Newton in 1675 famously said about his work, that if he was seeing further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.*

Doing so he acknowledged the lineage of the things he worked on, which he added his own combinatory creativity to, gaining us all very considerable new insights.

This weekend reading Chris Aldrich’s essay about the often actively ignored history of the things that make up the current wave of note making methods and tools, Newton’s turn of phrase crossed my mind again. Chris Aldrich showcases the history of something that currently is mostly discussed as building on a single person’s practice in the 1950s to 1990s, as an actually very widely used set of practices going back many centuries.

I think it is a common pattern. Repeating endlessly in bigger and smaller forms, because we’re human.
I also think the often re-used ‘shoulders of giants’ metaphor makes it worse, actively hiding any useful history of most things.

Every output is the result of processes, and building blocks that go beyond the person making the output. And most of those inputs and earlier practices are of a mundane origin. There aren’t that many giants around, that we all can stand on their shoulders for all we come up with.

Everything has a lineage, and all those lineages have something to tell you about the current state of things you’re working on. Along all those lineages knowledge and experience has been lost, not because it wasn’t useful moving forward, but because it wasn’t transferred well enough. Going back in such lineage, to use as feedback in your current practice can be tremendously valuable.
It’s something actively used as a tool of exploration in e.g. ‘the future, backwards’ exercises. In PKM, the example that triggered this posting, it is common to use your old self in that way (talking about how you’re learning from ‘previous me’ and as ‘current me’ write notes for ‘future me’) It’s even what makes Earth’s tree of life special.

It takes looking for that lineage as a first step. Yet if then all we do is scanning history’s horizon for giants that stand out, we may find none, several, or usually one nearer that will have to do as big enough and simply assume that’s where the horizon is, while overlooking everyone else that any giants and we are always building on.

Everything has a deep lineage with a story to tell. Everyone stands on everyones shoulders, of all sizes. It is shoulders all the way down.


If I have seen further it is by knowingly standing on the shoulders of Giants everyone.

Photo ‘Santa Teresa, feria del Vendrell 2019’ by Joan Grífols, license CC BY NC SA

* Most of us may recognise Newton’s 1675 phrase in a letter he wrote. Newton probably knew it was much older. But do we individually generally acknowledge it was at least 500 years old when he wrote it down, or usually attribute it to Newton?

Last week I co-hosted a session between a number of public sector data holders and a handful of the biggest existing players in the market re-using that same type of data. I’m deliberately vague about who those market parties were, and what type of data is involved, as it is not really relevant to my observation, and there is a still ongoing conversation with those organisations.

The session started from the idea that the public sector data holders could provide a much richer and real-time form of data on top of the usual stuff already available to third party re-users. We thought to discuss how that richer data should be shared to be easily used by the existing market.

As it turns out Christensen’s innovation theory seems to apply here: big vested interests are not in a position to innovate, as all their processes and resource allocation is geared to doing well or better what they are already doing well. Even if all people involved want it to be different, the existing structures will usually dictate otherwise. Case in point here was that the existing re-users currently have a lead-time of at least 6 months to incorporate new data in their products, and are not at all ready to handle real-time info (unless that real-time info is merely an overlay on their existing data). Also the users of their products may have up-date cycles of 2 years, rendering any real-time updates to their data useless.

The only third party in the room that seemed to say ‘bring it on’ was an open source community initiative. They however, as Christensen also predicts, will not be perceived as any threat to existing up-market players. At least not until it’s too late for them. It is this open source alternative that is also most likely to reach whole groups of new types of users of the data.

It’s interesting as well to see again that ‘release it and they will come’ is not a viable way to open government data. Releasing it needs to be accompanied by these type of conversations, and capacity building by (new) market players and citizens, so that the potential of open data can be realized.

At Next09 last Wednesday my friend Lee Bryant presented on ‘User Driven Companies’.
Lee didn’t waste much time before digging below the surface of some examples of companies showing signs of being user driven. The same companies were mentioned as those held up by Jeff Jarvis and Umair Haque the day before as signs of change (Dell, Walkers Crisps) and consequently attacked by Andrew Keen as examples of the usual rampant free market power grab but now hiding under the cloak of innovation (quote). Lee Bryant did a much better job of feeding the debate (Andrew Keen’s stated interest) than Keen in full frontal attack mode, as he asked the question what it will take to embed ‘user driven’ and openness as a notion into general business culture. Taking it further, based on what still can be improved.
The short answer is that you cannot be ‘user driven’ and open on the outside and at the same time treat your own people like mere parts in the machinery. Your values need to be people focussed both inside and out, or you won’t succeed.
Companies need to ask themselves whether their goal is pure profit maximisation in the short-term, leading to pillage and plunder attitudes, or sustainable income by real value creation over the long term. If the latter, companies need to find balance between respect, social status and profit. If you opt for profit in the short-term it will cost you your respect and social status, which in turn will come back to hurt the company itself. Large companies as Unilever started out with social and profit goals. Banking was a respected profession serving communities until they descended to plunder (I think it started with the introduction of financial derivatives in the mid 1980’s, when financial investment products became completely disconnected from underlying companies and their value/values). Bankers may be rich now, but not respected or with highly regarded social status. Other models than pillage and plunder exist (as Umair Haque also discussed in his presentation on doing away with the war-metaphor for doing business), based on both cooperation and competition (like the Hanseatic trade league) or on profiting from making your customers profit (like Threadless)


All too often reality: We do not value you or your call

So user-driven companies need to start from within, letting their employees be human and be seen to be humans on the outside. Relationships are build between human beings. Between your employees and your customers. Dell maybe better at listening to their customers than before Jeff Jarvis unleashed Dell Hell, but as long as you are mostly talking to your customers through anonymous outsourced call centers it does not really change anything fundamental. Letting your people be human is a start, but needs to be augmented with having faith in your network as well as valuing your ecosystem. You need to recognize that your company is not a completely seperate entity, but merely a temporary clustering of people, relationships, values and production means (me in 2004), within the wider network around it. Managers and employees are not outside of that general network, they’re users, customers, clients, and human beings themselves as well. Acting within the context of an organisation however we often seem to forget that. Culture is the sum of individual behaviour within a group. To change business culture organisations need to allow their people to behave, and to be seen to behave, according to the company’s shared values and purpose.

The video of Lee’s presentation at Next09:

Link: next09 - User Driven Companies

Lee blogged his own presentation as well: User Driven Companies Should Start from Within

Disclosure: I was at the Next ’09 Conference in Hamburg on the invitation of the organizers as a blogger and did not have to pay for my conference ticket.