objective-independent world. To the contrary, we are socially co-configuring – better to say disclosing – a shared world based in consensual distinctions and a shared background of practices and habits.

  3. The ultimate grounding of our commitments is our communal humanity that grants modern human beings the freedom to bring forth commitments – out of traditions, nothingness, and will – and the obligation to cope with the consequences.

So, going back to our story on Ontological Designers, I said that the core of their design work was designing commitment-based practices, and exercising them. In doing so, they produced new practical skills. They were able to build paradigmatic practices to modify individual and collective styles or cultural orientations – a rather existential exploration, and they were able to articulate – reconstruct, and make visible – and modify social habits, emotional patterns, and moods.

There are three valuable sources for this story: Understanding Computers and Cognition by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, Disclosing New Worlds, by Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, and Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life by Robert Solomon and Fernando Flores

I was an early participant in this experiment and I will share with you my view about what was produced in that prolific social lab and I will also elaborate on what I have produced out of my work with ontological design.

Morphing Faces

February 13, 2007

A link to a YouTube video showing an interesting tool for modeling and animating 3-D faces.

Poorly Predicting Happiness

Check out this post about Dan Gilbert, a professor of Psychology at Harvard. Steve's post contains a link to a video of the professor illustrating how human beings are poor predictors of their own happiness. Also, take some time to explore the TED website. There are some very interesting conversations happening in this group.

Software as Services

Everything is about services. Products are mere service platforms. Good products are ready-to-hand capacities, without the associated risks, logistics issues and maintenance of the "thing". Take a look at this post: I Love Software as a Service.

The Illusion of Controlling People

I recently put together a short document showing how "having control of people" in an organization is tangibly having a set of well-designed, robust action pathways for some business roles. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

McDonough's Articulation of Design Principles

February 09, 2007

In my previous post, I mentioned three sets of design principles. Below are William McDonough's interpretations of two sets of tacit design principles for organizing social production. I took them from his book, Cradle-to-Cradle. Of course, these are imaginary recreations. However, they are interesting because they map "social intelligence."
Design Principles for the Industrial Movement: Design a system of production that:
  1. Puts billions of pounds of toxic material into the air, water, and soil every year
  2. Produces some materials so dangerous they will require constant vigilance by future generations
  3. Results in gigantic amounts of waste
  4. Puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet, where they can never be retrieved
  5. Requires thousands of complex regulations--not to keep people and natural systems safe, but rather to keep them from being poisoned too quickly
  6. Measures productivity by how few people are working
  7. Creates prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burying or burning them
  8. Erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices
Design Principles for a Community of Ants As part of their daily activities, ants:
  1. Safely and effectively handle their own material wastes and those of other species,
  2. Grow and harvert their own food while nurturing the ecosystem of which they are part,
  3. Construct houses, farms, dumps, cemeteries, living quarters, and food-stroage facilities from materials that can be truly recycled,
  4. Create disinfectants and medicines that are health, safe, and biodegradable,
  5. Maintain soil health for the entire planet.

A Failing Transparency of Design Principles in Health Care?

February 07, 2007

There are three layers of design principles out of which people design. I have begun to articulate them in this document. As always, read this blog, take a look at the document, and send me your suggestions.

The three principles are:

  1. Theoretical Design Principles: These are the discourses and theoretical distinctions to observe, evaluate and act in the phenomenological domain in which the design is taking place. For example, if you are going to design mortgage lending services, the underlying theoretical principles out of which you would design would be financial theory, risk theory, organizational theory, cognitive biology, phenomenology, etc.

  2. Ethical Design Principles: These are the basic ethical values of a particular historical period which shape your design. For example, today, in the domain of Open Source, companies don't design and build proprietary products controlled and shaped by themselves. They instead share their intellectual property with users as a way of getting feedback, building a stronger network, and improving their service.

  3. Projectual Design Principles: These are the principles that define the value proposition a particular company or collective is willing to deliver for a particular set of communities. These principles are often implicit in the business model of a company. Google promotes user-generated-services; consequently one of their projectual principles is to release the code of some of their services. Dell supports market standards; consequently one of their projectual principles is avoid defensive R&D and defensive functionality in their product development.

At the HAAS School's Business in Health Care Conference, there were many intelligent, innovative, and devoted members designing and innovating in the health care system. As I mentioned in this post, Suzy Jones from Genentech spoke about innovation in the company. She showed, among other things, that Genentech did not believe in separating the know-how from the people producing that know-how. And in investing in the people, Genentech not only got more know-how, but built a new sense of trust and collaboration with people thinking about the same problems. The company has this fundamental design principle for expanding collaboration into innovation networks. Now, they are designing new types of contracts--new protocols of communication--that have produced a new common sense and a new thinking about managing vast networks of collaboration with deals built on mutual trust, sensitivity to mutual concerns, and some alignment of priorities.

In contrast with this design approach favoring vitality and decentralization, we have the implicit design approach of most of the health care reform proposals.

Currently, the health care system is organized based on a centralized top-down design criteria. Teisberg and Porter declared three basic theoretical principles, which are 180°s from what mainstream players are thinking and talking about now, as fundamental to designing a health system. These principles are:

  1. Redefining the relation between the major constituencies of the system and putting the patient at the center.

  2. Stimulating value-added competition in opposition to zero-sum competition.

  3. Promoting information transparency and customer access to personal data.

By working with these principles, it doesn't mean you can't review them later on, but they have been proposed as a new frame to designing health care services.

Currently, the health care debate is lacking the perspective of questioning the design principles that are in the background. We claim that there are implicit design principles which are harmful. By not listening to, and unsettling these theoretical principles, anything we build on top of them will produce more complexity and enormous waste, regardless of the good intentions and the magnificent skills of the thousands of health professionals working to improve the field.

Universal Health Care: A New Business Paradigm?

February 06, 2007

I recently went to a discussion on Universal Health Care.

Ronald Preston, Former Secretary of Health and Human Services in Massachusetts, brought that sharp humor that evaporated the romanticism which can be dangerous when you are trying to overcome real problems. He warned people not to think that universal coverage was only a humanitarian initiative to make health accessible to people. He also said that, essentially, this initiative is trying to save an industry that is in an acute crisis with an explosive mix of rising costs, over-capacity, and decreasing quality. In summary, he said that more insurance may help to keep this expensive industry alive. That's why we need more people inside the system. On the opposite end, Ruth Liu, Associate Secretary for Health Policy in California, glamorized the human side of Schwarzenegger's proposal.

The complexity of the challenge looks overwhelming with the variety of concerns and the different actors. What nobody in the forum seems to tackle is how poring more resources into the system that has already produced the negative results we are seeing is going to produce a different system than the one we have. The predominant service design principles underlying the discussion seem to be that health care needs to be managed top-down by the insurance companies, health care providers, and HMOs, keeping the government and politicians as the arbitrators of this complex system. I asked many of the participants, including Mary Ann Thode, President of Kaiser Northern California Region, and Ronald Preston, about the Teisberg/Porter approach on redefining health care by empowering the patient to make health conditions life-cycle value-based decisions in transparent, open markets with homogeneous quality measures and by ubiquitous access to medical records. Olmstead & Porter built their proposal from radically different theoretical design principles. Unfortunately, their book and their approach wasn't known, even though, after a short conversation I discovered that some speakers of the forum were sympathetic to it.

Although interesting, this universal health care debate lacked a radical new perspective able to simplify the overwhelming complexity of a highly regulated, hierarchical and opaque system.