Designing a Failure: AOL/Time Warner’s 10th Anniversary

Remember “synergy?” AOL Time Warner was designed to save money and make money. But it was not designed to be a true organization.

New York Times: Gerald Levin and Stephen Case in happier times

10 years ago, Time Warner aimed to blast into the 21st century by “synergizing” with America Online. The New York Times has a fabulous retrospective of the merger. In their teaser video, Robert Puttnam, former co-COO of the merged entity tells us:

The thing that makes a merger work is culture. These were two mergers of equals And now you’re trying to put two together and if the cultures aren’t somewhat aligned, you’re going to have problems. And we had big problems.

The article traces in historical detail where the merger’s economic logic went awry, but more importantly where it’s cultural integration went awry. The story provides first-person accounts of key milestones in the negotiations. Key are the recollections of key executives in Time Warner, who had been kept out of the loop until the deal was finalized. They were aghast. Don Logan, the head of Time Inc., said simply “The dumbest idea I had ever heard in my life.”

The entire article is a testament to “the power of the people,” in the sense that senior leaders can make all the change they want, but if they do not enrol the organization, change will never happen . Culture is indeed the wild card in mergers. 45% of executives say their mergers are failures. 45%! That failure rate is astoundingly high, considering that improving success can be as simple as adding sociological inquiry to the pre and post-merger cultures.

I recently completed a sociological study of a merger for the express purposes of designing a new, cohesive, innovative organization. The key lesson I learned in that process is that truth telling about the organization’s true values is difficult but necessary. Cultures try to reproduce themselves, even if it means lying about their true values. Maybe an organization doesn’t actually value diversity. That truth needs to be told.

It was the conflict in values that brought down the merger. As one Time Warner executive told the NY Times:

I knew and I loved Time Warner. I saw it as a company with a vision and a set of values, and I saw AOL in a much less favorable light, much more opportunistic, made up of folks who were really trying to merely exploit the market they were in as opposed to developing something that was enduring, and I was very leery about this deal.

In the case of AOL Time Warner, AOL’s truth was that it set out to make money, not to actually “revolutionize” the media landscape. Telling this truth would have made the AOL culture much more authentic to the Time Warner culture, and may have actually saved the merger.

When Can Innovation and Hierarchy Co-Exist?

Designing an innovative organization doesn’t necessarily mean a “flat” organization. We tend to believe that innovation and hierarchy are antithetical, but in truth, innovation often thrives in hierarchical organizations. Here are the key ingredients to an innovative organization, whether hierarchical or not.

The Internet: A Democratic Utopia We tend to believe that hierarchy kills innovation and creativity. This is particularly true for organizations that design and build technology. The cultural heritage of the Internet is one that implicitly values a utopian vision of anti-authority.

The initial plans for ARPANET explicitly included a commitment to the open architecture concept, with “no global controls at the operations level” (Leiner, 1998). In other words, those that designed the Internet designed it explicitly to have no central authority.

Stickin' it to The Man

This decentralized structure connoted a sense of democratic administration. The hacker ethic has reinforced this implicit belief in democracy. In his 1984 book Hackers, Steven Levy (Levy, 1984) traced how the “laid back” culture of universities, such as Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence lab, spread to other technology start-ups. Technological innovation came to be culturally synonymous with an explicit rejection of hierarchy.

The Innovation World Is Not Flat But this is cultural myth of “democratic” innovation is merely a representation of innovation, and not a necessary ingredient for it. Take, for example, Apple Inc. Apple’s legendary innovative reputation is not contingent on democracy – far from it. Indeed, it appears that Steve Jobs and his senior leadership team have a iron-grip of control over innovation projects. This hierarchical order is ironically represented as democratic, a fact that The Onion happily lampoons in “Apple Employee Fired For Thinking Different.”

The reality is that large organizations in today’s global economy require some form of hierarchical control. This is a requirement of both capitalism and the sheer scope of modern corporate life. Alfred Chandler (1977) showed how the growth of the railroads required detailed project management, making 20th century management both rational and hierarchical. 21st century management must grapple with the same issues of synchronizing the schedules of employees across multiple time zones, and grappling with constant changes in the competitive landscape and the economy. “Democratic” innovation is messy, time consuming, and difficult to manage. For this reason, many companies like Apple have created controlled environments in which innovation can occur.

Innovation Within A Hierarchy If your organization is hierarchical (and in most cases, that will be true), there are features of innovation that can be embedded within this hierarchical system.

Creating Flow Through Non-Time Measurement:

Clocking in at Creativity Inc.

Innovative teams are those that are insulated from time-based metrics of productivity. Working for one hour on a rote task is not equal to working for one hour on a groundbreaking project, yet oftentimes organizations treat these hours as exactly the same.

My research on time in interactive agencies found that time-based metrics frequently interrupt “flow,” making it difficult for designers to work creatively. Organizations that want to optimize creativity must abandon time-based metrics of performance.

Stop Lying About Democracy: rare is it today that an individual truly doubts the need for some form of hierarchy in a profit-seeking company. But pretending that hierarchy doesn’t exist is corrosive. Organizations that continually fail to live up to their democratic ideal must continually tell lies to mask this gap. Over time, this gap renders real democracy meaningless (after all, the Bullshitter cares nothing for the truth).

Ruthlessly Commit To Project Resources and Timelines: many people are familiar with the agile development notion of the “sprint.” A group of people are dedicated exclusively to a software project for a specific, discrete period of time. Their attention is devoted completely to this project and they are enormously productive as a result. Why do innovation project often fail? Simply because individuals are pulled in too many directions or senior leadership changes priorities, seemingly on a whim. If you mean to combat the negative aspects of hierarchy, then you must commit to a project and let nothing get in the way. Individuals must be dedicated. The project length must not be shrunk. And collectively, the organization must stake its reputation on this commitment.

Be Democratic When It Matters: creative people can take direction, even when it infringes on their work. But they must have a say in what infringements are negotiable. The biggest mistake managers can make is assuming that the bounds of hierarchy is understood equally by everyone; they are not. Accept that democratic rule can and should happen, even when it affects timelines. Be unfraid to collectively identify what is negotiable and what is not. Most people do not question the legitimacy of authority, but they do question the legitimacy of lack of debate. In the end, innovation can occur in hierarchical organizations. The democratic ideal provides an aspirational model but don’t be afraid to accept that it is an ideal, at times.


Chandler, A. D. (1977). The visible hand : the managerial revolution in American business. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Leiner, B. e. a. (1998, Februrary 20, 1998). A Brief History of the Internet.   Retrieved April 10, 2000, 2000, from

Levy, S. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin Group.

The Contradictions of Consumption: why we both need and abhor consumption

We are facing a collective conundrum: how do we continue to consume enough to keep our economic engine rumbling, while at the same time, not consume too much to destroy that very economic engine? This is a contradiction explored by Marx and Polanyi, and now by sociologist George Ritzer, author of The McDonaldization of Society.

Ritzer has a guest post on Blackwell publishing’s “Compass” blog (wha…? academic publishers are blogging? That’s perhaps another post). He succinctly cuts to the heart of the problem:

[A] discussion of consumption in the U.S. cannot be divorced from issues relating to production, including the decline in the U.S. and the rise elsewhere in the world, especially Asia, in production. Further, we need to realize than an artificial distinction is being made between consumption and production.

For those of you who have read your Marx, you will recognize Ritzer’s train of thought. For those of you who have not, allow me to enlighten you to Marx’s best contribution to understanding the economy:

Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production…Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; iwthout it, consumption would lack an object (p. 91 of The Grundrisse)

Ritzer goes on to say that our consumption is both required and damaging at the same time. We consume “cheap goods” which are actually expensive in the long run. For example, cheap food costs us much more in the long run because of the diabetes and health problems cheap food causes.

We cannot, in short, get away from the underlying Marxian theory of value: all value is “congealed labour” embedded into commodities. We may try to create value without concern for the labour power required to make it, but you cannot get blood from a stone. There is a limit to how much “productivity” we can really create. We are human, after all.

Ritzer’s post is worth reading because it takes the wind out of the sails of our relentless optimism around economic growth. Economic growth itself is not an end; happiness and fulfillment are ends. We ought remember the limits and contradictions of economic production (and consumption).

Ignite Toronto: Designing for Social Selvess

For those of you who caught my Ignite TO presentation, here are the slides. For those of you who missed it, below is a text summary that goes with the slides.

I’d like to give thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. Karen Anderson, whose scholarly work underpins many of the ideas in this presentation.

Slide 1:

This presentation about is the self, that it is a social phenomenon not a biological one. Most theories of the self don’t give us a social angle but only a biological one. This has an impact for technology design.

Slide 2:The self is an uniquely human phenomenon. It is the internal private reality of the consciousness. It is not anatomical or physiological. It is not a body.It is only meaningful in social situations.

Slide 3: So we have this internal, private reality, this consciousness. Biological paradigms to explain it are inadequate. Bodies are the containers of selves, not the actual self. Containers matter. But they are not the only thing that matters.

Slide 4: Victor, was a “feral child” found in France. He would not wear clothes. Or Use a bed. He farted. He did not have a social self, but a biological one.His body functioned; his self did not.

Slide 5: HAL 9000 has a self. He is socially competent. Aware of his inner reality. He imagined that Dave and Frank were plotting against him. Victor had no inner reality but HAL did.  HAL understood the social.

Slide 6: All too often we think of the self as a piece of hardware, or an emotion chip. Unfortunately, most of our ideas about the self are really about our hardware.

Slide 7: For example, Sigmund Freud. Freud thought biological experiences created the self. In the form of ego and the superego. We learn about our anus and develop a self, but this doesn’t explain Victor or HAL’s development.

Slide 8: Even psychologist Piaget put biology first. Piaget’s theory of child development relies on sensory experiences. Not social experiences. For Piaget, learning starts with a bodily interaction, not social interaction.

Slide 9: Yet socially successful human beings must master the meaning of symbols. Symbols have fine nuances, depending on the context. Hand gestures are anatomically similar but mean different things at different times, in different places.

Slide 10: Social interaction is built upon symbols, not biological impulses. We are aware of our internal realities by interpreting social symbols. The degree of force in a gesture matters. Who gives it matters.

Slide 11: We interpret symbols, not react to them. We are not Pavlovian dogs who salivate at the sound of a bell. We are not somatically driven beings, but socially driven beings. Our bodies have influence over us but they are not the self.

Slide 12: George Herbert Mead offers us a theory of a social self. The “I” is what Victor has: a purely instinctual consciousness. The “me” is created through social interaction. “I should sit on a chair; it’s more socially appropriate.”

Slide 13: The “generalized other” is when we realize there is a whole world out there. That we then internalize into our own private reality. We begin to imagine what “others” might say about our actions. Our self imagines what other selves think of it.

Slide 14: Often we design technology to be USABLE, not to be SOCIAL. We don’t enable social selves to use technology without an awkwardness, or embarrassment.

Slide 15:  Google Street View. This technology has created a few embarrassing moments. Google’s face blurring does not solve our embarrassment of interpreting this image. Street View is functional, not social.

Slide 16: Facebook continually fails to sense what selves need. This self posted a picture of himself smoking. Unfortunately, his mom recognized the room. This is embarrassing.

Slide 17: If we design for selves, not bodies, we think of everyone’s internal private realities. Bodies need ergonomics, usability, accessibility. Selves need to be shielded from embarrassment, awkward situations, and social breaches.

Slide 18: Technology designed for bodies is like an awkward dinner party. The technology we design should provide a consistent, social lubricant. We must design technology like we design great parties. Where the right people sit in the right seats.

Slide 19: Socially meaningful symbols must be present. This can be discovered through contextual inquiry, Selves also require the ability to control their presentation to others. And finally, the social “place” of technology must be clearly demarcated.

Slide 20: In the end, we design our world for selves. Technology designed for bodies just gets in the way. If technology is designed for bodies, selves change to meet the needs of technology.

I would prefer that have technology adapt to selves.

Thank you

Why are Japanese lunches so beautiful?

I am a big fan of MUJI, the simple Japanese housewares company. So I was quite interested to read a post by their art director Kenya Hara on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate.”  Hara argues that Japanese people have

…a special ability to focus fully on what’s right in front of our eyes. We tend to ignore what is not an integral part of our personal perspective. We ignore that our cities are a chaotic mess, filled with ugly architecture and nasty signage.

Hara believes that Japanese simplicity is a function partly of this narrow focus. Beautiful designs are better appreciated because of this focus, in Hara’s opinion. (Well known design guru John Maeda also weighs in and argues that the dearness of Japanese food is the primary issue).

A Beautiful Japanese Lunch: New York Times

Philosopher Dennis Dutton argues, interestingly, the American lunch box is of the same instinct: Americans have attempted to make their lunch beautiful but in distinctly different ways. Dutton leaves the symbolic interpretation of these competing “lunch beautifying” methods up to the reader’s imagination.

This reader thinks that by using exterior packaging instead of the food itself, Americans are not beautifying lunch as much as they are obscuring it. Indeed, they even commodifying it by making each lunch, regardless of content, look similar. The content of the lunch itself is irrelevant; whether it is fresh, healthy food or rotting, cheap, fast food, every lunch looks the same in a lunch box.

Perhaps this is indicative of the American spirit if industrialization. Mass production in the Fordist tradition (“You can have whatever colour car you like, as long as it’s black”) is an American value that has been spread around the world. Forget about the content of the thing, instead focus on its packaging, its marketing or its uniformity. This is what Ritzer means by the “McDonaldization of Society.” When the content of a thing matters less than how much of it is sold or how efficient it is to sell it, this is the height of capitalism — and perhaps of American culture.

This is perhaps the essence of why Americans can accept truly horrible food, while the Japanese and the French famously reject it. But it doesn’t explain why Hara thinks Japanese aesthetics are ruled in part by the ability to “focus” on one thing.

Is the Japanese form of capitalism less in need of obscuring and masking than the American? Is ugliness more tolerated by Japanese society and therefore, less of a threat to its form of capitalism?

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.

Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

Social media “gurus” abound these days. Which ones are worth listening to and which ones are bullshitters?

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt exposed bullshitters in his famous essay “On Bullshit.” The liar knows what the truth is and cares very much about concealing it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is and has no compunction in stretching it.

The same goes for social media “gurus.” Those that care what about rigourous examination of the social may be wrong, but at least they take great pains to analyze the phenomenon. Those that don’t care about systematic, theoretically informed social inquiry are interested only in stretching or shaping their own agendas.

How can you tell the difference?

Here are a few signs you’re dealing with a social media bullshitter.

  1. They skate over the tension between structure and agency: The tension between structure and agency is an age-old sociological debate. Social media bullshitters somehow miss this very important point. They often argue that implementing social media or social business design will somehow evaporate decades or even centuries of organizational structures. If your social media guru tells you that adding social media and stirring will create equality, harmony, and profits, begin to question them. If, on the other hand, they tell you that your organization does not live in a vacuum, and that your social media will be integrated in people’s existing lives with their existing economic, technological, and ethnically grounded experience, then they may be onto something.
  2. They use the same social research methods every time: A classically trained sociologist is trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods. They are designers in the sense that they have expertise, which they draw upon selectively, according to the research question. Social media bullshitters, on the other hand, likely have a common stock of tools that they use repeatedly, regardless of the nuance of the research question. If their answer is always, “do a focus group,” or always, “do a survey,” then question them.
  3. They see no paradoxes. Ever: Sociologists are constantly grappling with paradoxes. Weber’s famous paradoxical finding was that bureaucracies are both efficient and inefficient. They work wonders building and managing railroads, for example, but they result in horrible catastrophes like the Challenger disaster. Weber explained this paradox by arguing that rationality, or the rule of rules, is an “iron cage,” that keeps us safe but enslaved. If your social media guru claims there will be no paradox, nuance, or ambiguity, question them.
  4. They don’t know what social capital really is: Social capital is not something one can measure in terms of bank balances. It was the creation of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (come to think of it, the bullshitters wouldn’t know that either). Social capital is something one develops by being in a particular social location. I may go to an exclusive boarding school. My social capital is my network of well-off friends. Social capital is a particularly important concept when thinking about social media. Bourdieu noted that those in lower economic classes explicitly reject items they consider “above their station.” This means that luxury or “top of the line” is not always your best approach.

The bottom line is this: social media bullshitters have no knowledge of social theory or methodology. Trust a person who provides no easy answer, who carefully selects their research method, and who understands complex concepts.

Do you have more signs of being a social media bullshitter? Please share them here!