Happy ball point pen day

On June 10 1943 the Biro brothers registered the first European patent for the ball point pen. Sure we seem to create international days for just about anything and International Ball Point Pen Day is probably not the weirdest but it does raise a question why celebrate the ball point pen at all.


Human history has been full of extraordinary leaps in communication technology but as far as I can gather there is no cave painting day, no papyrus day, no quill day and no national carrier pigeon day. Shouldn’t we just expect that the ball point pens will also eventually join the scrap heap of human invention and instead celebrate and encourage the use of what will replace it, our digital tools. Controversial I know.

So my contribution to national ball point pen day will be to dig up an old post and once again share with you why the keyboard could be mightier than the pen.

There is an interesting debate currently going on amongst academics and other big thinkers across the internet about the effectiveness of our digital tools in adding understanding and recollection. So given that the internet allows us all to have our say, regardless of our level of expertise, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation before we all get distracted by a new cat meme.

The debate seems to have started with some research out of the US suggesting that paper and pens were a superior form of notetaking than keyboards. The research titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking argues that people who take notes using pen and paper remember more and show a greater understanding of the subject matter than people who take notes on a laptop. It hypothesized that the ability to capture information faster on a keyboard led to greater verbatim note taking and as a result students had to exert less cognitive load in building understanding and connections between content. It was something the authors called ‘desirable difficulty’…which just might be my new favourite phrase to drop into conversations.

So in response Clive Thompson, journalist for Wired Magazine and author of Smarter Than You Think (which just might be my new favourite book title to drop into conversations) wrote a piece on Medium titled The Joy of Typing: How racing along at 60 words a minute can unlock your mind. Clive doesn’t question the science of the aforementioned research but rather suggests that although the ability to type fast might provide a negative outcome when it comes to capturing information it is a positive when it comes to producing it. Clive refers to what academics call ‘transcription fluency’, how quickly and fluidly you can get down the things in your head. To back this up Clive points to research that suggested not only are typed essays generally of a higher standard than hand written ones but that the fastest typists created better essays that slower ones.

So it seems that on one hand we shouldn’t be using keyboards for note taking but we still need top quality keyboard skills for content creation.

So, here’s my opinion…

Firstly, I would suggest that none of the above research is terribly surprising. Paper and pens have been our preferred ‘memory augmentation’ device for centuries and following a minimum of 10 years of formal schooling in Western countries it is perhaps expected that we have developed some fairly effective systems around ‘paper technology’. Similarly, the keyboard and word processing programs we use on our laptops have evolved from typewriters, a technology primarily aimed at formal content production but probably rarely used in the lecture theatre for note taking.

But so far we have only compared a 1980’s technology (keyboard/laptop) with an 1890’s one (mass produced pens and papers). When we look at the technology of the 21st century technology we are seeing new opportunities that bring the benefits of both these technologies together.

One of the advantages of touch enabled devices such as the iPad is the ease of non-linear note taking. Using apps such as the awesome iThoughts, you can tap into the advantages of digital (faster data capture and the ability to search, share and repurpose your notes) with the advantages of paper, the ability to capture information in non-linear ways and make connections between disparate bits of information. In fact there is significant amounts of research on mind-mapping and the benefits in terms of both information recall and building understanding (for a fairly thorough summary check out Mind Mapping: Scientific Research and Studies by Think Buzan.

This seems to be the classic and/or debate. When we get access to new technology we often see the decision as one of substitution, we get to have the flexibility of paper or the efficiency of a keyboard. But when we start engaging with technology more deeply we see that that we could have both. Our mindset shifts from one of substitution to one of augmentation and we look for ways to augment the flexibility of paper with the efficiency of a keyboard (for more on this you should check out the SAMR model showing the benefits of new technology in a teaching environment).

Personally I think that the worst thing we can do is assume that we already have it right, that there are no more opportunities for improvement. Rather than protect the ways that we currently work (which is often done out of fear or to justify why we haven’t changed) we should be always actively seeking to to improve on the status quo. And when the status quo for students and knowledge workers is a 150 year old technology then it would seem that the improvement opportunities could be quite significant.

Tennis and technology

Performance enhancing technology

Tennis and technology

I’m not what you would describe as a tennis fanatic but when the Australian Open rolls into town I always find myself glued to the television for a few of the Aussie matches (and thanks to the great performance by Tomic, Roth and Kyrgios there have been a few more to watch this year than in recent years past).

One thing I find interesting is the impact of technology on the game. Although the rules of the game haven’t fundamentally changed in nearly 90 years (with the exception of the tie-break) the way the game is played is fundamentally different than what it was 30 years ago.

Racquet technology has allowed players to have larger racquets with a larger sweet spot and that generate more power and more spin. As a result the game has shifted from one of placement to one of power. In fact increasing the racquet size by 20% increases the size of the sweet spot by 300% which can dramatically improves both quality and consistency when hitting the ball. It has had such an impact that new rules regarding the design of racquets have been required to control the impact of technology on the game.

We may look back with nostalgia to the days when the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Margaret Court gracefully moved across the court artfully dropping the ball over the net but the game has moved on. In a competitive environment the best players will always seek out better technology to give them an edge, and that is why no one is using wooden racquets.

[tweetthis url=”http://bit.ly/1BEwb76″]The best technologies in business amplify performance through greater power, quality and consistency.[/tweetthis]

If you think about it the way we use technology in business is no different. In a competitive business environment using better technology can result in greater power, quality and consistency. What is more, in a business environment performance enhancing technology is not banned or controlled, it is actively encouraged. The best technology will amplify our performance and as a result we will want to use it more, where as old outdated technology will feel depleting and make us want to use it less.

Look at the tools you are personally using in your business. Which ones are the performance enhancing technologies you should be using more of and which are the depleting technologies that need replacing? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Photo credit: lavagirl6699 via flickr

Why so many SMEs avoid digital technology

three problems with digital technology

There are three common challenges faced by small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that have led to a sense of apathy towards digital technology.

Challenge 1: Digital projects under perform

Technology has a history of underperformance. Research conducted by McKinsey and Oxford University suggests that on large scale IT projects (greater than $15 million) the average cost overrun is 45%, time over run is 7% and benefit shortfall is 56%+. As a result it is often challenging to justify the investment of limited time and financial resources for new technology projects.

Challenge 2: Expertise is hard to come by

For small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) with limited resources the IT department may consist of one or two employees focused on maintaining the existing systems. In some businesses IT may be outsourced all together. As a result many CEOs don’t have access to the independent digital expertise to help the identify, assess and implement against digital opportunities.

In fact, according to research conducted in 2013, three in five Australian SMEs claim that low digital literacy is preventing them from running their business more efficiently yet only half have done anything to try and improve their digital literacy++.

Challenge 3: The digital landscape is changing too fast

Over the last decade or so we have quickly shifted from a digital desert with limited technology choices to a digital rainforest where the variety of options is often overwhelming. Both the variety of options and the rate of technology change can be paralysing. It is often difficult to justify the investment in new technology today when it may be obsolete within two years.

The outcome

The result of this is that amongst SMEs there is often limited adoption of new technology, or in some cases active avoidance. Instead of engaging with new technology as it emerges and identifying new opportunities SMEs are instead waiting for a perfect solution that may never come.

Unfortunately this approach is leaving many organisations open to disruption. The power of digital technology continues to increase at an exponential rate and businesses that adopt digital technology have a distinct advantage in regards to speed, cost and the ease of business. 

If you want to move from digital disruption to digital disruptor you might want to start by download my new white paper ‘Be Digital Ready’. It includes details on the nine key activities to move your business up the disruption spectrum.


+ http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/business_technology/delivering_large-scale_it_projects_on_time_on_budget_and_on_value
++ Digital Literacy Among Small Businesses in Australia – www.paypal-media.com/assets/pdf/fact_sheet/PayPalResearch_DigitalLiteracyAmongSMBsinAustralia.pdf

Are there analogue blocks in your digital systems?

Circuit board

In around May of 2000 I returned to my home town of Perth after two and a half years overseas. My first job on return to Perth was working with my Dad as a commercial boat broker (like a real estate agent for commercial fishing boats). Although we had one of the first websites in the industry (which my Dad had created and maintained himself) this was still very much an analogue business.

I did have access to digital tools; I had a laptop on my desk and I used it to send emails, write up contracts and create the odd spreadsheet, but all the digital work was done behind the scenes. Networking was done face to face on the wharf, deals were made on handshakes, contracts were sent via fax machine (or printed and posted for those who preferred the old ways) and people paid by cheque.

When I left Perth to move to Melbourne 10 years later business was distinctly different than when I had arrived. At some point in the first decade of the 21st century there was a fundamental shift away from analogue towards digital technology. Networking was starting to be done on LinkedIn, meetings inside organisations were increasingly conducted using teleconference software (or Skype outside of organisations) and the expectation was that documents were emailed rather than posted.

Although the processes were still largely the same, the medium they were conducted in was fundamentally different. When I was boat broking the process was largely analogue and the best approach to digital was firstly to minimise it and secondly to analogu-ise (what is the opposite of digitise?) or print it as soon as possible.

But in a world of digital business where your customer wants to find information on your website, contact you on Facebook, get documents via dropbox and meeting notes emailed, analogue is now getting in the way. Every time you use paper think about whether it has either been converted from digital or whether it will need to be digitised afterwards. If there are analogue blocks in your digital systems maybe it is time to explore some faster, cheaper and simpler digital alternatives.

Photo credit:  hinkelstone via flickr

We need to learn the language of 21st century business

We need to learn the language of 21st century business

Back in high school I studied French for about four years. To be honest I was never that interested or engaged in the classes, and to be honest I found it all a little frustrating. Quite predictably my French never quite made it to the conversational stage, but I didn’t really mind because as a 15 year old I couldn’t see where I was going to need it again in the future anyway.

It turns out that a number of years later I was living and working in the UK and met a French girl and we dated for a while. Although there are a number of reasons why things didn’t work out I am sure that my limited French didn’t help. She wanted me to be able to converse freely with her friends and family and I could barely get through ordering a baguette. I imagine that if I had known that this situation was going to present itself in the future then it would have motivated me to take my French classes a little more seriously.

Reflecting on this I reckon that the approach we have taken to learning digital technology has pretty similar to my experience with French. We all learnt a little bit of digital such as Word, Excel and email but it was all a little frustrating and we had no real intention of using it beyond what we immediately had to do.

Now a decade or two later things have changed. We find ourselves in a world of digital business were a good understanding of the digital language would allow us to more easily translate and understand the opportunities on offer. Unlike my experience with French this is not a fleeting opportunity to be looked back on whimsically. Digital is the language of  21st century business. We might still hold on to our old analogue ways but we are now well and truly in a foreign country.

When it comes to technology, kids don’t know worse

Kid's don't know worse

Although we like to think that our kids often do things because they don’t know better, when it comes to digital technology they often do things because they don’t know worse.

Younger generations haven’t invested heavily in older, less effective ways of working. So when the opportunities of digital technology arrive they are ready to jump right in. In contrast, many older workers are still holding onto older, less effective paper based systems. This is primarily because they have invested heavily in their systems and they as long as they work ‘OK’ they are unwilling to spend time testing (or investing in) alternatives.

In reality any previous investment we have made in developing our systems should be considered a sunk cost. The time cannot be recovered and we need to look at the both the investment in and return we would get from digital systems as an independent decision.

Also, what we consider to be ‘OK’, or an acceptable level of performance in one generation of work, is slow and outdated in the next. Acceptable performance is not defined by the individual, it is defined by their peers. Even if you use express post satchels, a decision to continue to undertake all correspond by hand written letter is neither acceptably fast (or acceptably cheap) if all your competitors are using email.

So next time you see younger generations ‘playing’ with digital technology ask yourself whether it is because they don’t know better…or because they don’t know worse.

Photo credit: henriksent via flickr

We can all be digital natives

I once read that if someone moved to Rome it took generations before their family would be recognised as true Romans. I understand that visiting Rome on a holiday hardly makes you a Roman but having to wait generations seems like a bit of overkill.

In fact I don’t think that it should be time that ultimately determines whether you are a native or not. It is the energy and effort you put into understanding the culture and integrating yourself into ways of the city that really determines whether you belong.

The term Digital Native is often used to describe people of a younger generation that have been brought up with digital technology. But they have had to learn the tools and explore the landscape before they could ‘go native’ in the land of digital.

By now we have all paid a few visits to the land of digital. We have sent some emails, surfed the web, maybe even chatted with friends on Facebook or watched cat videos on You-Tube. But much like a week in Rome you will have barely scratched the surface.

The greatest test of whether you are a native is whether once you have visited, you intend to stay. Did you enjoy yourself? Did you see all the opportunities that this new land has to offer?

Immigration to the land of digital is at an all time high (it certainly puts Australia’s immigration problems into perspective). More and more people are becoming digital natives.

At the end of the day the only difference between a visitor and a native is commitment, and sooner or later this is the decision we all need to make.

Can we trust ‘The Knowledge’?

Black cab

I had a weird experience the other week when I was up in Sydney. I hailed a taxi to take me to a speaking engagement in the suburbs and when I gave the taxi driver the address he got out a well thumbed copy of the street directory and proceeded to look up the location. I know! A street directory! The weird bit was that I wasn’t sure I trusted the taxi driver to get me there on time and using the shortest and/or fastest route possible. I mean even if he was an extraordinarily experienced cabbie and knew the best route (which clearly he didn’t) how would he get up to date information on roadworks, accidents and traffic congestion?

Thankfully I had Google Maps on my iPad and my smartphone so I could check the route we were taking and guide the taxi driver when he took a wrong turn…which he did.

In London, Black Cab drivers need to pass a test called ‘The Knowledge’ to get their licence. The Knowledge tests them on 320 common routes, 20,000 landmarks and 25,000 streets in central London. In a pre GPS world this was incredibly valuable information and fundamentally it hasn’t changed for more than 100 years. But in a digital world this knowledge is being devalued. Firstly the cost of a SatNav unit ‘learning’ all the landmarks and streets in London is effectively zero and the time taken is instantaneous (compared with an average of 34 months for a Black Cab Driver) and secondly because digital provides opportunities to augment the process of navigation. Augmentation includes the ability to calculate time to arrival, compare multiple routes and make allowances for traffic congestion, accidents and roadworks.

Does this mean that I don’t trust experienced cab drivers? Not at all. I would just trust them more if I knew they were making their decisions with the best information possible at hand.

Photo credit: kilted01_photography via flickr

Improve on the Status Quo

One click away

I think one of the reasons for the slow update of Digital Technology in business is a search for the “Silver Bullet” or the “Perfect Solution.” In fact, We seem to systematically over estimate the risks and underestimate the opportunities of the alternative relative to the “Status Quo.”

I had one client who refused to install a cloud file sharing solution for his staff because the data security risks were perceived to be too high. So what was his staff doing in the absence of a provided solution? They were emailing documents to their personal email accounts ( which are more often than not cloud based anyway) and sharing documents on USB sticks.

So which of these two scenario is the unsafe one? The one where your staff used a tested and approved cloud service to share & sync files ( and therefore you always know where the files are stored ) OR the one where multiple copies of documents are stored in the Inbox and Outbox of personal email systems and also on the staff members personal home computer ( which are often not password protected ) and where documents are shared on unsecured USB drives, 60% of which go missing with Corporate data on them?

I think, the BIGGEST risk of all is, assuming that we already have it right, that there is no room for improvement. The next BIGGEST risk is waiting for a silver bullet when all we need to do is ” Improve on the Status Quo.”