It’s becoming increasingly clear that two new and major phenomena now define the modern information age — the ubiquity and utility of software, and what Brian Solis of the Altimeter Group has dubbed “the audience of audiences.”
Publishing’s shift from the world of physical goods to the world of software has followed a staircase up through production systems to consumer systems, gradually hiking step-by-step up technology platforms that were at first expensive (and therefore required the capital investments of publishers to flourish) and eventually became inexpensive and commonly accessible (e.g., you can buy a wireless “books as software” reading device for less than $200). First came digital typesetting, then digital layout and design, and now we have full digital workflows, from authors submitting manuscripts electronically to peer-review systems that are entirely built on software to publishing systems that rely on software and are mostly realized through software (Web browsers, iPads, and the like). The time most books and journals spend in physical form prior to being printed is minutes now, rather than days or even hours.
This journey toward a world dominated by software was captured wonderfully in a recent essay by Mark Andreesen in the Wall Street Journal. Andreesen, the co-developer of the first visual Web browser (Mosaic) and co-founder of Netscape — to go back to the roots of a career that has sprouted many more software and business branches over the years — spends a little time talking about the future and “Why Software Is Eating the World“:
Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.
But the bulk of Andreesen’s essay reflect how software has already consumed many businesses — from Blockbuster (eaten by a software company called Netflix) to Borders (eaten by a software company called Amazon) to Disney (afraid of being eaten by a software company called Pixar). And entire industries are being changed by software players — LinkedIn is changing recruitment; iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify are changing music; Google has changed advertising and marketing; CraigsList and eBay changed sales; Expedia and others changed travel; and PayPal has changed commerce. Areas of life we might view as sheltered from these effect are being transformed, Andreesen notes:
Even national defense is increasingly software-based. The modern combat soldier is embedded in a web of software that provides intelligence, communications, logistics and weapons guidance. Software-powered drones launch airstrikes without putting human pilots at risk. Intelligence agencies do large-scale data mining with software to uncover and track potential terrorist plots.
Software used across vast networks unleashes certain potentialities, many of which are now daily realities — Facebook, Twitter, Google, and so on. Yet it still feels a little surprising to find that Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, delivering a speech earlier this summer which anyone in the information business should pay attention to.
It’s been known for years that the military has been one of the earliest and best adopters of digital information systems — after all, DARPA developed the Internet, so one would assume there’d be a first-mover effect. Military blogging, data visualization, distributed software systems, software security, and cyberwar have all been tackled by the military. Yet such a disciplined and macho culture doesn’t seem the place to see these things flourishing, not to mention to see true visionaries at the highest rank.
Roughead’s talk provides a crucial framing perspective for thinking about the social and audience implications of a software-connected (aka, networked) world, epitomized by his quotation of Solis above to introduce the concept of the “audience of audiences” — that is, we are no longer publishing to isolated individuals but to connected individuals, most of whom have audiences of their own. Even in organizations as hierarchical and authority-driven as the military, this has to be acknowledged:
I submit to you that in today’s media environment, as leaders – whether we recognize it or not – we are no longer simply leading a workforce of employees or, in my case, Sailors. We are leading a workforce of communicators.
Roughead talks at length about the cost:benefit discussions the Navy engaged in about whether to adopt social media or to create a very high-walled garden for the Navy. The decision point Roughead and his fellow leaders reached will sound very familiar to anyone who has had long, probing discussions along these lines:
We made the decision to engage in social media, as many of your own organizations did, when we recognized that whether we participated or not, there was going to be an ongoing conversation about the Navy and we were not content to be absent from that conversation. . . . Leaders have to lead by example and be part of engaging a wide array of audiences, and they must approach it with eagerness – not defensiveness or trepidation. The key to success as a leader is to recognize that there is an opportunity – indeed an obligation – to listen to your people, to add another dimension to your awareness.
Taking these risks have paid off, Roughead asserts, relating a compelling story about how he was able to monitor a flood in Tennessee that affected a core Navy facility:
The power of this expanded ability to listen to my Sailors and their families first struck me here last year on our own soil, when I saw it firsthand following a massive flood that we had at our personnel headquarters in Millington, Tennessee, where all of our “Human Resources” activity takes place. All of our personnel systems were down – they were hard down – and the Sailors and families who lived on the base had to evacuate in the span of about two hours because of the rate of the flood rise. I was getting very good information from the official reporting channels that we had perfected over the years from the chain of command. But it was on the weekend. I was at home. Simply sitting at my desk, in my office at home, I went on to the command’s Facebook page in Millington, Tenn. I can tell you, for me that was the “A-ha” moment. It was as if I was there. I could see in near real-time the concerns of the people who were affected by the flood and how the command was helping. A family member would post a comment that they had left behind important medication, and shortly thereafter I‟d see a doctor come up on the page and tell them, “Meet me in the gymnasium in 20 minutes, and I‟ll have what you need.” People were asking questions, they were getting them answered, and you could see their anxiety ratchet down as this conversation was taking place.
Yet, it seems as if major sections of scholarly publishing and academic intellectual world is immune to these powerful forces, moreso than any other major industry. We’ve written here how culture trumps technology, at least as far as a five-year study of academic life showed in 2010. But is it implacably true that culture trumps technology? Is what exists now truly our ultimate state? Or is it a sign of passive, academic acceptance of what “survey says” and the status quo? After all, if the military can be transformed, and if similar technologies are percolating under the surface of academia, are you willing to argue that culture can also trump reality? Or that ingrained and diffuse culture is more resistant to change than concentrated hierarchy?
We even have trouble measuring things of value, and cling to outdated and outmoded systems — or worse, embed them even more deeply into how we execute our culture. Earlier this year, I wrote about an article Malcolm Gladwell published in the New Yorker about college ranking systems, and extended his analysis to include the impact factor, writing:
. . . this is all another reminder of how odd it is that highly educated and educationally ambitious people seem to seek clarity through numbers that, when you pull back the veil, are very poor proxies of quality, predictors of value, or estimates of differentiation.
Andreesen touches on this point in his essay when he mentions how relatively undervalued software businesses are in the stock market, largely because the mindset of the old guard is still not in sync with reality:
Today’s stock market actually hates technology, as shown by all-time low price/earnings ratios for major public technology companies. Apple, for example, has a P/E ratio of around 15.2—about the same as the broader stock market, despite Apple’s immense profitability and dominant market position . . . too much of the debate is still around financial valuation, as opposed to the underlying intrinsic value of the best of Silicon Valley’s new companies.
You could claim that the culture of Wall Street trumps the value of Apple, but is that going to lead to you making a wise investment? The same could be said for scholarly publishing and academia. One way to frame the answer is that culture trumps technology. Another is that established institutions (incumbents) are deaf to real change, simplistic to the point of innumeracy, and change too late to take advantage of emerging preferences when they’re still fresh. After all, as Roughead notes at the close of his wise and compelling talk, it’s people who are the agents of all the things we care about, and when they are led toward a better way of operating, a better way of accomplishing their work, a more effective way of sharing information . . . well, I’ll turn it over to him:
Many of our organizations have focused on leaders as communicators. Now, we have the chance to be leaders of communicators. If we recognize the opportunities inherent in this reality, we will be more effective as leaders . . . our organization will more skillfully inform . . . and our people will be the key to our communication success, just as they are the key to our success in all things.