Re-imagining the Book

Posted on June 21st, 2011

Reprinted from Internet Time Blog


For the past two years, I have been writing and publishing an unbook entitled Working Smarter. Six versions have been published in that time, the latest being The Working Smarter Fieldbook 2011. Unbooks are printed on demand; they change when the author has something new to say. By definition, unbooks are in perpetual beta.

Several months ago I decided to write a book about working smarter for managers and executives. I thought I’d be able to do this by changing the voice of the Fieldbook. A friend of mine who has published numerous books sent the Fieldbook to his editor, a PhD English grad in India. Through her and my efforts, we chopped the Fieldbook from 400+ to 200 pages. It was an improvement, but it didn’t go far enough. The book remained choppy, disjointed, and repetitive. It was too beta.

These pages document the progress of my thinking about the book. It’s obviously a work in progress. And it ends up not being a book at all.


Recognizing a problem

Weekend before last I attended Overlap, an annual retreat for meta-designers. Our opening exercise was to draw a cartoon that explained a problem we were working on. Here’s mine. Permit me to explain.

1. I’d been writing and re-writing the unbook.

2. I realized that the perpetual beta concept was partly my ADD at work. The book jumps around because my focus jumps around. The book wasn’t going where I wanted it to go.

3. I’d like to enlist others in the development on the new book. This will take organization, strong design, collaboration, and artistry.

4. Creating the new book raises some interesting issues. Most managers don’t read books; they gather information on the web. eBooks are overtaking printed books. Should I design the book for print (i.e. by chapter) or for web (i.e. hyperlinked)? What format is best for what content (think iPad and smartphone)?


Suggestions on design approaches

In the next session at Overlap, groups of half a dozen people each drew and described an idea where we were looking for help. I asked “What’s the optimal process for creating a book/ebook for managers? What design considerations?” I received these responses:

  • Design with intentional gaps in the knowledge of the book to encourage high bandwidth communication might be fatal. Semantics as organizational triggers.
  • Individualize…maybe not all the content, but “write it” to them somehow. (Inscription/preface/cover design). A design consideration. Their own microblog for note taking, feedback, questions to mentors.
  • How do you motivate people to re-read? Consider collaborative writing. The optimal manager book would not offer recipes but rather ways to explore and discover relevant ones and how to adapt them to your personal needs. Instead of success stories stories about how that exploration and search happened and what wisdom was gained.
  • Concise and clear directions for actionable change. What would the content look like on different time horizons? With different storytellers? Can the book be “read” in different ways?
  • Focus on enabling different choices and options for the reader. If you can empower the manager to have a sense of ownership while he/she reads, then the lessons will feel more personal.

Ah ha! This was a conceptual breakthrough for me.

My objective was not to produce a book for people to read; it was to spur change agents to take action.

We reported back to the larger group (about 50 of us) and proposed projects we’d like to tackle

Boiling it down to a poster

Half a dozen of us (different folks than in the previous exercise) decided to tackle the issue of how to re-invent books that will lead to meaningful action. Our challenge was to prepare a poster to share with the rest of the group. We talked for a long while, making sketches individually to illustrate our points, before ever tackling the poster.

We discussed things like:

  • the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and the need for reinforcement
  • how academic publishing is broken, with a single author on a pedestal
  • the need to serve self-interest, use emotion
  • giving conversation starters, just enough to practice
  • incorporating visuals, maps, cartoons, ease of access
  • social interaction
  • information nuggets
  • zig zag board, Osterwalder’s business process generation

My summary at this point:

I’ve been preaching that action is the measure of learning, not knowing. Knowing something but not doing something about it is sterile. I realized I was setting the same goal for books. Reading is not the end-goal, it’s a stepping stone to getting things done.

We collaboratively created this poster:


After we presented our concept to the larger group, it seemed to me that we’d milked this concept as much as we were going to be able to at Overlap, so I joined another project (developing a process for conducting kick-ass meetings). I left it to “the boys in the back room” to take the next steps. I slept on it for two nights.

A fresh take on my new book for managers

I looked back at lists of potential content I’d drawn up several weeks earlier. Typical topics were how people learn, learning as a process, courses are dead, reinforcement, social learning, wikis and networks, etc. These were topics I had previously written about. They lacked a call to action.

Overlap ended and I headed to another retreat, this one in Asheville, North Carolina. At the airport, I perused the best sellers at the Hudson News bookstore. As always, there were several books on sales. This planted a seed. Business readers don’t have time to read or reflect. They aren’t very good at converting theory into practice. They won’t take the time to generalize big-picture lessons into specific actions. They want quick take-aways.

I realized that my new book needs to start with the end-state, e.g. higher sales. From there, the book can delve into ways to do that, for example Dare2Share, the SUN Learning Exchange, accessing just-in-time tips via Twitter, mobile podcasts, Cisco’s communities of practice, and so forth. Then on to the next topic. The participant (no longer just a reader) could take what they wanted and slam it into action.

Over breakfast before my flight, I jotted down thirty additional business topics that have natural learning solutions, for example feeding the talent pipeline, improving morale and lowering turnover, improving customer service, leapfrogging competitors, keeping everyone on the same page, not re-inventing the wheel, aligning with core values, developing managers and leaders, cross-skilling the workforce, personal development and growth, doing more with less, helping others learn, adopting good/next practices, and even improving the results of training. Within self-development, there are such things as leading better meetings, becoming a more effective speaker, improving one’s memory, being more persuasive, managing projects well, and writing to the point. These range from low-level how-to things like job aids to big-picture items like implementing strategy. There are doubtless many more topics.


Before the retreat began, I met with three friends to plan how we would work together to create the non-book or whatever it would be called.

Non-fiction books printed on paper are a dying art form. I created some personas of potential readers; few of them read books. We are not creating a book. I began to think that we are developing a body of knowledge that would appear in many forms:

Many participants at the North Carolina event were intrigued what the new non-book is going to look like.

After nine days of brainstorming and talking with others, I found myself focusing on organizing the Body of Knowledge. It has grown to incorporate feedback loops and community involvement. It’s expanding by the minute.

The structure of the Body of Knowledge has shifted. Now it is made of calls to action, performance support, exercises, and tools. A 3-D matrix is teasing out descriptions of potential content for prioritization.

On the flight home to San Francisco yesterday, I began drafting the prospectus for developing the alternative to the book. It’s turning out to be an alternative to training, traditional learning, and management development as well.

What on earth does one call a new species?

For now, we’re using shorthand to describe the overall project. A name for the category will emerge down the road.

We have launched the 21C project.

21C: The Prospectus

“We are tackling an immense challenge: conceptualizing the optimal ways for organizations to work in the network age, coming up with the replacements for the principles of scientific and industrial management we’ve lived with for the past two hundred years, and creating organizational ecosystems to bridge the knowing/doing gap and imbed new behaviors.”

“Picasso said, ‘I do things I do not know how to do in order to learn how to do them.’ The Internet Time Alliance and TULSER are leading the charge but we won’t be successful without thought partners to shape the vision, corporations to provide reality tests, co-creators to design fresh approaches, and implementors to put things in place. Our target is emergent. We welcome your participation in 21C. Your questions will frame the issues we  need to address. Please join the conversation.” (Details will follow. Comment or ping me if you want to be in on this.)

This morning

I opened Twitter and spied a link to Post-Artifact Links and Publishing. There must be something in the air….

What books will become

Posted on April 17th, 2011

Lovely post on the future of the book from Kevin Kelly.

A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read. A book is complete in the sense that it contains its own beginning, middle, and end.

In the past a book was defined as anything printed between two covers. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of blank pages bound with a spine was called a sketchbook. It was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers, and was thus called a book.

Today the paper pages of a book are disappearing. What is left in their place is the conceptual structure of a book — a bunch of text united by a theme into an experience that takes a while to complete.

Since the traditional shell of the book is vanishing, it’s fair to wonder whether its organization is merely a fossil. Does the intangible container of a book offer any advantages over the many other forms of text available now?

One can spend hours reading well-written stories, reports, and musing on the web and never encounter anything bookish. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. And that is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined.

There ARE books on the web. Lots of them. I posted one of the first full books that was in print on the web in 1994. But because you pass no border to reach these pages, bookish material tends to dissolve into a undifferentiated tangle of words. Without containment, a reader’s attention tends to flow outward, wandering from the central narrative or argument. The velocity of shifting focus creates a centrifugal force which spins readers away from the pages of the book.

A separate reading device seems to help. So far we have a tablet, pad, and handheld. The handheld device is most surprising. Experts had long held that no one would want to read a book on a tiny few-inch wide glowing screen, but they were wrong. By miles. Many people happily read books on their smart phone screens. In fact we don’t know yet how small a book-reading screen can go. There is an experimental type of reading that uses a screen only one word wide. Your eye remains stationary, fixed on one word, which replaces itself with the next word in the text, and then the one after that. So your eye reads a sequence of words “behind” one another rather than in a long line next to one another. The screen does not need to be very large.

Jay Cross and Harold Jarche talk unbooks

Posted on October 20th, 2010

For listeners: podcast on unbooks

Posted on September 9th, 2010

Julie Wedgwood talks with Jay about unbooks and iPads – August 2010

Print, e, or un

Posted on August 14th, 2010

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