Automating Higher Education ‘Factory’

Kevin Carey has a very thorough review on the state of Higher Education cost structures in the Washington Monthly this month. He showcases innovative uses of technology in lowering costs of lectures – leading to increase in productivity, better grades and lower costs.

The key is letting computers do what they do best—grading multiple-choice tests, providing 24/7 access to text, audio, and video, connecting people to one another at a distance—while retaining the human element when only real people will suffice. The Virginia Tech Math Emporium is staffed twelve hours a day with a combination of upper-division math majors, graduate students, and faculty, each of whom is prepared to help students with any of the Emporium-based courses.

And even when the notoriously nocturnal undergraduate lifestyle puts teachers of any kind out of reach, the Emporium never closes and the computers never sleep. Virginia Tech students always have access to the mind of Michael Williams, the ghost in the Emporium machines.

Kevin goes on to explain why universities are not passing the cost-savings back to students. In fact, tuition costs are rising – with all of the money being spent on ‘status-building’ investments in athletics, building, etc in order to boost college ranks on various lists like the one maintained by US News.

Leaving the economics of higher education aside, the technology application is the interesting part. Applying technology in agriculture and manufacturing resulted in phenomenal productivity increases in the past decades. Technology has increased productivity in the so-called Third Wave of Services industry already with communications, collaboration and analytical tools. Even in education, we have plenty of online courses and other technology-enabled initiatives. Moving the boundary well into the hallowed lecture halls on campus is new. Professors are being replaced by intelligent machines! Sounds like a sci-fi movie plot…

You can learn to speak any language you wish on a tape/CD/Computer; Pilots can learn to fly planes using computer simulators; and you can google for any piece of information that you care about on the Internet. So, why do we need Professors for delivery of classes? Let them design new computer courses. They can even design feedback mechanisms into the delivery so that students can provide input for the course to self-correct. Professors can then be free to do original research and expand the frontiers of knowledge.

Machines have taken over the campus. Are you sure your Professor is human?

Video Games- Beating the Economy

Earlier this year, I discovered that the Gaming industry is well on its way towards overtaking the Movies business.

Video Games are almost 75% the size of the Movies Business! And growing at close to 50% per annum!!……Admittedly, the show biz is a mature industry and is not expected to have a blistering rate of growth – but Gaming almost as large as the entire Movie business?

And now, amid the doom and gloom of slowing economy and stagnant consumer electronics business, the market research specialist NPD Group is reporting

In the U.S., third quarter total industry unit sales grew 8 percent versus 2007, even as the economy showed accelerating signs of recession…… Heading into the critical fourth quarter, the U.S. games industry is on solid ground..

One of the largest companies in the industry, Take-Two

….envisions future revenue for the video game industry, …sees microtransactions and downloadable content as the “biggest opportunity” and calls subscription revenue the “holy grail.”

Meanwhile, Television viewing is moving online in a multiple-viewer, social, ‘gaming’ environment. Jenna Wortham writes on Wired

As television audiences migrate online, media companies are eyeing social networking as a possible killer app for hooking viewers through their laptops. From simple chat rooms to unique games, the race is on to develop content that complements traditional shows — the more creative and addictive the better.

Then, the Wall Street Journal reports on Gaming coming full circle back to a hand-held device – the iPhone

The iPhone and its sister device the iPod touch, which feature big screens and powerful graphics, are emerging as serious competitors to Nintendo’s DS handheld and Sony’s PlayStation Portable….Developers are being lured by Apple’s online method for delivering games, which has lowered distribution costs and made it possible to profit on games that sell for just a few dollars or are given away with advertising…

So, Games are overtaking Movies…both are moving online along with the TV shows…these are all framed in interactive, social settings…all are available via pay-per-use subscription models…and right on your iPhone. All your entertainment is now in the palm of your hands to be consumed at will.

It’s clear that the ‘game format’ has taken over entertainment and online subscription has eroded purchase thresholds. Economic news and debates do not matter in the pastimes anymore.

Update 11/26/08 – Daniel Terdiman at CNET is also writing about the video game industry being recession-proof despite noting some caveats from Wall Street-types.

Controlling the Corporate Message? The PR Tight-Rope Walk

So, how do we encourage informal collaboration and communications amongst employees – but still retain some control over the corporate image that will get diffuse without the professional touch of Public Relations and Corporate Communications. The Economist reports –

On October 31st Virgin fired 13 of its cabin crew who had posted derogatory comments about its safety standards and some of its passengers on a Facebook forum. Among other things, crew members joked that some Virgin planes were infested with cockroaches and described customers as “chavs”, a disparaging British term for people with flashy bad taste. On November 3rd BA began investigating the behaviour of several employees who had described some passengers as “smelly” and “annoying” in Facebook postings.

Cracking down on employees in this case may have merit, but this highlights a growing uneasiness in the corporate communications and public relations circles. Where does social networking fit in the corporate world?

If such cases are considered aberrations or problems that need to be ‘solved’, then a huge opportunity would be squandered – with little or no chance of the problem going away. With the rise of social networking and associated acceleration in communications, it is very easy to share ideas and influence opinions by aggregating preferences. Everyone has already been ‘networking’ in the real world. It is just that the network is now moving online to a virtual world as well. We can legislate and create procedural and legal barriers asking our staff to ‘switch off’ their network for work related items – and invest in a thought police to enforce the rules and punish the guilty. It might work in the short run, but it is a losing battle. Thoughts, ideas, communication and collaboration that could be leveraged for everyone’s benefit will now just be driven deeper underground…. These things cannot be switched off in sentient beings.

The other approach is to consider why we need to control the informal communications. Maybe the ‘official’ corporate image does not match with reality; or maybe the corporate vision and goals have not been communicated to the employees – reflected in daily actions, not just an official scroll; or maybe the leadership is not leading from the front in creating a common vision and in getting constant feedback to keep the vision fresh, current and relevant…or a combination of all that..or..or…

The wall between ‘internal’ communications and ‘corporate’ (external) communications is being chipped down. Why spend resources on shoring up the wall and in crafting the pristine external message and in defending against ‘rogue’ messages? Some of those resources are better spent in creating one consistent message for everyone. Employees are the best brand ambassadors besides being customers too!

Reducing Complexity to Manage Better

Emma Stewart writes today in a Harvard Business Publishing blog about the futility of Scenario Planning exercises, saying that

.. if you want to avoid fixes that fail and move towards sustainability in today’s complex operating environment, I invite you to resist the instinct to resort to scenario exercises, or only do so in conjunction with systems thinking approaches.

I can see her point, but the elaborate systems thinking approach she is referring to does exist already – generally embedded deep into the fabric of any successful organization. The organizational processes and systems are designed and maintained to weather the ‘normal’ levels of complexity. Scenario Planning, on the other hand, tries to peer into the future in order to develop some decision making criteria as and when needed.

Complexity in business and its operating environment is a given constraint in management. Management challenges exist along two completely opposite paradigms.

At one end we need to delve deep into existing complexity – define it and automate the processes and decisions there – so that we are ‘shielded’ from the known complexity or the static view. The system or the model works just fine within the frame of its original assumptions. Taken to an extreme, all possible complexity can be modeled given enough time and data.

On the other end is the unknown complexity introduced as soon as we recognize that we live in a real world of dynamic, moving components that can interact with each other in unpredictable ways to create new scenarios. This is where we need to abstract the complexity into simple models like the famous (or infamous) 2×2 matrices. We need to make empirical decisions quickly because the environment is changing at the same time. Decision models need to be simple and adequate – a criteria difficult to achieve, but still better than trying to stop the world while we analyze our way into paralysis.

Good management needs to manage complexity by instituting structure – enough to be affordable – and by developing abstracted, simple decision models – enough to be useful.

Business Processes and CRM Systems

Ann All is pointing out the convergence between Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and Business Process Management (BPM). She writes

Too often CRM is a disjointed mishmash of departmental or divisional activities. CRM touches a number of enterprise systems, including operations, accounting and e-commerce, so companies must make a better effort to integrate their CRM data with these other systems….

Business processes across the enterprise are either directly or tangentially concerned with customer interactions. Since a 360 degree view of the customer is key for managing the relationship, it follows that all processes need to be considered and relevant customer data lined up for the CRM system to be effective.

For organizations used to working with enterprise-class systems like SAP, an integrated process-based approach is easier to visualize and execute. It is the organization with departmental silos that gets attracted to ‘partial’ solutions that address the contact management functions of CRM. Despite the customer being so central to the modern enterprise, customer relationship management questions quickly devolve into the basic question of, “who owns the customer?” Very rarely do all business departments sit together and design a common integrated process focused on the common customer.

A true customer focused organization will need to take an enterprise-wide process view in implementing CRM.

How to Document & Collaborate with Visual Thinking?

Dan Roam’s new book, ‘The Back of the Napkin’ illustrates the power of visual thinking to solve any problem – individual or organizational, including so-called business problems. The companion website has a very compelling whiteboard presentation on the four steps of visual thinking, the five focusing questions and the six ways we see and show.

Seeing the art of visual thinking framed in a ‘scientific’ context is a relief. This is the second big validation I have come across – the first (for me) was Bill Buxton’s book on ‘Sketching User Experiences’. I am a white board junkie and have been known to start arranging paper-clips, coffee-cups and pens in a drawing representation if paper and pen are not handy. I have written about my awe of sketching…and look for ways in which this individual tool can be scaled up beyond a small team into corporate settings. How do you take sketches enterprise wide? Not just as pictures of the whiteboard or screenshots of your doodling on a TabletPC…..but as business documents similar to ones created in  Microsoft Word, Excel, etc…or even Google Documents..where dispersed teams can review, comment and collaborate.

My experiments with Microsoft OneNote, Mindjet MindManager, Google Sketchup and Evernote’s Evernote have been great personal tools and I continue to use them in varying degrees depending on the problem at hand. Some of these tools do allow collaboration and team review….but they are not mainstream yet. I have not been able to scale up the experiments to a point where I can say with confidence that the tool itself will not distract from the goal of visual collaboration.

So, all of my electronic sketches get distributed via PDF to the team…who can mark up a paper-copy and we sit down in a conference room with my electronic sketch displayed on the wall and make changes for everyone. While we are making do with this level of tool sophistication, I am focused now on getting to animated sketches so that a story can be told with higher fidelity….cutting down on misunderstandings and sharpening the follow-up questions that can actually take the analysis or the solution or the execution further along. Animating pictures is now taking me to our Graphic Designers and their Adobe Flash tools, etc. Fun stuff and I like messing around with that when I have time.

But the nagging doubt remains – how do I get visual thinking and sketching into the mainstream?