James Governor's Monkchips

Knowledge Workers As Switchboard Operators

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The other morning I woke up and switched on my machine before I had any coffee. I guess its like a smoker reaching for a cigarette before they open their eyes for the day. So I am blearily checking out in my in box when a Skype IM box pops open and its Marjolein Hoekstra (Fragile, Beautiful, Volatile), RSS’ resident cleverclogs. Before I know it she has invited in Lars Trieloff (I keep thinking Dogme) to tell me about his new open source [MPL] collaboration server, Mindquarry. I think I said: “and what makes you think the world needs another collaboration server?”

Subverting the collaboration server

He took it in good grace though, and explained that he felt the Subversion [Collabnet license] check in check out model made more sense than our usual documents distribution and version nightmares. Damn I thought – “he just talked about an open source CVS there, I might have to pay attention”… But I haven’t had any coffee, I pleaded. Anyway we had a good chat. But I wondered – where was AR, where was PR? And what’s Marjolein up to? She is a connector, and she just said “sometimes I feel like a telephone operator”. Lars had asked her who to talk to, and my name had come up. QED – now I am writing this blog, and you all know about the Mindquarry wiki server. Hasso Plattner Venture Management Investors (which REALLY needs to change its acronym – HP Venture Management – should be proud – their money is being extremely well looked after. Note to shareholders- expense on AR, zero euros. 

Izimi and Bubble Risk.

Compare and contrast with Izimi, a UK startup I met this week through Weber Shandwick, a PR company helping the company spend a 3m pound investment (meeting the guys in the Nikko Hotel definitely felt bubbleicuous – but more on Izimi later).

i am going to try and get Izimi as a client. I am not in AR or PR and definitely don’t want to be but i know about OPML, declarative living and tag gardening, and have a rolodex of influencers would make most PRs blush. Hits sometimes come out of my fingers.

I am an operator.

Sean McGrath, The Operator Theme, and Business Models.

Sean McGrath in his IT World Column, has an interesting article (linking to someone else just to read Sean sucks) where he talks to the new world of knowledge, and where differentiation and customer value lies. He hits on of my broken record themes about the software industry – success lies in working out what to keep secret and what to give away. If you keep everything secret/proprietary/closed source you can’t play in this economy.

Sean says Its not What you Know its Who You Know.

The knowledge side of this hinges on the market value of something scarce. That is, some skill/trick/know-how that you have a better handle on than than most guys. The services side hinges on your ability to turn up every work day on time and get through some measurable body of finite skilled labor, servicing the needs of others.

On the knowledge side, it is a matter of fighting for a place for your skill/tricks/know-how against everyone else in the sector. Thanks to technologies like the Internet, this is increasingly a global activity. Your competitors are not just the guys in the same local economy as you. Your competitors are in Boston, in Bangalore and in Belmullet too.

Now an interesting tension exists in the knowledge economy between the Internet as a self-help tool for finding specialist knowledge and the Internet as a tool for the selling that same specialist knowledge. Let us say, for argument sake, that I have a skill/trick/know-how that most people do not. I want to monetize it in as big a market as possible. To do that I set up shop on the Internet/Web. I run a little website where I cobble together some words, some videos, some audio and hook it all up to a payments system. Some of my content I give away for free. I have no option really. I need to market my skill/trick/know-how somehow. The rest of my skill/trick/know-how I keep hidden until I get paid for it. I rely on the free stuff to pull in customers for the paid stuff.

Yes indeedy. That’s why I love RedMonk’s contacts. Stephen kicks ass in open source. Cote is building out a wonderful set of systems management 2.0 people. I am richest in enterprisey contacts. We’re a full service global knowledge exchange. We’re doing advisory in Australia but we’ve never been there. Pretty much everything is out in the open which means anyone in the world can find us, no enterprise sales required, which is nice. We keep secrets of course, but only for a reason.

When I look around I see a world where the real value is in connecting people and knowledge. But doing so in utter secrecy doesnt scale. We don’t do sellside vs buyside. We do active endpoints. We don’t represent one side or the other. We represent the network. We’re switchboard operators for the digital knowledge economy.

That’s what social networkers are and do. We’re connectors.  

While I have been writing this blog I have been talking to Ed Hermann. In classic intertwingling fashion our conversation ended up mashupped with this blog. The big question is how do automate the switchboards – because we know its going to happen sooner or later. I would love to help my clients navigate the RedMonk information network with a Nintendo Wii.

The operators in the picture below look kind of listless. they must not have had their coffee yet this morning. 



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  1. Oh yes…I know exactly what you’re talking about…this is precisely what I’ve spent the last three years doing online, and years offline doing before that. Part of it is that I’m blessed (cursed?) with the ability to read lots of stuff quickly and to mostly remember what I’ve seen and where, and that makes it reasonably easy to make connections and to point things out to people (“hey, you should check *this* out, I think it could be interesting to you”) who don’t have time to find things for themselves. There’s more to this connecting stuff than just pulling together the bits that anyone _could_ find: it’s being the people who actually _take the time_ to find the connections in amongst the huge stew of everything out there on the Internet.

    That’s one of the places the operator analogy falls down. Operators were pretty much passive connectors: a call came in from person A who wants to reach person B, and the operator is the one who knows how to make the connection, but they don’t have anything to do with deciding what connection to make. The valuable operators in this new economy are those who spot the useful connections and initiate them without being prompted.

  2. GREAT comments Mike. RedMonk and Marjolein are far from alone…. i absolutely take your point about telephone operators but if I had of called us Switchboard 2.0 you would all have laughed like drains. one think i really like- there are some great great pictures in the archives of switchboard operators. also if you check out this link you will see that in many cases switchboard operators or clerks became operations people because of view source like dynamics. According the the Telecommunications Heritage Group: http://www.thg.org.uk/women.htm

    “Do you remember doing clerical work in a telephone exchange, office, government department or outstation? Did you carry out machine processing, or tabulating work of any kind?”

    Today we assume telephone operators were passive but who is to say that really. Look at the equipment they were using and imagine who they probably needed to know in order to get things done.

    In small towns meanwhile- the kind of world we live in online in a weird kind of way – isn’t it likely the operators could recommend a plumber of whatever. when did telephone directories come in? this might be a stretch but the phone operators knew EVERYONE by voice.

  3. […] That’s what social networkers are and do. We’re connectors.   Source: James Governor’s Monkchips » Knowledge Workers As Switchboard Operators […]

  4. Right, but how many of these anonymous online strangers do you really trust?

  5. Thanks for the kind mention, James. Right, that chat last week was pretty direct and I loved watching how the conversation between Lars and you evolved naturally. I personally prefer growing my network in this way very much—if done well, three people eventually leave the conversation with a smile on their face.

    I’m learning so much from it too, not just because of new working environments, technologies and terminologies I’d never figure out on my own, but also because of the feedback I get on how I approach people.

    The “have you seen this?” aspect of it appeals to me a lot, though it does have its drawbacks too: some people might think I’m spamming them. Most introductions are spontaneous actions, IM fitting my purpose perfectly.

    As with so many of my activities, I’m still striving to find the right balance. Thanks for helping me on my way there.

  6. Thanks for giving us a mention James! We went live today! I look forward to your follow up article.

    Regards – John Wood, izimi

  7. First Release – The Aftermath…

    What an overwhelming reaction: After our first release last wednesday, the launch of the new Mindquarry Website and the start of the Mindquarry forum , we got thousands of hits on our website, hundreds of downloads and a lot of e-mail feedback. For …

  8. Sounds like an early-stage ‘wirearchy’ to me 😉

  9. […] I said, the switchboard operator analogy holds up only so far, and as somebody else already commented on this […]

  10. I agree that the metaphor shows itself as device. It worked for a while, but got strained near the end. Metaphors are tricky that way. 🙂

    The sentence I was looking for . . . If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. 🙂

  11. […] blogging and tackling with Anne. As related material I wanted to point to one of mine – thoughts on the new operators – and one of Seth Godin’s – where he articulates the new burstyness far more eloquently than […]

  12. […] Mindquarry – Potentially interesting open source collaboration server. (via James Governor) […]

  13. […] are updates or news about particular projects.  WildlifeDirect is taking advantage of me as a 21st century switchboard operator. The model would work equally well for any type of NGO, but the green tech community is definitely […]

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