Reflections on Writing

As a writing tutor, I tried to be as honest and straightforward about my assessments of student writing as I could while supporting the art and act of writing and helping writers to see where they had room to improve.  This made me a very polar writing tutor: people either loved sessions with me or they hated it and never returned.  If I got lucky, students who hated it realized that they needed the level of candid feedback that I provided and returned for more sessions with different pieces of work.  If I got extremely lucky, the writers that I absolutely reveled in working with returned time and time again.  That is not to say that I did not enjoy each and every single session I had (there were bad ones, but 90% of them were enjoyable).  But the quality of the writing and the talent of the writer allowed me to engage on a much deeper philosophical level with several students over time, getting past mechanics into more complicated issues like flow, thesis development, voice, and assertiveness.

I have not offered to read many of my classmate’s papers in the MSIM program, partly because it was no longer my job, but partly because my group work and the quality of the writing that resulted from that work discouraged me.  It is not that I am dealing with more English as a World Language speakers (some of whom have a better grasp of the mechanics of English composition than I do!), but that I am left unimpressed by the devotion to the art.  I recognize in many of my classmates the same tendencies that I wrestled with as a writing tutor: an aversion to the skill of written communication in general, a lack of interest in complete development of ideas, and no realization of the power that the written word holds.  Again, I do not imply that these are bad writers — there is no such thing – underdeveloped, perhaps, where skill can be improved, but never bad — only that they seem detached.

The problem is this: the MSIM program is a professional program, and a core competency for professionals is to be able to write.  By this, I do not mean the ability to string words together to make a coherent sentence – it is a much higher level than that.  It is the ability to use words to convince, to argue, to assert, to discuss, and to realize.  I do not demand that they enjoy the act, that they pine for the days when they can pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard and write.  I do not even demand that they do so frequently (the program does, but I don’t).  Instead, I demand that they respect the process and that they devote themselves to nothing less than the best they can achieve.  Half-hearted is not sufficient.  I prefer no complaints, but I will tolerate those within reason, for not everyone is as interested in writing as I am.  If I am to hear whining the entire quarter about how we have to write a paper, I am unlikely to be interested in working with that individual again, for such reactions are uninspiring and indicative of more than they might think.

This is not a complaint post – far from it.  I am not bemoaning my peers, nor am I taking any stance in particular as to the technical quality of their work.  I have merely realized that my skills in writing have influenced my perception of my peers.  I have also realized that perhaps I have failed at something small but nonetheless significant: it was not simply my job to promote the art and act of writing as a writing tutor, but to carry this effort on.  I owe this in part to Kevin Desouza, associate professor at the Information School, who tirelessly offers on a weekly basis to both his Change Management and Finance classes to read any writing sent his way so long as it is mechanically correct.  His devotion to his students and to supporting them is above and beyond some of the other classes I have taken here.  This is neither good nor bad from a program perspective, but from the perspective of a tutor who has, perhaps, let the art slip, is inspiring nonetheless.

Could Obama Mean Drastic Change for Social Media and Technology in Government?

With our new president-elect being heralded by the TV networks, could this mean a drastic shift in the way that technology is used in government?  We are seeing the end of an era:

Nov. 4, 2008, is a historic day because it marks the end of an economic era, a political era and a generational era all at once.

Economically, it marks the end of the Long Boom, which began in 1983. Politically, it probably marks the end of conservative dominance, which began in 1980. Generationally, it marks the end of baby boomer supremacy, which began in 1968. For the past 16 years, baby boomers, who were formed by the tumult of the 1960s, occupied the White House. By Tuesday night, if the polls are to be believed, a member of a new generation will become president-elect.

So today is not only a pivot, but a confluence of pivots.

— David Brooks, “A Date with Scarcity“, New York Times, November 3, 2008

Could this also mark a new beginning in the realization of technology usage in public government?  Obama’s grassroots campaign coordinated using the Internet, and it would be a significant oversight to lose that element of his work.  From Twitter to Facebook to his own web site, he utilized the tools of the 21st century to mobilize a huge following that pushed him to a landslide.

What if that following demanded accountability through social media?  What if Obama continued to tweet on the issue that he was considering, that mattered to the nation?  What if the grassroots movement he started was applied to the White House web site?  What if the change he promised continued to be a grassroots effort, with him taking the role of a peer who considers all angles, rather than one of Commander in Chief, whose decisions are final?  Obama has recognized the power of my generation – the “Net Generation” or the “Digital Generation”, whatever you choose to call us.  What if he continued to leverage that power?

What change could he achieve then?

An Open Letter to Tim Eyman

The letter below was originally written as a reflection paper for Kevin Desouza’s class, IMT 583 – Finance & Accounting Foundations for Information Professionals.

Mr. Eyman:

It seems, that in this economic climate where people are trying to make life easier for themselves, you are intent upon bringing up initiatives that will only waste our money and time. In fact, your abuse of Washington’s initiative system has been so flagrant that you have been mocked by an initiative that attempted to name you a horse’s ass[3]. Fortunately for you – unfortunately for the citizens of Washington – the Courts struck Initiative 831 down as a mockery of the initiative system[5]. Now we find you at it again with Initiative 985, which has been soundly discounted by none less than the federal government as potentially endangering Washington’s transportation infrastructure, despite your attempts to prove otherwise[1].

So here is my proposal: since you seem so gung-ho about utilizing the initiative system to make the lives of Washington State citizens better (nevermind that you often miss your target and go straight to making it a living hell): why not create an initiative to abolish Washington State’s observation of Daylight Savings Time?

No, bear with me now – this is no better or worse an initiative than you could have dreamed up yourself. Arizona and Hawaii already buck the trend of daylight savings (so much so that Arizona becomes its own time zone when the rest of the country switches to Daylight Savings). Back in 2007, when the United States extended Daylight Savings so that it ended later, the National Geographic had this to say:

A study released last year by the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the change will save less than 1 percent of the country’s annual energy consumption.

Bob Aldrich of the California Energy Commission told National Public Radio that energy needs in the U.S. have changed a lot since the 1970s, when the data supporting the current bill was collected.

"We’ve become much more electronically configured, if you will," he told NPR. In addition to lights, people plug in more computers, televisions, satellite dishes, and other power-hungry electronics than they did 30 years ago[2].

Yup, that’s right – we based the choice, in part, on data from the 1970s! Keep in mind, Daylight Savings Time was a way of helping to standardize railroad schedules, and no federal mandate exists that requires states to observe it[6]. Let’s examine this from a financial perspective, since your initiatives are all about saving citizens money.

Consider for a moment that Washington is widely regarded as an economic gateway to Asian countries. Thus, much of our economy depends on our economic relationships with them. Later in Handwerk’s article, he cites Anthony Concil of the International Air Transport Association:

"When Europe and the U.S. are on different times, connections become less convenient. Right now there is one week of discord between the U.S. and Europe, so it’s sort of at a manageable level," Concil said.

He argued that if the energy bill passed, every year "you might have a monthlong period where you have lousy connections, so from a traveler’s perspective it’s not going to be particularly good."

Airlines may ultimately feel the change where it hurts the most—on the bottom line.

"It’s going to be expensive for airlines," Concil added. "Particularly for U.S. carriers—and they are in a difficult climate right now—it’s a major issue, as well as for carriers traveling to and from the U.S."

In 2006, the State of Indiana required all of its counties to begin observing Daylight Savings Time consistently – previously, it was left up to the counties to determine whether or not to observe Daylight Savings. Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research took advantage of this law to study energy consumption changes in the state. In the abstract of their report, they state:

Our main finding is that—contrary to the policy’s intent—DST increases residential electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase are approximately 1 percent, but we find that the effect is not constant throughout the DST period. DST causes the greatest increase in electricity consumption in the fall, when estimates range between 2 and 4 percent. These findings are consistent with simulation results that point to a tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and increasing demand for heating and cooling. We estimate a cost of increased electricity bills to Indiana households of $9 million per year. We also estimate social costs of increased pollution emissions that range from $1.7 to $5.5 million per year. Finally, we argue that the effect is likely to be even stronger in other regions of the United States[4].

An abolishment of Daylight Savings would likely have drastic impacts on our energy usage and consumption in the residential sector. Pairing an abolishment of Daylight Savings with a significant push for energy conservation and for companies to manufacture highly energy-efficient products could only help the state.

So, Mr. Eyman, I implore you – prepare our state for the future once again and throw your weight behind creating this initiative. Like many other initiatives that you have fathered, you can expect a good deal of healthy debate of the pros and cons of such an initiative; unlike your other initiatives, however, no matter what the result, you will have encouraged the citizens of our state to think seriously about energy conservation and use, as well as the practicality of observing an outmoded tool used for synchronizing train schedules.

With warmest regards,

Peter Ellis

Works Cited

  1. Broom, J. (2008, October 25). "Federal transportation officials say Eyman’s initiative could be costly to state". The Seattle Times. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from
  2. Handwerk, B. (2007, March 9). "Daylight Saving Change: Energy Boon or Waste of Time?". National Geographic. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from
  3. Initiative 831. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from
  4. Kotchen, M. J. and Grant, L. E. (2008, October). Does Daylight Saving Time Save Energy? Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Indiana. Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from
  5. Modie, N. (2003, March 15). "A bum rap? Eyman initiative is ruled out". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from
  6. Vernon, J. (2008, October 31). "Daylight Saving Time History in the U.S.". National Geographic. Retrieved online November 2, 2008 from

Book Review: Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

Book Cover for Wikinomics

This review is cross-posted from Kevin Desouza’s blog "Ideas 4 Change: Thoughts from an Info Mgmt Class".

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. New York: Portfolio, 2008. 315pp. $27.95 (ISBN 978-1-59184-193-7)

The essential premise of this work is that the business world as we know it has been changed irrevocably by bottom-up models of collaboration inspired and driven by the Internet. The authors, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, argue that businesses have two choices: yield to the power of distributed collaboration or die.

Wikinomics strives to set forth a new economic model that takes advantage of a collision of forces: the advent of cheap technologies that enable cheap, easy collaboration and a new generation of workers that have grown up in an increasingly digital world. It argues that collaboration itself has been redefined, that "[t]he new promise of collaboration is that with peer production we will harness human skill, ingenuity, and intelligence more efficiently and effectively than anything we have witnessed previously" (18). The pillars of wikinomics – openness, peering, sharing, and acting globally – replace a tired business method foundationally supported by the idea of the hierarchy and holding knowledge and creative power within companies, jealously guarding these resources as sacrosanct. Rather than companies dictating what they will and will not accept as goods and services to customers or suppliers, companies must now innovate and work alongside them. Organizations not working with the customer merely leads to customers circumventing organizations and designing their own products and services; the organization then misses out on an opportunity to vastly improve products and services and to innovate (149).

The core chapters of the book set forth seven competitive and growth models for corporate use, with an introductory overview, a discussion of what factors created the fundamental changes discussed within the book, one chapter devoted to addressing the arguments against the wikinomics model, and one chapter devoted to discussing how these models can be implemented in what the authors consider the organizations of old. The authors set forth the following seven models:

  • Peer producers, where individuals independently form groups to produce something (67);
  • Ideagoras, global marketplaces of ideas and innovations (98);
  • Prosumers, consumers that both consume and produce goods and services (126);
  • The New Alexandrians, embracers of the openness of today’s economies who construct new collaborative environments (156-7);
  • Open platforms, where companies open their wares for others to build upon (184);
  • The global plant floor, where companies no longer keep all their knowledge and talent in-house and instead farm out responsibility and risk to suppliers, who, in turn, become partners in invention (218);
  • And, finally, the wiki workplace, where openness, collaboration, sharing, and acting globally are creating a new workplace (240).

Elements of each of these models – which all bring outside resources into the center of organizational culture – can foster successful assimilation into the new open economy.

One of the major unacknowledged themes in Wikinomics is the idea that the modern worker suffers from an abundance of information overload, which is, in part, due to the way organizations operate. This is a particularly interesting thread from an information management perspective. In the Wiki Workplace chapter, the authors write that

. . . the vast majority of employees don’t do business processes anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. After years of optimizing supply chains, outsourcing, automation, and stripping costs and inefficiencies out of the back office, most employees spend very little of their day working on regularized activities. "What they do," says [Ross Mayfield, CEO and founder of Socialtext], "is they manage exceptions to processes. Even in the most mundane workplaces like a call center, people are constantly wrestling with new problems" (255, emphasis added).

Workers no longer deal with the routine; they deal with the rule-breakers, and that negotiation often ends up in a slew of information that is never documented or captured for organizational use (and in fact, often gets lost in the shuffle of daily e-mail) (256).

Open platforms really discuss empowering people with access to information that the companies themselves have only loose ideas of how to handle. Tapscott and Williams frame this along the lines of the adage in the Linux community known as "Linus’s Law" after Linux coordinator Linus Torvalds (which, surprisingly, given that they hold Linux up as a model of innovation, is never quoted in the book itself): "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". To restate this in the context of the book, given enough eyes, all solutions are shallow. Companies lack access to resources to realize all the potential that their data or inventions have – even if they had these resources, they would be unable to process the information. Thus, they are forced to open their walls and create scenarios where "ordinary people can create effective new information services that are more resilient than bureaucratic channels" with these "open platforms for innovation inviting unprecedented participation in value creation" (188).

So with all of the new information thrust upon us and with the advent of such broad-ranging technologies that enable collaboration cheaply and easily across geographic, technological, and ideological boundaries, what are organizations to do? Tapscott and Williams contend that the only things organizations can do – and the only way they survive – is to adapt themselves rapidly to the new models of sharing and cooperation that this "perfect storm of technology, demographics, and global economics" creates (54). The Net Generation, with drastically different norms than seen in business in the past – "speed, freedom, openness, mobility, authenticity, and playfulness" (54) – combined with cheap collaboration technology combined with a global economy that "demands and enables new kinds of economic cooperation and opens up the world of knowledge workers to every company seeking uniquely qualified minds to solve their problem" have created new and unusual problems for organizations to address (55). This storm means that "the new Web is inherently dangerous for the business models that depend on controlling the means of creation and distribution", and organizations must adjust (273).

This is a paradigm shift. Paradigms are mental models that constrain our thinking and are often based on assumptions so strong we don’t notice them. New paradigms cause disruption and uncertainty, even calamity, and are nearly always received with coolness, hostility, or worse. Vested interests fight against the change, and leaders of the old are often the last to embrace the new. Consequently, a paradigm shift typically causes a crisis of leadership (285).

Change management here is an essential trait. However, according to Tapscott and Williams, change management has to start from where companies are today, creating a map between what the company currently does and how it will innovate and collaborate in new economic waters (291). Companies must decide the extent to which they will release their reigns on their internal knowledge and intellectual property; however, the timing of this is vitally important (292). Failure to stage this transition correctly – or to release too much intellectual property – will send a company down in flames (177-8).

Most importantly, this sort of change starts from within. "When confronted with such an all-encompassing revolution in business most companies wonder where they should begin. Our answer is to start at home, by fostering collaboration in the workplace" (313). In addition,

Ignoring the cultural memes and norms of the organization is a common way to have the principles and practices of wikinomics discredited at initiation. Champions of this kind of change need to be sensitive to these concerns and structure their engagement with the enterprise in a way that allows the benefits of collaboration to manifest themselves in pilot projects that can be scaled up and help build further momentum for cultural change (313).

Tapscott and Williams clearly believe in the transformative powers of the innovations of Web 2.0. They recognize that a new generation of people raised with computers and electronics is fundamentally altering the economic landscape now and for years to come. This book made me think long and hard about some of the ideas they had for engaging the workplace in creation and change. They are, at least, realists who recognize that this sweeping change cannot and will not be immediate; for this, I give them a hefty dose of credit. They also recognize that there is a range of options that organizations can take to become more nimble in an economy that implements the ideas of wikinomics. One major challenge to their thinking is that they seem to frame the issue as if this generation were the first to realize the potential for drastic, sweeping change. There have been many instances in the past century where the idea of the old economy being swept away have presented themselves, with no particular action taken as a result. Wikinomics is not the be-all, end-all solution that it occasionally is presented as.

As a last note, I found myself strongly contesting one major theme of the book as I read. In talking about the "N-Geners" (people born between 1977 and 1996 inclusive, a generation that I am definitely part of), Tapscott and Williams assert the following:

N-Geners are not content to be passive consumers, and increasingly satisfy their desire for choice, convenience, customization, and control by designing, producing, and distributing products themselves . . . The ability to remix media, hack products, or otherwise tamper with consumer culture is their birthright, and they won’t let outmoded intellectual property laws stand in their way (52).

I took exception to these statements as I read, and I found myself reviewing the assertion throughout the book: it is unfair to paint the Net Generation in an "us vs. them" light, where the "them" is established cultural norms. This is a consistent theme throughout the book. I do not consider us at war, which this paragraph implicitly suggests. Instead, we are attempting to understand our place in the world as a generation, and increasingly, the answers have been evident in utilizing the existing culture in new ways. As a generation, we spur change not because we are rebellious or because we believe it us our birthright; rather, we do so because we know no better. Indeed, we do so because this perfect storm that Tapscott and Williams have described exists, and we are merely left to go along for the ride. We are simultaneously the instigators and the lost sheep that Tapscott and Williams discuss when they declare "the old multinational that creates value in a closed hierarchical fashion is dead" (214). We are as muddled, in many ways, as the organizations and corporate leaders that Wikinomics was written for: those trying to figure out how to stay afloat in an increasingly boundary-less society.