Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Rise and Rise of Social Computing

Power to the people

Social Computing is the name given to a slew of technologies that collectively allow people to pool their knowledge, keep in touch with and interact better with others who belong to their community. Two key principles of social computing (or social software) are that it is highly participatory, and it is evolutionary – which taken together mean content that constantly moves in such a direction as to better reflect the knowledge, beliefs, opinions and /or aspirations of a community. Wikis, blogs, sites that allow sharing such as, networking sites such as and, and sites that allow more complex social interactions, such as are increasingly being seen as the 'Killer-app' of Web 2.0, much as email - itself a key enabler of social computing - was to the original Web.

The stellar rise in the popularity of email in the 90s (the number of users skyrocketed from a few thousand at the beginning of that decade, to several hundred million at the end of it) clearly provides a pointer to the potential that social computing has - people are ever eager to take up technologies that will help them meet their social needs better.

Another sign of coming of age of a new technology bubbling up from the masses is large corporations taking note of that technology. And sure enough, Yahoo is doing its bit on the social computing front, having acquired sites such as del.ici.ous. Now, the real big 'un is weighing in. Says Business Week,

"Microsoft's Office SharePoint Server 2007, due in October, will include a new technology called Knowledge Network, designed to help co-workers find colleagues with the expertise they need. For workers who opt in, Knowledge Network automatically scans their contact lists, e-mails, and e-mail distribution lists to create a profile. That way, co-workers can search for expertise among their colleagues to gain specific knowledge that can help with business decision-making".

This of course, is nothing new to the Knowledge Management (KM) fraternity, which has always striven to support people-to-people sharing techologies. Sure enough, a lot of what has been learnt and practised by KM thinkers and practitioners over the past few years is finding expression now in the traction that social computing is getting. So, it's no surprise that the Economist Intelligence Unit, in its report, Foresight 2020: Economic, Industrial and Corporate Trends identifies Knowledge Management as one of the 5 trends that will shape the world of business and economy in the coming 15 years.

In sum, all of this goes to show that technology is making progress towards meeting its basic premise, which is more power to the people!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Virtuous "Cyc"le

How Common Sense is Uncommon, and Why Computers Need it Badly

When I first learnt about computers in college in 1982, it seemed logical to me that computers must have common sense. However, that turned out to be far from true. I was astounded at the level of detail that a computer programmer must get down to, in writing a program to solve even the most trivial problem. While things have improved in the intervening two-and-a-half decades, programming computers to solve problems remains a task for people with specialized knowledge, and so-called 'High-level' programming languages remain far, far less sophisticated than natural languages.

That state of affairs, however, is not due to lack of effort by the Computer Science research community. Much work has focused on Natural-language (NL) processing, or figuring out how to make computers smart enough to allow humans to interact with them as though they were other people. This may sound easy enough, but has turned out to be stupefyingly complex - for example, there probably isn't a computer in the world today that could read and understand the previous sentence (the greatest difficulty it would find would be to understand that the word "they" in that sentence refers to computers, and not humans, which is the immediately preceding noun in that sentence!).

NL processing is crucial if we are to ever make computers truly easier for humans to use, in applications ranging from teaching kids to making cars easier to drive.

It is thus that the story of Cyc, a brainchild of former Stanford Professor Michael Lenat, is staggering. This project has soldiered on for two whole decades in search of the laudable goal of imparting common sense to computers. An excerpt from their site:
"Natural-language (NL) processing is among the most studied -- and most intractable -- challenges of software engineering. Consider the following pair of sentences:
Fred saw the plane flying over Zurich.
Fred saw the mountains flying over Zurich.
Humans have little difficulty in recognizing that in the first sentence, "flying" probably refers to the plane, while in the second sentence, "flying" almost certainly refers to Fred. Traditional NL systems will have difficulty resolving this syntactic ambiguity, but because Cyc knows that planes fly and mountains do not, it will be able to reject nonsensical interpretations. It's difficult to see how this could be done without relying on a large database of common sense."
Cyc has two things: a Knowledge Base (KB), which consists of what Cyc "knows", and an Inference Engine(IE), which Cyc uses to make sense of what it knows. The Cyc KB contains nearly two hundred thousand terms and several hundred thousand assertions, or rules, connecting these terms. New assertions are continually added to the KB by human workers. The whole project is still far from achieving it's goal, but it's making progress.
MIT's Open Mind Project is another example of an initiative directed towards making computers understand things that human beings take for granted.
It has been said that common sense is uncommon (even among humans). But that is no excuse for computers not to have plenty of it. Maybe one of these days, we'll actually see a computer that talks - and listens to - common sense!

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Competitiveness "Paradox"
What's the link between the competitiveness of nations and economic growth?

IMD's World Competitiveness Rankings 2006, released this week, ranks China 19th and India 29th in global competitiveness. Hold on. Aren't those the fastest growing among the large economies of the world? I was intrigued enough to think deeper about the correlation between "competitiveness" and growth.

So I looked up the World Economic Forum (WEF)'s Global Competitiveness 2005 Report, which is pretty much the definitive work in this area. The results were no less intriguing. It ranks the US, Sweden and Denmark within the top 5 in competitiveness. I then looked at The Economist's predictions for GDP growth of these countries - the predicted growth for 2006 /2007 was in the range of 3.1% - 3.3% for each of these. And China and India, ranked 46th and 55th respectively in competitiveness by the WEF, are projected to grow at 8% - 10% ! There appears to be no relationship (if anything, the figures here even suggest an inverse relationship!) between competitiveness and economic growth. Admittedly there are many other countries in the list, but these examples are glaring enough to need an explanation in their own right.

What's wrong? Can it be that the notion of Competitiveness is entirely unrelated to growth? Not so. The WEF Competitiveness rankings report begins with the assertion that their aim is
"to shed light on the question of why some countries are able to grow on a sustained basis for prolonged periods of time..".

But this is where it gets difficult: How can countries that are not "competitive" grow the fastest, while the ones that are the most "competitive" grow much more slowly?!

In an attempt to find answers, I decided to see what the world's foremost authority on competitiveness (be it of companies or nations), Professor Michael Porter has to say. Prof. Porter, University Professor at Harvard, states in The Competitive Advantage of Nations:

"We must abandon the whole notion of a "competitive nation" as a term having much meaning for economic prosperity. The principal economic goal of a nation is to produce a high and rising standard of living for its citizens. The ability to do so depends not on the amorphous notion of "competitiveness" but on the productivity with which a nation's resources (labor and capital) are employed. Productivity is the value of the output produced by a unit of labor or capital."

Harvard Business School's Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness says on its website,

" based on the productivity with which a nation produces goods and services. Competitiveness is rooted in a nation’s microeconomic fundamentals—the sophistication of company operations and strategies and the quality of the microeconomic business environment in which companies compete."

Also, in ranking the competitiveness of nations, WEF uses quality of the macroeconomic environment, the state of a country’s public institutions, and, a country’s technological readiness. IMD uses Economic performance, government efficiency, business efficiency and infrastructure.

So, all the above makes things look a little better. It appears that the notion of competitiveness of a nation embraces a gamut of parameters, none of which can easily be correlated to GDP growth (and it may be simpistic to even try to do so).

However, the basic horse sense view would still be that a nation that scores highly on the competitiveness parameters - whether productivity and microeconomic fundamentals as the Harvard group avers, or the WEF or IMD's parameters - the economy of that nation must grow faster. In other words, to escape being a notion of purely intellectual significance, whatever we define as "competitiveness" must correlate well with growth.

Can it be that the GDP figures we are looking at are for the short term (2006/07), while "competitiveness", being a more holistic concept, determines growth in the longer term? Even this appears less than convincing. See what the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) projects for the period upto 2020: the EU will grow at 2%, and the US will grow at 2.9%, while China and India will grow at 5.9-6.0%!

That leaves a final explanation: the current low competitiveness rankings for China and India reflect the fact that these countries have historically been abysmally insular and inefficient. Even this theory looks less than bulletproof at first, because these countries' growth hasn't taken off dramatically in the last one or two years - they have been the fastest growing economies for much of the last decade, even while holding bottom-rankings in competitiveness. But this theory is somewhat vindicated by the fact that these countries' competitiveness rankings have steadily risen in the last few years. So the inverse correlation appears to be reducing, which at least raises the possibility of a trend towards a positive correlation in the next few years.

So, the paradox has been somewhat demystified, but survives unscathed!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Act Before You Must
Do things long before they become necessary; by then they may be life-threatening*

Test yourself. Over the past one year, in whatever business or activity that you have responsibility for, what is your degree of agreement with each of the three statements below?

- All customer complaints arose due to factors that were completely beyond control.
- All deadline overruns happened due to reasons that just could not have been planned for.
- Every crisis that happened was truly unforeseeable.

If you agree completely with each statement above, congratulations! You perhaps truly have no headroom for improvement. However, I suspect a vast majority of readers will, upon reflection, feel compelled to disagree with at least one of the three statements (as I do!).

Jack Welch, Former Chairman and CEO, GE, counsels in his book Winning: “You need to change, preferably before you have to.” Louis Gerstner, Former Chairman and CEO, IBM said in his autobiography, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: “I hate surprises”.

Most of us know from painful experience that the above advice is very true indeed. Yet, why do we resist doing the difficult stuff, such as meticulous planning, even when we know it's really important to do so?

One reason: Action has romantic appeal; preparing for action doesn’t. The folklore that we grew up with lionizes the hero who swings into action in a flash, and not “the system”, which imposes constraints that cramp his style. (If the hero, in the course of his good deeds, breaks a few rules and incurs the wrath of the system, so much the better.. !)

For a deeper insight into the reasons why we are often not very proactive, and some ways to overcome that situation, read my piece Act Before You Must, which talks of the importance of proactivity in organizations.

A tongue-in-cheek corollary of the celebrated Murphy’s Law goes: “There’s never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over “. What would you rather spend your time on: doing it right or doing it over?
* By the time the Doctor peers grimly at your examination report and orders a crash diet, it’s probably too late – you should never have put on that weight in the first place!