Technical Isolation

Hursley House - geograph.org.uk - 967947

Hursley House – geograph.org.uk – 967947 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ever get a chance to visit IBM‘s Hursley Park campus, it’s well worth going. It’s a lovely mansion-house in beautiful surroundings just outside Winchester. There has been a lodge at Hursley since 1413 and the current house dates from 1724. The Heathcote family donated the house together with £5m (a figure equivalent to £116m today) to provide a hospital for US military personnel in WW1. In WW2, the house was used by Vickers to develop the Spitfire. IBM moved in during 1958 as a temporary measure and they are still there today.

The System 360 and the Winchester hard drive were developed there and IBM were granted the Queen’s award for industry for storage & CICS. Today it houses 2800 IBM employees – roughly half of which are software developers making it the biggest software lab in Europe. Altogether IBM has 59,000 employees of which roughly half are based in the USA. They are heavily into the R part of R&D with research going on into particle physics and nanotechnology among other things.

On the Hursley campus, they have an isolation lab which is a completely shielded building used to test the electromagnetic emissions of devices to ensure compliance with the plethora of regulations governing such things. They really needn’t have bothered. There is a perfectly good isolation zone on the South Coast of the UK just outside Highcliffe.

A popular retirement spot, it’s a tiny village which must be the only place in the UK where the funeral parlours outnumber the charity shops. Nothing on any wavelength passes into or out of the place which renders mobile phones completely useless. A couple of times a year, myself and some friends spend a long weekend there and bearing in mind my attachment to social networks and blogging, I find myself isolated for the whole time.

Initially, I find the experience anxious. I can’t check twitter, Facebook, yammer, wordpress or linked in. I can’t phone anyone (unless I search for some change and use the call box). I can’t look anything up on Google or check the news or how the FTSE is doing. I can’t even download the Times.

After a while though, the anxiety ceases and I feel liberated. I get used to being away from email and social networks. I even start to like the idea that I am completely out of contact with anyone. Maybe we should go there more often! Of course, on return, the first thing I find myself doing is checking my email, blog, social networks etc. but it was nice while it lasted.

The synergy of the network

A segment of a social network

A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the concepts I found challenging to grasp many moons ago during a course in business and finance was synergy. Maybe it was because I was only 16 at the time and the sum total of my possessions added up to one Casio calculator and a dog-eared biro but when he said that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts – I struggled to see what he meant. Of course I now understand that if you deliver two tons of metal, a few bits of rubber and some plastic to Massey Ferguson, you get a very different product compared to the same shipment arriving at Bentley with a commensurate difference in value.

Almost every mobile phone is pretty much the same form factor and made of similar materials and yet we place very different value on different brands. The whole perfume industry relies on people forgetting the inconvenient fact that the product they are selling is nicely scented alcohol served up in a nobby bottle as they hand over a small fortune.

Those who know me well will know that I enjoy playing games. Not the sort that appear on a computer screen because I spend far too much of my life staring at pixels as it is. I enjoy social games where the participants are vaguely humanoid. Some being more vague than others. The most satisfying games I play are also the most difficult to explain. Games which rely on the collective imaginations of the players concerned can result weaving amazing stories. The reason these games work is synergy once again.

The idea of a social network is not new. In the early 1930s, a self-published psychologist named Dr. Jacob Levi Moreno introduced the sociogram, the first formal attempt to map out the relationships within a group of people. Moreno’s sociogram — a cluster of individual points, or “nodes,” connected by straight lines — became a powerful tool for identifying social leaders, outsiders, and what he called the “sociometric star,” the person to whom all others are connected. [Source: Psybernet]

Social networks are built on synergy.

Facebook made its début on the markets this week amid a flurry of law suits and accusations. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third biggest with only China and India boasting larger populations. Something like 1 in 5 couples meet through social media. Opinions vary as to how much time people spend on social networks, but whichever estimate you believe, it is a very large number. Each individual’s contribution to the network is not worth much, but taken together, the value of all the contributions is much higher. Whether that justifies Facebook’s valuation I don’t know but I certainly didn’t buy any shares.

After one of those conversations one sunny lunchtime at the local watering hole where everyone walks away thinking they are going to change the world, we decided to get Yammer up and running. Yammer is a bit like Facebook for companies. My colleague installed it and sent me an invitation. When I signed up, I was asked to invite some other people. After 6 months or so, half the company was online after no promotion and no backing from the company. It’s fair to say that Yammer has revolutionised the way that we collaborate and communicate within the company.

There is a massive proliferation of different social networks available. Where they overlap, usually a winner emerges and the others die off. Where they are complementary, they are linking together. Already, a post you make on WordPress or a fresh pin on Pinterest can automatically appear on Twitter & Facebook. One day, they will become seamless and it won’t matter which social network(s) you are signed up to. Then we will really see some synergy.