Re: Blogs, bosses and bucks

Somewhere in my surfing today, I ran across a link to Scott Rosenburg’s post titled “[Blogs, bosses and bucks][bbb].” This caught my eye, because in my [thesis][] research, I’ve been thinking about the role money and power structures have on collaboration amongst virtual teams.

In my research, I’ve been studying successful “open” collaborative communities like the Apache Software Foundation and Wikipedia, looking for “new” practices that could be applied to help virtual teams be more successful in a corporate setting. But what I’ve found is that the practices used by these organizations have, for the most part, already been widely documented in business and academic literature. These include things like have a well-defined purpose, clearly defined roles and responsiblities, recognition of achievement, etc.

It is not that these groups are doing anything drastically different, yet it does appear to be the case that good management practices seem to occur more naturally in these contexts. Why? Ultimately, I think it ties back to two key things:

  1. Volunteer organizations are easier to leave. Volunteers who lose interest in the project will simply move on to something else
  2. Criticism and alternate ideas are freely shared, because no one is afraid of losing their jobs in retaliation

I’m sure there is more to than this, but these two factors play together as well to promote strong leadership. In these organizations, leaders emerge not because the wield the power to over someone else’s paycheck, but rather based on their ability to build consensus and the value their own contributions to the project. When leadership fails in an open organization, it is obvious if not immediate. Failing projects are identified by recurring flame wars and by an inability to keep a steady, stable group of contributors involved in the project.

My point is not that leaders in volunteer organizations are better than their corporate counterparts, but rather that the role of money can mask poor leadership in an organization. Is everyone involved because they want to be? Or are they just drawing paychecks until they can find a better position somewhere else? Is the lack of debate a sign of silent agreement or fear of retailiation?

To tie this back to Scott’s article — I agree that in many organizations, the fear of being fired is going to keep people from blogging. But I would also argue that creating an environment that punishes criticism and curbs open debate can also put a company at a distinct disadvantage.

I agree with Tim Bray’s statement that companies who don’t adopt blogging will be playing “catch-up” — not because blogging itself is inherently advantageous (though it may be), but because it is an outward symptom of a company that internally values open sharing of ideas and criticism.

[thesis]: /archives/2004/05/my-thesis-topic/


Where’s Mason?

Sorry for the lack of traffic here — it’s been a very busy month for me. At work, we’ve had several projects wrapping up and new ones kicking off. Still we found time to hold a 2-day technology summit in Austin. We brought everyone in my group together to talk strategy, discuss process, share best practices, and repeatedly hurl 14lb. balls at formations of wooden pins. 😉

On the personal side of things, I’ve got less than 4 weeks to go to finish my thesis(!), so I’ve been spending any spare time on the weekends working on it. Finishing that paper is the most important thing I’ll do all year.

This weekend, I finally found time to spend on the blog. After making sure all my old links would still work, I removed the final remnants of MoveableType from the server. I’ve started on a new look and feel template, but won’t finish tonight. Maybe check back next month?


So far so good…

I had planned to spend a few hours this weekend converting this blog from [MoveableType][mt] (the software I was previously using to write this blog) to [Wordpress] (the software I am using now) and customizing my blog a bit in the process.

As it happened, I ended up having a better weekend that I had planned. The weather was terrific, and I spent most of my time outdoors with family and friends, including the better part of Sunday floating in the cool, clear waters of the Blanco river.

So I didn’t end up with much time for blogging this weekend, but I’m not complaining. Nevertheless, I’ve got WordPress installed and my MT data converted, all in a little less than 30 minutes since I started. Very nice. Now that I’ve got it running, I’m finding there is a lot to like in WordPress. I’m looking forward to hierarchical categorization, link management, and comment moderation in particular. I’ll being squeezing an hour here and there this week to finalize the conversion and customize the look and feel.



Goodbye MT, Hello WordPress

Warning: MoveableType techno-rant ahead…

Lately, every time I save a new post I get an “Internal Server Error” message from MoveableType. The error in my server log reads: “Premature end of script headers: /var/www/html/mt/mt.cgi”. After a lot of Googling I found a mention somewhere (can’t seem to find it right now) that indicated SmartyPants might be the culprit.

SmartyPants is a MT plug-in I use, which converts straight-and-boring quotes (“) to typographically-correct curly, or smart, quotes “like so.” I removed SmartyPants, grudgingly, as I like to be typographically correct, and the problem disappeared, for a while. Now it is back.

Unfortunately, because I had set “Markdown + SmartyPants” as my default text format, when I re-rendered my site, all my postings reverted to the “None” formatting option. Blech. Worse — all my RSS feeds were updated, with raw, unprocessed [Markdown] code in them. My apologies to everyone who may have seen a “flowdelic” update in their RSS readers, only to find a bunch of old posts, but stripped of formatting.

So last weekend I planned to take a crack at learning the MT template language and finally customizing my templates. But instead, I spent my time tracking down Internal Server Errors. Sorry kids.

All is not lost however, I think I have found my solution — WordPress. WordPress is open-source blogging software that has gotten a lot of recognition of late, and it has typographical-correctness built in! The fact that it is written in PHP is appealing too, as I am much more comfortable with PHP than Perl.

So rather than investing in wrestling with/learning MT when it looks like many are leaving in the wake of the new MT 3.0 licensing brouhaha, I’ll be trying my hand at WordPress this weekend. Wish me luck!


Open vs. closed networks

As part of my [thesis][] research, I have been reading a stack of books, including [Linked][linked], [Six Degrees][sixdeg], [Design For Community][dfc] and [The Future of Ideas][tfoi]. At the same time I’ve been exploring and studying various online communities, trying to determine what makes them tick.

Is there a common characteristic of successful communities? So far, I’ve been nursing along the notion that “openness” is a common feature (among others) of the groups and communities that I’ve been studying.

[thesis]: /archives/2004/05/my_thesis_topic.html
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My Thesis Topic

I am currently working on my thesis for a Master’s degree in Engineering Management. The topic I am studying and writing about deals with online collaborative environments and communities. Specifically, I’m compiling case studies of various successful online collaborations, looking for the qualities that are common among them. My hope is that I will be able to identify some fundamental characteristics necessary to foster effective collaboration across geographical and cultural boundaries.

The groups/communities I am currently investigating are the Apache Software Foundation, Wikipedia and {fray}.

I’ll be posting more on this topic in the near future.


Another door opens

Scripting News: “At some point in the next few months, there will be an open source release of the Frontier kernel.”

Congratulations to Dave Winer on reaching a new milestone in the history of Frontier. Another loop closes as a new door opens.

The roots of blogging today can be traced back, in part at least, to the release of Aretha in May 1995. At that time, Frontier was locked away, unused, unprofitable and largely unappreciated. It could have ended there. But Dave made the software free (as in beer) and so started a chain of events that eventually lead to Clay Basket, Manila, Radio, XML-RPC and RSS. It also helped launch the career of Brent Simmons, the author of NetNewsWire.

Of course, that is not the whole story of blogging, but Frontier and Aretha are clearly high up in the Blog family tree. I’m glad to see Dave and Userland taking it a step further and I look forward to seeing where this journey takes us. Thank you and good luck. Let a thousand flowers bloom.


The Power of Design

Business Week: The Power of Design (cover) The cover story of this week’s _Business Week_ is titled [“The Power of Design”][bw]. It focuses on the process and practices of design firm [IDEO][], a major competitor of [frog][].

For me, it’s an interesting look into the way a competitor does things. I think this article is good for IDEO, obviously, but also good for design in general, by exposing a broader audience to some of the current design best practices (contextual inquiry, rapid prototyping, usability testing), and the real business benefits to be gained from them.

The problem is, the article portrays IDEO as if it is the only company using these practices, which is far from the truth. frog, for example, uses many of the same practices–and some others–and we are not alone. IDEO is portrayed as the 800lb. gorilla in the design industry, while its competitors (including frog) are described as if we really aren’t much competition at all.

This paints a misleading picture of the competitive landscape (IDEO is only slightly bigger than frog, and we regularly compete and win against them), though I’ll concede IDEO is currently winning the PR battle. It stings now, sure, but ultimately this will be good for frog and our clients. Nothing like some strong competition for the “world’s greatest design firm” title to sharpen our focus and create opportunities to innovate internally, improve our processes, practices, and (ahem) our PR.