June 2011 Archives

It started with a simple challenge: if I were to draw a big circle around the things I find interesting enough to follow and declare them to be one thing, how would I label it? To avoid flying completely off into pointless musing, assume that it's relevant professionally. Considering that the circle included social media, analytics, intelligence, geopolitics, and natural disasters—to pick a few—the label wasn't obvious. By declaring them to be one thing, though, it soon became clear that the theme was the importance—the value—of knowledge.

The label was Omniscience.

"That's pretty ambitious."
Yes, I'm aware of the definition of omniscience, and no, I'm not suggesting that I know everything or ever will. But among the unattainable goals, it's a good one. I mean, what could you do if you knew everything? You can't, but what if you knew a lot more about things that matter to your business?

What if you knew something that was there to be discovered, and your competitor didn't? Is it starting to sound reasonable yet? Maybe even something you'd want to do?

The framework
I've talked through the Omniscience framework with several folks for early reactions, mostly in person. It involved some handwaving, so I knew it wasn't ready to post. Some people suggested related books, but nobody really shot it down. Now, it's your turn (click for a larger view). I'm not sure I need a lot more assigned reading at the moment, but I'm definitely interested in your reaction.

Omniscience overview

A framework, not a recipe
This is the top-level view, and each section has a story, a purpose, and examples. But this is the gist of it: starting with a few simple observations on the nature of things, Omniscience is a challenge to expect more of your intelligence and analytics, drawing on a broader range of techniques to track and anticipate a wider range of things that matter.

Omniscience provides a thread. It links things you know with things you do—and with things you don’t do. It links the very large and the very small, the short-term and the long-term. The way you think and plan and the way you measure and evaluate. It provides a structure to identify missed opportunities and to evaluate new ideas. And although it looks highly theoretical, it's already suggested a practical application that I haven't seen on the market.

Naturally, I think it's a big deal. Does it make sense to you, so far?

I have a pile of books on social media, measurement, and management that I'd like to get to. It sits next to another pile of books, and that's become a bit of a problem. While the social media books look potentially useful, my other exploration keeps adding books to the second pile. It's amazing stuff, so I thought I'd share them with you.

Complexity coverWell, that's random
Sometime last year, I decided I needed to start learning about complexity science. I knew that complexity and uncertainty were unavoidable, so I wanted to learn more about how to work through them. I thought that the emerging discipline might be helpful, and Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009) was the introduction that suggested I was on the right path.

You might not think you're interested in complexity (if you've heard of chaos theory, this is the next generation). It's still fairly obscure, and even its definition isn't completely settled. Because it's inherently interdisciplinary, you'll probably find parts you don't care about. If you're interested in social networks, though, guess what.

Linked coverConnect this
If you're up for a challenge, read two books by Albert-László Barabási, back to back. Start with Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means (2003), which fills in the background on ideas you know, such as social networks, network analysis, and power-law distributions (the math behind the long tail). Eight years after its initial publication, it's still an excellent source for anyone who has ever used the term social graph. You're using this stuff, so you may as well understand it.

Barabási's newer book, Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do (2010), digs into patterns in human activity and how much of what we do can be predicted. I'm not quite sure what this one means, but I suspect it's important. Bursts coverPlus, where else are you going to find a book about predictions that uses the story of a 16th century peasant uprising in Transylvania to make its point? Yes, it's full of math and theory, but this is a fun one to read, too.

One point I'm going to take to heart is based on the discovery of power-law distributions in communications patterns. It only emerges when people are overwhelmed and start to prioritize, but university emails and Einstein's correspondence show the same pattern. What it means is that bloggers don't need to apologize for quiet periods when they're busy behind the scenes.

Black Swan coverCatching up, adding more
Walking people through the framework I'm working on turns out to be bad for clearing the reading backlog. The first person who saw it suggested Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan (2007), which was sort of like The Long Tail (2006): one of those concepts that's been discussed so much that you feel like you've read it, even if you haven't.

The basic idea, if you're not familiar with it, is that improbable, high-impact events will occur, and they can't be predicted. Rather than trying to predict them, then, we should structure our environments (not just business) to minimize our exposure to the bad ones and maximize our benefit from the good ones. I'm not ready to give up on attempts to analyze the future, but it's a good reminder to incorporate a healthy dose of uncertainty into the process.

Which leads us to scenarios
Long View coverThe second person I told about the Omniscience framework heard the bit about planning methodologies and pointed me toward GBN and Peter Schwartz's The Art of the Long View (1991). It turns out that I had read the important parts on scenario planning when the book was new, which was reassuring. At some point, though, I need a more detailed source on that topic. Plus, the 20-year-old predictions of trends that are now obvious give the book a distinctly vintage feel.

Fortunately, scenario planning was already part of the mix. So far, it's holding up.

About that framework
I know, I've mentioned the Omniscience framework too many times, and I need to show it to you already. I will. But while that's in draft, I thought you might like some of these. If you feel stuck in the social media bubble, they're are a good antidote.

Update: The post introducing the Omniscience framework is now up.

More summer reading lists: 2012, 2010

Attacking the backlog of social media management/measurement books in 3… 2… 1…

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Studying complexity and futures.
  • Principal, Social Target


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