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Do jackals have nightmares about electric sheep?

16/09/2010

Nestled below the Lesoto highlands lies the beautiful Matuse Valley valley in the Free State province of South Africa. The valley is known for its spectacular beauty, ancestral African spirits, rock paintings, sheep farmers and jackals.

The jackal is the black-backed cape jackal, canis mesomelas, a very territorial animal and every evening the valley resounds with the calls of the male jackals echoing out over the valley. “We are the Hare Ambushers…This is our territory…stay away from here.” – jackals mate in monogamous pairs .  One starts and then the others reply in a chorus “We hear you! We are the Sheep Stalkers. And this here is our territory…stay away from here”.

It is an idyllic and wonderful place however the jackals and the sheep farmers have a relationship that is to put it mildly…a little strained. Jackals will eat lambs and even older sheep. The typical response of the local farmers to losing a couple of sheep is to head out into the hills with a .303 rifle spend a couple of nights out in the cold and eventually ambush the ‘Ambushers’.  This normally solves his problem for a couple of months  until another pair of Jackals sets up house in the newly vacated territory and also decides that sheep seem like a remarkably tasty if rather unchallenging meal.

Due to livestock losses to jackals, many hunting clubs were opened in South Africa in the 1850s. Black-backed jackals have never been successfully eradicated in hunting areas, despite strenuous attempts to do so with dogs, poison and gas. - Wikipedia

That’s 160 years of pursuing an unsuccessful strategy.  When hunting proved ineffective farmers tried traps and strychnine.

Although poisoning had been effective in the late 19th century, its success rate in eliminating jackals waned in the 20th century, as jackals seemed to be learning to distinguish poisoned foods. - Wikipedia

What happened was a domain problem, the farmers were considering which tactics (poison, guns, traps) they should be using against the jackals but kept failing because the far more significant domains are geographic (how to stop more jackals coming into the territory once you have neutralised the present jackals) ,  logistical – how to reduce the time and energy required to neutralise the Jackal and morale (how to make jackals not want to eat sheep).

Shocking new approach

pair of black backed jackalsOne farmer must have heard the saying about the definition of stupidity being doing the same thing but expecting a different result and decided to try something a little different.  Taking a sheep carcass which jackals had killed but gotten interrupted before they could eat he wired it up to a bank of batteries and returned it to the field.  The returning jackals suddenly found themselves getting a nasty shock every time they tried to take a mouthful of sheep.  Jackals are extremely intelligent canids – far more so than even the smartest dogs and they quickly absorbed the lesson that the sheep in this area were inedible – they would just have to go back to their traditional if slightly more challenging diet of beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, rodents, hares and young antelopes.

Not only had the farmer solved the problem of the Jackals and his sheep but he also no longer needed to worry about a repeat of the problem as the local pair would keep any ‘untrained’ jackals from entering the areas. Just what we like to see a solution encompassing logistics, geography and morale with tactical delivery via a car battery.  Now it may turn out that the training does not last long or the car battery is inefficient – however this is still a far more considered and humane approach to the issue. I mean after all it is hard to fault the jackals when their intention is the same as that of humans - to eat the sheep.

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Strategic moves we’d like to see I: Google buys Automattic (creators of WordPress)

29/08/2010

google not the power it was?

The latest issue of Fortune magazine lead with a provocative cover article “Is Google Over” . The premise of the piece is that Google has moved from being a growth stock to a mature company and is no longer an industry pacesetter. Have the creators of the first truly useful Internet search, the worlds best email software and whole lot of other incredible Internet tools lost their mojo?

Not declining just not growing as fast

Its not that Google is doing badly – they are not, they are still growing and still making truckloads of money. However when stacked up against some of the other giants and Internet innovators Google have not had a great 2010.  We are used to seeing a powerful Google moving into markets and making serious waves, we are used to competitors truly fearing them but for now it seems that other companies are making the running.

Apple’s iPad and iPhone4 have been huge successes; the app store is a phenomenon and although Android is catching up to IOS4 in terms of market share from the point of view of revenue there is no contest. Amazon’s cloud services like EC2, S3 and Mechanical Turk are going from strength to strength; the new Kindle is a huge hit, ebook sales are growing like crazy and its core online sales business is producing huge profits. Then there is Google’s primary headache – Facebook… Facebook are on a roll, hiring away key Google engineers, posting massive growth numbers in 2010 and steadily creeping toward capturing the no. 1 Internet traffic spot from Google.

Facebook wall all their data off out of reach of Google’s search engine & they are getting progressively more successful at competing with Google for the long-tail advertising spend.

Google’s performance in 2010 so far has been…

  • A slowing search market (including Bing now powering Yahoo’s searches).
  • A litany of failures in the social media space such as Wave, Buzz, and Orkut.
  • The reputation debacle over its joint announcement about ‘net neutrality’ with Verizon. My favorite headline from that imbroglio: “Google drops the ‘don’t’ from ‘don’t be evil’”.

Not gone. But does Google know where it is going?

Perhaps they hired away too many Microsoft engineers, perhaps that legendary difficult hiring process is good at finding optimizers rather than innovators or maybe they just have way too much money to spend. Whatever the reason Google seems to have lost direction, trying to compete with others rather than making the running themselves. Have they lost sight of their mission and is it now just about being the biggest kid on the block? How does beating Twitter tie in to Google’s stated aim of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful?

Core to understanding Google is to realise that they are best when fulfilling that mission by operating as an infrastructure company – their massive investment in datacenters, power stations, and fiber optic connections means that when it comes to sheer computing power Google are easily able to out-muscle anyone. So the questions for Google should be what are the best ways to leverage their engineering talent and vast computing power?  Enter Automattic and their crown jewel – WordPress.

Wordpress Logo

Automattic don’t literally ’own’ WordPress as it is released under a free software licence however they definitely have de facto control of the platform much like Google does with Android or Canonical with Ubuntu and with this control are able to leverage this platform into all sorts of areas.

WordPress – taking over the Net 1 website at a time

The latest version of WordPress, 3.0, was downloaded 11 million times in just over a month. Almost 8% of the world’s top million websites are now built on top of Wordpress!  Over 85% of all blogs are WordPress based.

wordpress' share of all blogs

WordPress is easily the no.1 content management system on the web today and after raw HTML runs more websites than anything. Silveryeti runs on WordPress and it is hands down the most powerful and easy to use content management system.  Wordpress has so much going for it it would take a blog post just to list all its brilliant qualities: Installation is a breeze, it has tens of thousands of beautiful templates, it is open source, it is free, it is easy to extend and modify, it has a fantastic ecosystem of plug-in developers, and on…

So what would buying Automattic offer Google?

  • 35 million pageviews per month from WordPress. com.
  • Many further opportunities for adsense integration
  • Fantastic credibility in the Open Source community
  • Access to a vast ecosystem of developers creating plug-ins.
  • As yet there are no sales of premium plug-ins via a plug-in store akin to the android store – this is a big opportunity and could be a very solid source of revenue.

“Smart companies try to commoditize their products’ complements.” Joel Spolsky - one of the better strategic thinkers blogging about business and the Internet. See his strategy letter about just this principal.

Google indexes websites,  Wordpress makes it really easy for people to create websites and add content to them. WordPress alone is a huge win for Google but Automattic has another product easily as exciting – Buddypress.

Serious ammunition in the fight with Facebook – Buddypress

matt mullenweg and mark zuckerberg

The unstoppable openness meets the immovable closed system

Buddypress runs atop WordPress, its is a social media platform which allows anyone to create their own little niche Facebook. Although the latest version is much improved Buddypress has not had nearly as much investment as WordPress and has nowhere near its sophistication.  Google could potentially change that and up its power dramatically – and fast.

Buddypress (and a hosted buddypress.com) will allow the building of niche social networks some of which will no doubt be very successful – especially if there is an RSS type feed linking all social networks together, requiring just one log-in and just one entry of personal data. Each one of those networks then has the potential to take time and attention from Facebook. Social networks which are open to the web, inter-operable and fully searchable represent a huge win for Google.

Google Me, Google’s so-called “Facebook killer” might well be a flop along the lines of Orkut or Google Buzz. Google has already shown that while their engineering is excellent they struggle to compete in the social  space – their touch just seems clumsy.  If instead they focus on what they do best, engineering and providing a platform then there is a real opportunity to compete effectively with Facebook.

What about Blogger?

Blogger has not exactly thrived since Google bought it and it often seems like Google doesn’t know what to do with it.  It has suffered from under-investment and has been trounced by wordpress.com the hosted version of WordPress. Blogger is an inferior product to WordPress and this is shown by the growth of wordpress.com relative to Blogger:

wordpress.com vs blogger.com

The solution is simple – roll the blogger accounts into WordPress.com.

The marvelous Mr Mullenweg

Matt Mullenweg creator of WordPress

Those benefits alone would be massive but part of the key to the purchase would be Google reinvigorating its morale. The free software and open credentials Matt Mullenweg would deliver could make a huge difference.

“When you ‘open source’ something it’s a lot more work, you have to do it in the right way, you have to involve the community, you have to test the code a lot more thoroughly. But I feel like it’s just intrinsically good, and when you do something as a company that’s intrinsically good, that’s morally right, you get more excited in the morning when you wake up.”

Ah – a move from ‘don’t be evil’ to ‘ intrinsically good’. Go on Google make Matt an offer he cannot refuse.

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The Strategic Value of Morale

2/03/2010

“The beatings will continue until morale improves” ~ WWII Japanese submarine commander

This classic sarcastic quote illustrates the impossibility of forcing morale. Morale unlike tactics or logistics is a much fuzzier force and thus there is a tendency to ignore it in strategic thinking. This is a mistake as the impact of morale is huge.

When I was in primary school and up until halfway through high school I used to get into a lot of fights. While I wouldn’t say I always won I never really lost a fight either. Being a classic Dungeons and Dragons playing, computer club geek I received my fair share of provocation but I was pretty stubborn and refused to be pushed around. This meant the bullies would often pick on some of the softer targets which always got my sense of justice riled up and next thing I was confronting the bullies. Hence all the fighting.

I grew up in pretty strict Christian all-boys boarding schools in South Africa where we wore uniforms and had to call the teachers ‘Sir’, however at the bottom of the playing fields or in the dormitories after dinner we had regular mini fight clubs going on. One of the benefits of fighting a lot is you start to get pretty fearless and somewhat competent. My main tactic was generally to charge at top speed, head-on at someone then start grappling on the floor – this meant the bigger kids couldn’t use their reach or weight against me and on the floor sheer aggression and energy counts for a lot.

A lot of this aggression and energy came from knowing I had something bigger on my side – justice. I was in the right & I knew it. These guys were picking on us and bullying us and it wasn’t going to wash… It was only when things changed in my teenage years that I realised how big an asset that belief in the rightness of my cause was.

Boys fightingWhen I was 15 it all changed the arrogance of adolescence and a desire to seem cool had eroded my moral clarity and I took the first serious beating of my life. The whole school was away on something called “Veld School” a rite of passage all South African schoolkids had to go through in the 1980s, ‘Veld School’ means roughly ‘Bush School’ and is basically a week away in the countryside with your classmates running obstacle courses and eating dreadful food – a kind of stripped down boot camp presided over by overweight Afrikaaners. The supposed intention was to build character but it seems the primary reason was for teachers to get out of town for illicit affairs & heavy drinking – it was considered unpleasant by almost all the students on it.

Anyway while there we each got a turn at serving food and while on breakfast duty I gleefully handed out extra food to all my friends. A new kid at the school asked for extra and when I refused grabbed some anyway, I proceeded to whack his hand with the serving spoon – HARD. He was justifiably pissed off and thanks to the provocation of 150 odd bored 15 year old boys we were soon squaring up behind the dormitories for a fight.

I lost badly. Even now I can recall his knee slamming in to my head….repeatedly. No agression, no speed, no desire for the fight. The thing is this kid was no bigger, faster or tougher than any of the others I semi-regularly clashed with at school but the fight was just not in me – I really should have been apologising to the guy not fighting him.

The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole, and at an early stage they establish a close affinity with the will that moves and leads a whole mass of force, practically merging with it, since the will is itself a moral quantity. ~ Von Clausewitz

Morale is one of the key considerations in formulating a strategy. Your team, your customers even your competitors will be affected by your sense of purpose and the rightness of action you bring to your endeavor. Think of the dramatic momentum Google had in its early days. How much of this was down to its mission – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” ? Compare this to Microsoft’s mission of “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.” A mission which began to seem downright creepy when Microsoft was facing anti-trust actions. Any wonder Microsoft has in the last 5 years leaked much of its top programming talent to Google?

bluemonster

The Microsoft Blue Monster - click to see Hugh Macleod's explanation

The Blue Monster was a quixotic attempt by Hugh Macleod and some friends of his at Microsoft to shift Microsoft morale from the grass roots but lacking deeper buy in from higher up in the organisation it seems doomed to simply make Microsoft look even more stodgy. Morale is’nt just a high-level ideal though it is also profoundly affected by operational and structural issues. By all accounts Google is no longer the incredible working environment it was in its early days – it has simply grow too large to keep the same sense of unity and purpose.

The French, typically, have a fantastic term for morale – Esprit De Corps. How is yours?

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