Networks Of Networks

February 28, 2012

I’m a member of a variety of business and technical networks, each with their own different styles and benefits. Some are quite formal, others very informal. I quite like this overlapping mixture as it often leads to insights that I wouldn’t get any other way.

However, in my experience, many people tend to participate in just one type of network, that most closely aligned to their formal profession (project management, knowledge management etc).

We may be missing some tricks here.

In fact it’s always surprised me how networks aren’t developed and exploited more imaginatively as they play such a key role in innovation and growth. Understanding how they might function differently and better is obviously an important quest.

So, as a step in this direction, I was interested to read a recent research article by Saumell-Mendiola and co that investigates the consequences of linking two complex networks and comes up with some surprising results (slightly edited):

Many real networks are not isolated from each other but form networks of networks, often interrelated in non-trivial ways. Here, we analyze an epidemic spreading process taking place on top of two interconnected complex networks. We develop an approach that allows us to calculate the conditions for the emergence of an endemic (=self-sustaining) state. Interestingly, a global endemic state may arise in the coupled system even though the epidemics are not able to propagate on each network separately, and even when the number of coupling connections is small. Our analytic results are successfully confronted against large-scale numerical simulations.

Endemic state:

In epidemiology, an infection is said to be endemic in a population when that infection is maintained in the population without the need for external inputs. For example, chickenpox is endemic (steady state) in the UK, but malaria is not. Every year, there are a few cases of malaria acquired in the UK, but these do not lead to sustained transmission in the population due to the lack of a suitable vector (mosquitoes).

As noted:

That’s exactly the kind of subtle, emergent behaviour that network scientists have found it hard to understand and model with models of single networks.

Incidentally, this model has important real world applications. There are plenty of examples of coupled networks, such as the spread of sexually transmitted disease in heterosexual and homosexual populations. These populations are largely separate but linked by a few bisexual individuals.

Whilst the above result comes from a specific model and it’s set of assumptions, it’s tempting to speculate how similar behaviour might happen in certain business networks where the transmission of a new idea or approach might spread through just a few contacts in a self-sustaining manner (the idea ‘takes off’ and gets embedded across disciplines).

Network science is a relatively new and fascinating area. If you’d like some references for further reading, take a look at Complex Networks.

In particular, the books by:

are both good introductory reads and the recent book by

has some stunning visualisations of complex networks, covering both the arts and sciences.


What It’s All About

February 23, 2012

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.” Richard Feynman

From here, see also here.

How About Learning A Little Coding In 2012?

February 21, 2012

It’s a long time since I’ve done any coding. I think the last time was when I was a Research Fellow at IBM and I used some in-house software tools for data visualisation. After that I moved from technology to business aspects and unfortunately left these sorts of skills behind.

However knowing a bit of (modern) coding could be really interesting, partly for the mental discipline of learning something new and partly because it could open up new possibilities and connections!

So I was fascinated when I heard about Code Year, a campaign to encourage more people to programme. It’s an online computer coding course that offers free web-based tutorials in the programming language JavaScript.

Why Javascript?

It’s a language that is perfect for beginners, and it is really flexible and useful. It can be used to make games and add animation to websites.

Even the Major of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has signed up to take part!

At the time of writing, 398,839 people have registered and now there’s one more – me! I’ll let you know how I get on with quarterly progress reports (hopefully there will be more than one of them…).

Maybe you’d like to tell your friends (and their children) about the free course – it could be a fun entry point to a growing UK industry:

And it looks like they’ve found what could be a great slogan for their campaign. “Coding is the new Latin,” says Alex Hope, co-author of that Next Gen report which kicked things off. “We need to give kids a proper understanding of computers if they’re to compete for all kinds of jobs.”

Mr Hope is a fervent believer that a combination of hi-tech and the creative industries is Britain’s best hope for growth – and he should know.

His visual effects company Double Negative is a great success story, with credits on films ranging from Harry Potter to Batman to Inception, for which it won an Oscar. From a standing start in 1998, its workforce now numbers nearly a thousand.

Alex Hope says his company needs a rich mix of talents: “We’re looking for polymaths – people with computer science, maths, physics or fine arts can all thrive.” He describes how working out how to make the CGI River Thames look real in a Harry Potter film involves complex maths and physics.

Are UK children falling behind their international contemporaries?

But he’s finding it a struggle to recruit people with the hard science background. ‘We’re just not producing enough graduates with computer science or maths skills.”

If you’re interested in other opportunities for learning coding, you may also want to take a look at w3schools (amongst others).

Bill Gates’ Reading List

February 15, 2012

Recently I’ve noticed Bill Gates appearing in places I wouldn’t usually have expected, such as a community school, Deptford Green, in London.

Here’s the interesting background on the school visit:

Getting Mr Gates to a community school in south London was also an impressive feather in the cap for the Speakers for Schools project, set up by the BBC’s Robert Peston – which seeks to get high-profile figures to talk to pupils in state schools.

Nick Chambers, director of the Education and Employers Taskforce which administers the scheme, told the school assembly that this unexpected visit from Bill Gates all came from a Friday night in November when English teacher Keely Wilson decided to apply for someone interesting to visit.

She wasn’t disappointed.

It’s pretty impressive for someone who’s made a big difference to the ‘developed’ world (through Microsoft) now to turn his attention to making a major impact on the developing world (through The Gates Foundation).

His website, The Gates Notes, gives some interesting personal insights. In particular, he has a section on the books he’s reading as well as (fascinatingly) his reviews of some of them.

Here’s his comments on the role that reading played for him while he was growing up:

When I was young, I read a ton of science fiction and biographies. I was interested in what it was like to be General Douglas MacArthur, President Eisenhower or President Roosevelt, or a great scientist like Newton or Einstein. I read a lot about the sciences, although the material available back then was not nearly as good as it is now. Now it’s mind-blowing, because online you have more and more great courses and other free material. My favorite physicist, Richard Feynman, recorded some lectures back in the 1960s that are really great at explaining physics and why it’s fun. I arranged to put them online so that anybody can just type into a search box, hopefully Bing, and watch them. They’re called the Feynman Messenger Lectures. I used to ask my dad a lot of questions that he couldn’t answer. Now, my son asks me questions like, “Why don’t we fall through the floor?” and “Why are some materials strong and some materials not strong?” We go online and satisfy our curiosity. I still read a lot of books too, and I write about some of them on my website. Recently I’ve read some important books about energy by Vaclav Smil and also by David McKay.

This struck a special note as I’ve previously written a couple of posts on the Feynman Messenger Lectures.

And here’s his review of Matt Ridley’s ‘The Rational Optimist’:

Like many other authors who write about innovation, Mr. Ridley suggests that all innovation comes from new companies, with no contribution from established companies. As you might expect, I disagree with this view. He also seems to think that innovation involves simply coming up with a new idea, when in fact the execution of the idea is critical. He quotes the early venture capitalist Georges Doriot as saying that as soon as a company succeeds, it stops innovating. A great counterexample is Intel, which developed over 99% of its breakthroughs after its first success.

Mr. Ridley describes the economy of the future as “post-corporatist and post-capitalist,” a silly throwaway phrase. He never explains what will replace all the companies that figure out how to make microchips or fertilizer or engines or drugs. Of course, many companies will come and go – that is a key element of capitalism – but corporations will continue to drive most innovation. It is a dangerous and widespread problem to underestimate the ongoing innovation that takes place within mature corporations.

In his quest to highlight exchange as the key mechanism in the success of our species, Mr. Ridley underplays the role of other institutions, including education, government, patents and science, all of which, especially since the 19th century, have played a central role in the improvements that humanity has experienced. Too often, when Mr. Ridley finds an example that minimizes the contributions of these institutions, he seems to think that he has validated the idea that exchange deserves all of the credit.

It’s insightful to hear his views on the role of innovation through established companies especially as this whole area seems in tumult these days. For example, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca will be closing down some of it’s R&D centres due to their expense:

He said the job losses at AstraZeneca were a result of changes to the the R&D process that had become “more complex and much more expensive”.

“Increasingly there has been externalisation of R&D, collaboration with universities, with research charities, with academia… So that means that you don’t necessarily employ people [directly].”

Tying the above comments together, it’s clear that helping develop and nurture highly-networked ‘business and learning’ ecosystems will become increasingly important in the future – an inspiring and fascinating challenge!

See also in this context innovation clusters.

Aligning Attitude With Aptitude

February 13, 2012

I came across this quote whilst looking through a book by James Caan:

“Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” Zig Ziglar

I’d didn’t know much about Ziglar; here he is in full flow…

While he’s a bit full-on for my taste I thought his comments on fault finding were rather good!

More on the importance of attitude here and here.

Idea Helpers And Killers

February 1, 2012

Sadly that’s rarely the case…

There’s a nice couple of posts (from a while ago) by the ever interesting Scott Berkun on phrases that can help or kill ideas.

Here’s a brief extract:

  • Great idea, keep going with it
  • What do you need to make this work?
  • How can I help you?
  • I’ll stay as late as you do to write this proposal tonight
  • How much time will it take to flesh this out?


  • Not an interesting problem
  • We don’t have the time
  • Execs will never go for it
  • Out of scope
  • Too blue sky / holy grail

At least in my experience, the latter type of responses tend to be more common than the former. Sometimes it’s not badly meant, it’s just that natural reservations (and perhaps personal experience) come into play and risks are unintentionally emphasised over opportunities.

However, on a more positive note, I can still remember one such energising interaction quite vividly:

I’d just joined a very large company that was undergoing enormous change and which was encouraging new approaches and suggestions. I spoke to my manager about an idea I had and he suggested I go and talk to one of the Board Members about it. I was quite impressed by this, seemingly having ready and direct access to one of the most senior members of the company, although a bit intimidated as well (was my idea that good that I needed to go that high to move it along, should I think it through a bit more first?).

Anyway, I arranged a meeting and it seemed to go well. He nodded and smiled throughout. I finished what I had to say and he then replied ‘Sounds good, how can I help you?’. I was rather taken aback by this as I was expecting something along the lines of ‘Promising idea, I think it would be useful to talk to X about this, he/she will be interested’ or similar. To be honest, I was so taken aback I didn’t actually have any ideas how he could personally help me although it was obvious that with a bit of thought there’d be many!

What I learned from this is that if you’re telling people about an idea you have, think beforehand of some imaginative ways where they may be able to help you, no matter what their position or seniority. These may not be the best ways but it gets the conversation going. Actually they’re the ones that are best placed to make additional connections and links which they’ll probably enjoy doing anyway. It’s a nice and very human feeling when you know that you’ve been genuinely helpful to someone.

So, have courage in your ideas, be bold and get that two-way conversation going!

They’ll remember you, which is often half the battle.

Picture credit: here.