Contributing to the cyber security conversation

 Business, Canada, IT Security, politics  Comments Off on Contributing to the cyber security conversation
Oct 162016

My firm, Institute X, responded and provided a paper to the Canadian Government’s Consultation on Cyber Security. It’s a considered white paper that assumes government should do what it’s supposed to do (public safety and security; and support Canadian industry). We suggest that an “unreasonably” high standard for cyber security and directed support toward the Canadian cyber security industry (e.g., national security-protected procurement) will benefit Canada on multiple fronts.

Download it here: institute-x-cyber-security-consultation-submission-oct-2016.

The unbearable lightness of being… Snowden

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Sep 302014

I read the news today (well, on the weekend, actually), oh boy. It seems that the Internet is coming under attack in the East. It made me wonder about the poster child for Internet utopianism: Mr. Snowden, in his lavish or maybe squalid Moscow apartment.

China has, of course, been a strong “administrator” of Chinese Internet for a long time now. Everyone there and here expects the regime to nose in on and strong arm service providers, search engines, portals, and users in their age-old quest to control everything about that society. But we all had such high hopes for Russia after the fall of the Wall in ’89. Democracy and capitalism would roll through the former Soviet Union like Siberia-bound train. It seemed to start pretty well, and then members of the billionaire oligarchy ended up in jail, their assets nationalized. Punk rock girls went to jail. People disappeared. The president, despite following constitutional rules slowly and steadily became an imperial government of one. Flash forward and the old bear is annexing Ukrainian sovereign territory and fomenting insurrection with some soldiers that they lent to (or “allowed” to go fight with) rebels in eastern Ukraine.

During this period, as everyone knows, Edward Velcro-hands absconded with classified secrets of the US and other governments, secured while he was a trusted contractor to the National Security Agency. Instantaneously, in the heady days of Wikileaks and Julian Assange’s 15-minutes of fame, Snowden became a hero to patriotic freedom lovers the world over, not least within the civil rights and other such communities in the US. So roundly loved and lauded was he, that he immediately fled the country first for Hong Kong and then for the loving embrace of Mother Russia. This, of course, so that he would not be tried as a thief and traitor.

The secrets about “Five Eyes” and US/other government surveillance of its own citizens showed clearly that the Western governments about whom he had discomforting information to reveal were not doing very good things–to their own citizens. To make a long story short, the whole episode and Snowden himself always speaking from Russia via video catalyzed and crystalized popular awareness of the dangers of the Internet. That is, it revealed that the Internet is not a utopian garden where there is peace, love, and understanding (except for the Nigerian scammers…), somehow removed from the rest of the world. It also showed that governments were bringing the rest of the world–all that bad stuff–to this electronic Eden.

What was revealed but did not obviously trouble those who were troubled by the trouble that Snowden found himself in was, in fact, that the world is a nasty place. The kind of ugliness that we see on television drama and in movies actually happens someplace in the murkiness of the shadows and behind closed doors. Moreover, it happens because while civil rights and protection from government encroachment on one’s privacy, to pick a popular theme in this situation, is important, national security might trump it. That is, its a judgment call: your privacy or your safety? It is arguable that we elect our governments to fall on the side of our safety when things get rough. But that is not the point here.

What Western governments were exposed as doing was in and of itself bad. But what Snowden exposed was tactical information that eliminated any kind of advantage in a bigger forum–like international affairs. In any case, the point is that although he is a wanted man, he is alive. He propagated navel gazing and pontificating about these subjects to the point that one has to wonder whether the safety issue has been sufficiently, artificially, and probably disastrously poisoned. But that’s enough back story and evangelizing.

Why I thought about Snowden this weekend is because of the laws that Tsar Putin is intending to have enacted. Specifically, Putin intends to extend the state’s right to control the Internet in Russia. The details can be found elsewhere, but the broad strokes are that any individual with a blog read by more than 2000 people will be considered a media outlet and subject to the laws governing media organizations. Portals, search engines, and other service providers online must operate specifically off of servers located in Russia which would be firewalled at the Russian border AND fully subject to the state having unfettered access to all logs and records. There’s more.

About Edward Zhivago, I wonder if he’s at all disheartened by this turn of events? It’s not like he can complain much about it. Perhaps he’s morally OK with the situation because the Russian snooping and surveillance would follow the rule of law, such as it is? Let’s admire the fact that Putin has no intent of spying on his people from the shadows: he’s fully up front about it. In any case, I prophesy that if he is as smart as alleged, he won’t be making any video appearances at SXSW castigating this unfortunately imposition on the privacy, rights, and freedoms of Russian Internet users. Or, if we do, it will only happen once.

Innovation Fads, Fashions, and Trends

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Sep 142014

So much ink; so much paper! So many pixels! So many task forces! Thank God for the bottomless pit to mine for answers to Canadian innovation challenges. The proposals are as many as there are lobbies and hobbies. And every one of them has merit. But every one of them is doomed by narrowness and inadequacy. That’s because, as the girl said to the boy: “It’s complicated.”

The focus of well-meant public musings and counsel tends toward specific, actionable, and obvious drivers of the problem. The result? There ought to be more public and private investment at every stage; better training and skills; government intervention; coordinated geographic clusters; stronger commercialization; more creativity and risk taking; a focus on entrepeneurs; or a focus on enterprises. And on and on.

Less considered, probably because they make crystal clear causal arguments cloudy at best, are the softer facets of the ecosystem. There are one or more steps removed from the direct “this-then-that” connection between action and outcome. Also, innovation tends to be diagnosed discretely from other economic and social challenges, such as productivity decay. This is the result of a schooled reductionism that segregates systemic problems into constituent parts as if complex problems can always be solved in pieces and work when reassembled. But that’s not how complex systems work.

Setting aside my cynicism about the motives of those voicing positions, each contribution adds valuably to the discussion. But that discussion remains isolated, technocratic, and mired in detail. Consider only the example of innovation and productivity as a holistic pair.

Everyone who has sat through an executive discussion of new revenue contrasted with reduced cost knows that the latter goes straight to the bottom line. CFOs fall all over the second option. And yet, productivity is in decline in Canada. Why? Among the reasons is a “waste not, want not” ethic that would make a Puritan blush. There is also the discount sticker given to Canadian businesses by our chronically weak dollar. Let’s not forget government subsidization/protection. All of this cuffs the market’s invisible hand that might otherwise force competitive price drops, in turn demanding greater productivity—perhaps through innovation?

Weak demand for productivity innovation weakens the drive toward technologies, processes, and business models that address these challenges. Only among a few exceptions, such as mining, are businesses innovating—or investing in innovation—for productivity gain. In other cases, such as oil & gas, their cups have spilleth over so much that being unproductive is inconsequential.

That leaves the glory of consumer-directed innovations. Consumers want cool technological toys that may (the jury is still out) make them more productive. It’s true—or at least it’s said, which is the same thing apparently—that mobile devices make business people more productive. It’s also true that many consumers are also business people. But is WhatsApp or FaceBook or the iPod creating productive commercial capacity? The argument for “yes” is dubious at best.

Consumers reward these innovations though, or the successful ones anyway, explicitly with revenue or use; less explicitly through the idolatry of consumer products and the business people associated with them. Investors reward such innovations with easier and more valuable rounds of financing, and grand payoffs at Initial Public Offering. This all despite many of the longest-lived and profitable technology businesses, such as Microsoft and Oracle and Salesforce and SAP, innovating around commercial/management productivity. But they’re not Facebook or LinkedIn are they?

Defocus consumer innovation! Blackberry (RIM) lost its edge and lead not primarily because of threats in the consumer space but because it chased that space and forgot that its lead and advantage was due to its impact on industrial productivity. Also consider that while it’s true Henry Ford made the automobile a mass consumption product, his enduring legacy is the conveyor belt: the productivity innovation that allowed for the consumer delight.

So what’s the point? Simply this: all of those many answers to the innovation problem could be instrumental elements of a successful change to Canada’s innovation trajectory. Maybe… in some combination… or in some sequence…. But merely refocusing toward innovations that genuinely address how to make Canada’s businesses more productive, first at the edges then at the core, would set the stage for solving multiple economic challenges, including productivity and innovation, and fabricating a virtuous cycle updraft to raise all parts of the economy.

I use “F-Words”

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Sep 122014

I use “f-words” in mixed company. Well-bred professional, management, and executive types recoil in disgust. One might think that they would be inured to f-words. But they seem to hold themselves above all that.

Of course, the most troubling f-word is not the one on the tip of your tongue now. This one sounds “eff” but starts “ph.” Try saying philosophy in the company of busy career people; just be prepared for rolled eyes and that piteous expression that says you just don’t get it.

Those blank faces better “get it” soon themselves. Our privacy and maybe even democracy could depend on it. After all, not every tectonic shift is as blatant as the revelations of Edward Snowdon or as arrogantly, publicly contemptuous as the Fair Elections Act. Pay attention to the every day stuff!

Today’s transactional immediacy of business and government work is not an historical novelty. There was no time when these practical people were more inclined to think deeply about what they were doing. What may be different now is the measure of disdain for anyone who challenges business or government plans and actions more deeply than what the pervasive “value proposition” pap answers.

If we refrain from contemplations of epistemology and such, and stick to ethics and the sunnier(!) side of existential questions, philosophy is about purpose. That has to be clarifying for professionals, and is about as close as most organizations get to schwerpunkt (a typically consonant-ridden German word that means concentration point or main effort).

When I say philosophy in this company, I often mean, “What do you believe?” Not as in, “We believe the world wants a device that will allow them to…” That’s actually, “We think…” Rather, as in, “We believe that people need to remain connected to other people; we believe our purpose is to provide devices that…” Despite reading and abiding by directives such as Start With Why (Sinek, 2011), this kind of descent to expose the core assumptions of “Why” is one nobody really wants to take.

So why is that kind of philosophical pondering held in such disregard?

First, it’s hard. It requires rigorous thought, due consideration, and alternative points of view. None of which is acceptable in an environment of HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) rules or unconsidered braying of partisan vitriol.

Second, it’s still hard. It demands a sense of right and wrong. That then presumes you might stand for something, ideally something that can be argued rationally from some principles. Rampant specialization and narrow awareness does not lend itself to this capacity.

Third, it’s unnecessary. After all, whether its Mill, Burke, Rousseau, or Jefferson, there are philosophies a plenty to choose from and no need to waste time on such things now.

Fourth, well… it’s hard. Given the preference for action—any action!—to indicate ability, quality, and value, taking time to muse over that action gets indicted as regressive to say the least.

It’s true that some fundamental underpinnings of philosophy are timeless—give or take a millennium, otherwise we wouldn’t still look to Plato. But other philosophy is more set in a time and place—give or take a millennium or continent, so it needs to be refreshed from time to time.

Given the rate society is evolving in technology’s wake, we need to take a little time to continually consider whether our core values remain operative in practice. At the very least, we should give a modicum of respect and an ear to those who do it professionally, casually, or within the confines of their daily toil.

The problem with not thinking about these things and, worse, discouraging those who will, is that these things are affected by rapid innovation and change anyway.

The seemingly outrageous privacy invasions by governments is not the product of a sea change in method. It was a steady dripping of unconsidered change that allowed the method to metastasize into what it’s become: something odious. And, it all took root in so many innocuous “consumer benefits.”

The outrageous bill that is to be the Unfair Elections Act (2014) is only possible because over time we have largely become so blasé about hyper-partisan drivel and the corruption of governance by politics that many people see nothing especially egregious about the bill’s content. And so it now threatens a foundation of our society. That represents six years’ effort on the part of Canada’s New Government.

So let’s all throw around the f-word until it’s so common that everyone does it. We’ll all be better for it.

Holacracy… old wine new bottles

 Business, Management, organization, society  Comments Off on Holacracy… old wine new bottles
Aug 292014

Found this article in the Globe and Mail (Say goodbye to hierarchy, hello to holacracy) about the disappearance of hierarchy at some “cool” businesses (such as Zappos). It’s essence is per the following definition:

Holacracy is a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a fractal holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy

Since it’s only been in existence since 2007 and seems to be favoured by new economy, technology-based businesses and not-for-profits, it might be a little early to tell whether there is broad merit in the approach. Having self-contained, self-directed units makes complete sense and aligns with many features of nature and certainly of “Complexity” and “Emergence” theories. I’d say generally I’m in favour with the caveat that there are limits to its relevance.

Take the military, for instance and as a deep-relief example of where hierarchy is necessary. While it makes sense that battalions or platoons or fleets or squadrons, in combat, be enabled with self-direction over their own activities to achieve clear goals (this is fundamental), you can’t run an army that way. That kind of organization needs, at its broadest levels, timely and ongoing coherence in purpose and action fast. Holacracy would tend toward incoherence in the short run, though it might be more valuable and effective in the long run. So, organisations that need to be coherently directed toward a possibly fluid goal with a minimum of evolutionary trial and error as the holocratic parts bump into one another might not be right for this structure.

That generally describes large enterprises of the money making or other variety. But even as I type this I wonder if the issue is not black and white but many shades of grey. That is holocracy at one level does not mean hierarchy at another. Perhaps there is harmonious combination of these two structures that would be generally applicable. Maybe that’s been considered by the creator of the idea and/or its various evangelists, including Ken Wilbur.

The article I’ve tagged makes the point but, truth be told, I didn’t read it that closely to know whether it only mentions government or dwells on it. There is a statement to the effect of this being how government works and isn’t it ironic that after so long being told government should be more like business, it’s business that is now being told to be more like government… is? I don’t know about that, but again it could be the degree of magnification. Yes, government departments and agencies do operate as holon. So in that respect, I get it. But, within those departments and agencies I’ve yet to see anything but wicked, rank-respecting, bloated and unwieldy hierarchy.

There is, however, one area of government that is definitely holacracy. That is the confederation as Canada is structured with its provinces being largely independent parts loosely held together by the national centre (federal government), and as Switzerland is with its cantons being practically distinct and unrelated units. These work to greater and lesser degrees. One can find wonder or horror in the structure depending on what you choose as a focus.

In any case, it smells a bit like old wine in new bottles. Nostalgia being dusted off and sold for more than its worth. Harumpf.