August 22, 2004

Deepness in the Sky/ Vernor Vinge

Rarely do I find a Sci-Fi story whose central character has a Chinese/ Vietnamese-sounding name like Pham Nuwen. I’m re-reading the novel for the second time and it’s still as exciting as ever.
cover The Qeng Ho (sounds like the explorer-eunuch Admiral Zhenghe of 15th Century China) is a human space-faring trading culture. They clash with another space-faring human society called the “Emergents” (the baddies in this case) while trying to explore the developing alien Spider society. The Emergents pulled a fast one on the Qeng Hos, became top dog and subjugated the Qeng Hos.

The Emergents has a tyrannical ruling class that exploits its own people by turning some of them into specialised, but not mindless, network-slaves. Some of their own people and the vanquished Qeng Ho are subject to something called “Focus”. It’s like deliberating making a person compulsively-obsessed over an area of study or task (e.g. Linguistics, or Office Security). Each human becoming dedicated human computing processors. Of course the Qeng Hos kicked-ass in the end. The interesting and exciting part was how they did it.

Meanwhile, the Spider society is also engaged in a war. The Spiders are portrayed as very human in thinking and emotions. The interesting thing is that every 50 years or so, their Sun would turn cold, and all Spiders have to hibernate. They wake maybe 10 years later, develop for another 50, and then the cycle repeats itself. The Emergents basically want to dominate Spider society as well.

So there’s something happening in space, and on Spider-world. The finale draws it all together. The novel can certainly give any Hong Kong drama serial a run for the money. There is adventure, political intrigue, conspiracy, love-lost and found, the virtue of patience, the development of capitalism, victims to heroes, tyranny, triumph of good over evil, justice and retribution. It’s a feel-good story.

I found it fascinating how a technologically advanced species could manipulate the development of another alien culture. For instance, along the way, the evil Emergents sped up the development of the Spider society by setting up a software company that subsequently made itself pervasive in the Spider society’s computer networks (sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Is Bill Gates an alien?). The Emergents even started a nuclear war by making one of the Spider-nation think that the other side initiated an attack (they were fooled because their computers told them so). It was food for thought on our reliance on computers and the Internet. Information can be manipulated. Our identities are real only if there’s some record in the computer database.

That’s why I read Sci-Fi again and again. It’s not about the science. It’s about the ideas and dreams, about social interactions and change and possibilities. I often find that well written Sci-Fi stories add to my understanding of human behaviour and the development of society. Deepness in the Sky--like many good Sci-Fi stories--is fiction, but it’s not science per se. It has to tell a good story, first. The science just adds to the flavour.

August 18, 2004

A short reading list for managers: On Management, Leadership, Life and Sci-Fi(?!)

I'm attending a course on "Managing Libraries" (it’s the 2nd day of the course as I post this), organised by the National Library Board Institute. Like all courses, if I go with an open mind, I find there are always things to learn.

The course jogged my memory of useful learning points I've learnt through the last 2 years in managing two libraries (concurrently). I was able to add another 10 additional points to my list of "Things I've learnt over the years in managing and leading a team" (this is still Work-in-progress. Who knows, I might publish a book later).

Anyway, during the discussions, it occurred to me that I should share some books that I've found really useful to me. The following books (by no means exhaustive) have helped me cope with the pressures of managing a library, and working with (and for) people in general:

(In no particular order)
  1. Becoming a manager: How new managers master the challenges of leadership/ Linda A. hill
  2. Managing at the speed of change: How resilient managers succeed and prosper where others fail/ Daryl R. Conner
  3. The age of unreason/ Charles Handy
  4. Not bosses but leaders: How to lead the way to success/ John Adair
  5. The power of losing control: Finding strength, meaning, & happiness in an out-of-control world/ Joe Caruso
  6. Don't sweat the small stuff...: Simple ways to keep the little things from taking over your life/ Richard Carlson
  7. Ten ancient scrolls of success/ Og Mandino
  8. Citizen Soldiers/ Stephen E. Ambrose
  9. Panzer commander: The memoirs of Colonel Hans/ Hans Von Luck
  10. Deepness in the sky/ Vernor Vinge
I repeat--the list is by no means exhaustive, as I tried to keep to only 10 titles. It occurred to me that I read perhaps 3 or 4 main types of books where managing and leadership is concerned.

The first type has to do with what I call “Management & Leadership: Practice & Ideas” (items 1 to 4). Item 3 has lots of ideas on what it means to “manage” for the future (it’s written in the 80s and still as relevant as ever). I would consider item 4 a must-read for all managers.
The second type has to do with “Motivation and Inspiration” (items 5 to 7). I highly recommend item 5, because it really helped me reframe what “control” really meant. I also highly recommend item 6 & 7 because they helped me to reframe and were very inspiring. They don’t espouse loud or flashy concepts. I’ve found that they suggest simple and quiet truths about how I can live my life as a better person (before I can even consider being a better manager).
The third type (item 8 & 9) would be about “Life-and-death Do-Or-Die Leadership-Under-Fire” kind of books. Ok, lest you think I treat staff as mere soldiers to command in the Library Battlefield, I must explain that I recommend those books not for the War aspect but for the parts about Leadership, Unity and “Courage under fire”--war is where you really separate the "leaders" from the "managers". I find them relevant for another more subtle reason: the management and organisational theories that we find so familiar today have been directly or indirectly influenced by those survivors of WWII--the grunts and officers who went on to build Corporate America, Britain, Japan etc.
The last type (item 10)—ok, this would really be strange. A science fiction book considered as relevant reading? Ok, Sci-Fi may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But to me, Sci-Fi is about social change, ideas and human relationships. It just happens to be in a science setting. I get my creative juices flowing by reading Sci-Fi, plus it’s a good way to relax.

August 10, 2004

The Cluetrain manifesto: The end of business as usual

By Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, & David Weinberger.

I read the 2000 edition and it's still as relevant as ever. (Thanks, Shel, for the book recommendation). This is a witty and flippant book that takes a dig at Big Business. It makes sense in many ways.
cover provides a decent review. Better yet, check out the book from your library or read the online version at

I’ve included my favourite quotes from the book in this blog (in colour & bold). The page numbers refer to the book edition that I’m holding. Hyperlinks are to the online book chapters.

There’s a new conversation between and among your market and your workers. It’s making them smarter and it’s enabling them to discover their human voices. You have two choices. You can continue to lock yourself behind facile corporate words and happytalk brochures. Or you can join the conversation. (p. ixi - Foreword)

What if the real attraction of the Internet is not its cutting-edge bells and whistles, its jazzy interface or any of the advanced technology that underlies its pipes and wires? What if the attraction is an atavistic throwback to the prehistoric human fascination with telling tales? (p. xxi – Introduction)

I buy the argument that the Internet is popular because it allows each individual (read that again – A PERSON, me, you) to have a presence. To rediscover our voice again. The authors make a convincing case (to me at least) that markets of today are all about relationship-building. Customers don’t just want buy a product. They want a voice; to be heard; especially if the product or service falls below their expectations.

Singapore’s best example of how this is happening is probably the Yahoo! Ministry of Complaints. Companies can continue to ignore the complaints (justified or otherwise) posted there at their peril. I mean, no matter how objective I am, I’d probably think that there’s some truth to the complaint about XYZ outlet (or GASP! No! The Library!)

The implication for PR and marketing communications: Join the conversations. Recent example – Microsoft's Channel 9, as I learnt from Shel’s blog The Changing Face of Microsoft. Regardless of whether we love or hate Microsoft, the point is when King Kong jumps, you’d want to see where it lands. Here's another example of how the Web (or blog) is used to engage the customer in conversations - see Robert Scoble's blog.

The concern by organisations (particularly government agencies like NLB) can be summed up by this line in Chapter 4 (p. 107) – But what about the risk? Suppose a “lowly clerk” speaks for the company in public and says something wrong? Something actionable? Something confidential, or sensitive?

The authors’ response: It’s going to happen. It’s already happening. And it’s always happened. The mail clerk describes the corporate strategy to the stranger next to him on the bus, then provide a critique.

It’s true that it's already happening. How many of us can truly say we do not say anything about our work (positive or negative) to our family or friends? And then they would talk to more people. Heaven forbid, that friend of yours could end up talking to a Singapore Cabbie, who might talk to an overseas visitor on the way to the Airport!

Let me stick to what I know more – Libraries (which isn't a lot, BTW). I'm of the view that as technology makes things a whole lot easier for the individual consumer to obtain information without the librarian as the human intermediary, it’s the human Voice (not necessarily Touch) that will make the difference between the individual choosing Borders over a trip to the public library.

See Chapter 5 (p. 123): Business is a conversation because the defining work of a business is a conversation—literally. And “knowledge workers” are simply those whose job consists of having interesting conversations.

Most librarians I know are very passionate people. We can take heart that:
To have a conversation, you have to be comfortable being human—acknowledging you don’t have all the answers, being eager to learn from someone else and to build new ideas together. (p. 123)

That sounds like what relationship-building is about. I can imagine a future where NLB's Customer Service courses for library staff would not just be limited to the finer art of face-to-face dealings with irate customers. It would also teach staff how to 'insert' themselves into a conversation, knowing how NOT TO BE AFRAID in saying that “Oops, I got that wrong but don’t worry Angry_Angel_481, I’ll quickly get back to you on that.”

The official structure becomes less relevant. The most valuable employee is the one who, in response to a question, doesn’t give a concrete answer in a booming voice but says, “You should talk to Larry… Oh, and there’s a mailing list on this topic I ran into a couple of weeks ago…” (p. 129)

The above statement could be a little hard to accept -- it seems that we're asking librarians to “dumb-down” their answers. We librarians pride ourselves in giving correct and complete answers in the shortest time possible. The above example suggests a lowering of our standards and professionalism.

But I could argue otherwise.

The world has changed. Information is even more readily available to customers than before. The “answers” that librarians pride themselves in giving are readily accessible by any child. Heck, librarians even prefer Google—I’m not saying Google is the answer to everything, but who are we kidding? Google (or it’s next reincarnation or successor) is treated as the default search engine, even for librarians for a simple fact that it works adequately. I didn’t say it’s the best, but users don’t necessarily need the BEST. They can survive with adequacy.

Basically I’m making a case that the typical information-seeker don’t think that they need Librarians anymore. And what they think, counts. But here’s what I see as a paradox — the Web enables individual consumers to be independent. However, the less reliant they are on human contact, the more they actually will crave for it.

That being said, the presence that librarians project can no longer be the “Thou knoweth more than you-eth” attitude. To connect with our average information-customer, we need to show them that we’re as human as they are; as fallible, and there’s nothing to be fear from us.

I don’t see NLB scrambling to adopt the Cluetrain Manifesto. I’m even hesitant to go all out and say all employees are now allowed to comment on the organisation’s behalf. It’s tricky. I think we have to reach a halfway point. Not all employees should go and give the "official" voice. We should instead establish an organizational culture that each employee is given enough information to be able to know what is the right thing to say (not necessarily the official line).

The urge to manage is deep in our culture. It ultimately is defeated by the fact of human fallibility (p. 152)

To paraphrase a line from p. 153: The organisation doesn’t have to be always right. It means being more human, and therefore less threatening.

Just when I’m all gushy over the book, I get a slap in the face (figuratively speaking) in Chapter 7 (p. 181): Will Cluetrain be the next big thing? Not if we can help it… Let’s not start another frickin’ club. The only decent thing to do with CLUETRAIN is to bury the sucker now while there’s still time, before it begins to smell of management philosophy.

And there we have it -- the inherent dilemma of any good idea: Once institutionalized, it tends to sink. This book provided lots of food for thought.
(Related blog - Differentiating the Public Service Librarian - 24 Sept 04)