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26 June 2006

Changing Habits

Whilst techies argue about what technologies define what is Web 2.0, the bigger issue facing emerging trends on the Internet is how to change the habits of a lifetime.

I tend to read books in multiples, with three or four on the go at a time, and the latest set have all contributed to this post. But the one that ties them together is a paper called From Push to Pull - Emerging Models for Mobilizing Resources'; by John Hagel and John Seely Brown; published in October 2005. (Big hat tip to Mike Platt for highlighting the article over in his blog.)

From Push to Pull identifies and explains the core differences between traditional business practices established and fine-tuned during the command-and-control industrial era of the 20th Century and the new world of business being created in the connected information-centric era of the 21st Century. The following table provides some of the examples and additional observations:

Push (20th Century) Pull (21st Century)
People wait and receive content at a scheduled time and placePeople pull content when they want it
People use the end productPeople are actively involved in creating the product
Business is a managed program, the organisation provides everythingBusiness is a flexible platform, the organisation provides the starter pack
Organisations own their resourcesOrganisations mobilise resources
Friction is inefficient and should be eliminatedFriction is productive and should be encouraged
Hierarchies maintain orderHierarchies stifle growth
Aim for perfectionAim for good enough
Design and lead a successful businessTreat your organisation as an unfinished prototype
Assume people are primarily motivated by moneyRealise everyone's deepest desire is to be appreciated

It may have a geeky-sounding name, but Web 2.0 is about more than the technical bits and pieces. It is changing the way people interact with organisations and challenging those traditional business models. But. Behaviour is not so much changing as being channelled in a different direction. Web 2.0 is a transition phase in the journey from Push to Pull:

  • Web 1.0 = born during the Push era and tried to behave like, and conform with, the Push way of working
  • Web 2.0 = challenging and disrupting the Push era but yet to gain enough momentum, or desire, to displace the protectors of Push
  • Web 3.0 = rejects Push and embraces Pull, enter the new world of work

I suspect the move to Web 3.0 will be far more dependent on people than on technology. (And no, I'm not being remotely original using Web 3.0 - others have already coined the term.)

In the paper From Push to Pull, the authors describe how, by the end of the 20th Century, every aspect of modern life had grown out of the Push model. Will it take a century for Pull to achieve the same effect? The rapid pace of change suggests that the Pull effect should be complete in half the time, but its success will be down to us. And currently too many of us are either content with habits established from a life of Push or feel unable to change them. Two comments made on television recently made me want to throw a marshmallow at the screen.

Comment 1: During a coffee break I flicked on the television and The Weakest Link was on. The presenter - Anne Robinson - was going through her usual humiliation routine with the contestants and picked on a student. Turns out this student was doing a degree in something like ancient history. When asked what he planned to do after university, his response was, "...become a trainee manager, in an office or shop or something..." Whaaaattt? Have we just gone back to the 1950s and bred a load of organisation men?

Comment 2: This one might be a bit more controversial, depending on your political point of view. Three people commit suicide whilst detained at Guantanamo Bay, and the US deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy calls it a "good PR move." Whaaaattt? A PR stunt is throwing a custard pie at Bill Gates, or breaking into Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman. Killing yourself, be it alone or for a cause, is a little bit more than a PR stunt.

What do these two comments have in common? They reflect a human habit from the Push era - passive reactions seasoned with a pinch of sticking your head in the sand.

Web 2.0 may be starting to disrupt Push models, but it is not yet replacing many of them. Instead, people appear to be heading in a different direction, seeking to minimise their interaction with the old establishment and spending more time in a separate reality inhabited by social worlds and games like MySpace, Second Life and World of Warcraft. I spotted a telling comment on an Amazon review of a computer game: " last I've found my calling in life". What's gone so wrong with real life that we are happier when immersed in alternate realities? For all we know, Mr No Dreams student is running a profitable nightclub in Second Life or is a Guild Master in World of Warcraft. Imagine if those talents, skills and passion were applied to real life? What's stopping this from happening? The protectors of the Push era.

Bill Gates is fond of saying that we are only just beginning to tap into the potential of technology. He's right but, to adjust Nicholas Carr's favourite phrase, I.T. alone does not matter. The potential can only be tapped when the culture surrounding the technology is in a position (and ready) to embrace it. Old habits are unlikely to change until a sufficient majority move from living a passive life to embracing an active one. But change they will, either by choice or force. And then modern life will become dominated by the Pull era.

I'm conscious this post is focused on Western civilisation but a) I'm in that particular melting pot and b) I think it's the civilisation that will face the most disruption during the 21st Century and has the most to lose from trying to keep those old passive habits alive.

References: (aka the last 3 books I read)