19th September 2012: On CRC PhDs

The Australian‘s Jill Rowbotham on Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) and PhD programs:


The $165 million annual program is also the 12th largest provider nationally of research students, including those undertaking research masters degrees, according to Nigel Palmer from the University of Melbourne who authored the study, The CRC Contribution to Research Training.


Rowbotham’s reportage omits a crucial detail: Who controls the PhD’s resulting intellectual property?


In 2006, a former colleague and I were offered PhD scholarships at the Smart Internet Technology CRC (SITCRC) to research internet futures and would be based at Swinburne University. The offer was an Australian Postgraduate Award equivalent amount plus CRC top-up funding of $10-15,000. The contract’s catch-all clause was that the CRC would gain the PhD’s intellectual property and would control the ‘decision rights’ for its public dissemination and commercial use. The former colleague and I both rejected the deal and retained our existing roles. We privately felt this was a way for the SITCRC to pad its research outputs with minimal investment in research programs. I later saw a PhD candidate criticise the SITCRC for this policy in an internet media interview. The SITCRC projected over its existence that it would have 100 PhD students; in reality it had about 30. I worked on the successful bid for the Smart Services CRC and its initial organisational plans had similar goals to recruit and fund PhD students. (In 2011, I began a part-time PhD in political science at Monash University and you can read my initial proposal here.)


Palmer and Rowbotham appear to take the CRC’s industry collaboration viewpoint at face value. Yes, this has benefits: PhD researchers often learn project management skills and gain knowledge of specific industries. There are many different types of CRCs, and variances in organisational cultures and research management practices (which an aggregate level analysis can miss). However, there are also often strict, commercial non-disclosure agreements on research and publication that affect the collegiality of CRC PhD programs. These non-disclosure agreements can isolate PhD researchers: if you don’t sign then you don’t get the PhD stipend or CRC research position. I have talked with several current PhD students at other CRCs who are frustrated by these agreement clauses. The CRC focus on industry reports is also at odds with the Excellence for Research in Australia’s emphasis on publication in high-impact, peer reviewed academic journals (an issue raised in ERA 2010 reviews by former researchers at another CRC). If the CRC embargoes research or modifies it then the delays and changes can detrimentally affect a researcher’s publication track record and thus their competitiveness and future career path. Finally, the former senior quality officer in me wonders: “leads world in collaboration” compared with whom? Stanford’s innovation programs and Silicon Valley? Stanford and Sandhill Road‘s venture capital firms?


CRCs are complex, collaborative vehicles for industry research. There are lots of potential improvement opportunities.


For some background on this, read my 2008 submissions to the Review of the National Innovation System (PDF) and the Review of the CRCs Program (PDF).

28th February 2012: Wikileaks & Stratfor’s Emails

Stratfor in December 2011


Yesterday the activist site Wikileaks prepared to publish 5 million emails from the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. Anonymous hacked Stratfor on 24th December 2011 and gained access to client passwords, databases, and internal emails. Wikileaks claims the emails: “reveal the inner workings of a company that fronts as an intelligence publisher, but provides confidential intelligence services to large corporations, such as Bhopal’s Dow Chemical Co., Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security, the US Marines and the US Defence Intelligence Agency. The emails show Stratfor’s web of informers, pay-off structure, payment laundering techniques and psychological methods.”


The leak prompted some hilarious and insightful responses from political pundits. “That @Wikileaks thinks publishing @Stratfor emails matters is a big compliment for Stratfor, biggest sign yet that Wikileaks is clueless,” tweeted Dan Drezner, and then he wrote a Stratfor/Wikileaks critique. “Statfor is on the mild end of the scary shadow CIA/stodgy think tank spectrum,” observed Dan Murphy for The Christian Science Monitor. “A friend who works in intelligence once joked that Stratfor is just The Economist a week later and several hundred times more expensive,” noted The Atlantic‘s Max Fisher.


I briefly subscribed to Stratfor so am probably on the leaked email/credit card list. I found many of Stratfor’s weekly reports to inflate threats. I got Friedman’s first book America’s Secret War during the book buy-up for my PhD but found it to be sensationalistic. Several Stratfor analysts contacted me whilst I edited the alternative news site Disinformation and claimed to be ex-psychological operations people.


I seriously considered developing a private intelligence capability on two occasions.


The first time was at Disinformation in 2000, I pitched a subscriber service to publisher Gary Baddeley that would do for the nascent conspiracy industry what Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood does for the United States entertainment industry. I also had in mind the subscriber services that do 5-8 page summaries of business books. Baddeley wasn’t interested and the nascent conspiracy industry evaporated after the September 11 attacks.


During my postgraduate studies I studied under David Wright-Neville, Andrew Newman and Philip Gregory, and wrote essays on Ulrich Beck‘s world risk society (PDF); Rupert Murdoch’s use of game theory (PDF); considered the developments circa 2002 for news publishers (PDF); explored the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management (PDF); outlined the post-September 11 changes to intelligence services (PDF); and evaluated DARPA’s Terrorism Information Awareness system (PDF).


The second time was at the Smart Internet Technology CRC (SITCRC): I scoped out a project for Canberra firm The Distillery and looked at the major international and Australian firms that provided market intelligence on information technology trends. I proposed a market intelligence capability for the Smart Services CRC successful bid that would use strategic foresight and strategic intelligence methods. However, this remained scoped out work only for the unfinished Disruptive Internet project, although I did trial the methods in a public blog for a month. I left the CRC in March 2007 due to infra-team conflict.


During preparation for my PhD studies I considered several topics. One was on design patterns and counter-terrorism. A second idea was ‘The Markets for Political Risk: An Analytic View’ modelled on the research of Deborah Avant (The Market For Force) and Andrew Lo (Hedge Funds: An Analytic Perspective). I outlined the historical precursors to Stratfor (RAND, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Kissinger & Associates); found six market segments; considered risk arbitrage, securitisation and trading applications; and began to develop contagion/rumour models. I noted that Friedman “may cultivate ’boutique mystique’ as reputational capital.” In 2009, I began reading the hedge fund and trading literature, and decided it was easier to develop a personal capability for market arbitrage and trading (reflected on during an October 2011 visit to Tokyo’s Stock Exchange). In March 2011, I began a part-time PhD on the strategic culture debate and counter-terrorism studies (2011 initial proposal PDF).


Stratfor’s chief executive officer George Friedman is scheduled to speak at SXSW Interactive 2012 in Austin. I’ll definitely be attending.

2nd December 2011: The Disruptive Internet

Disruptive Internet project files (partial), January 2007 (click to view)


From January 2006 to March 2007 I worked on The Disruptive Internet (uncompleted) project for the Smart Internet Technology CRC.


The project had four goals:


1. Prepare a research critique that offers the first consolidated analysis of Internet-related disruptive technologies and users with some key implications for commercial opportunities.

2. Construct a taxonomy of disruptive users.

3. Validation or debunking of the hypothesis that the best future applications will not necessarily succeed because they offer higher levels of technology performance but rather consumers perceive them as practical and affordable, with obvious usefulness in their lives as low tech/high touch applications.

4. Identification of market disruption opportunities and evaluation of their implications for CRC Participants in various industry sectors.


I’ve just re-read the program director’s negative final assessment in the SITCRC’s 2007 annual report and want to set the record straight in a minority report/rejoinder:


1.The first milestone is listed as achieved. I had a draft monograph (redrafted twice with new material) on Clayton M. Christensen‘s research program on disruptive innovation, and another on Google (mentioned in this 2010 blog post). Although I spent a year on it, this material has never been made publicly available. It currently fills an archive box and over 3 gigabytes on a hard drive. At the time, I saw a marketplace gap now filled by The Innovator’s Guide to Growth (2008) and The Innovator’s DNA (2011). Perhaps I should have pursued a book deal. A public, official internet blog would also have been interesting given my concurrent work with The Disinformation Company Ltd. The two unpublished, draft monographs influenced a 2008 conference paper (PDF) and presentation (PDF) on disruptive innovation markets and ‘freemium’ music digital downloads.


2. The second milestone is listed as not achieved. For the second milestone, I had a draft taxonomy which drew on the Chinese 36 strategems. In my redrafted material for the first milestone, I also emphasised the link between disruptive innovation and agile software development as a type of disruptive user environment (‘reversing’-driven innovation was another). I undertook Scrum training in 2005, not CRC-funded. I took usability and project management training in 2006, not CRC-funded. In January 2007, the SITCRC listed (archived here) my public blog, which also touched on this milestone. Finally, I made explicit links between counter-terrorism and disruptive users, such as for a 2006 Masters  paper that evaluated DARPA’s Total Information Awareness initiative (PDF). However, I found that this perspective was off-limits in the SITCRC, and I was censured several times during Q&A sessions.


3. The third milestone is listed as not achieved. A senior SITCRC staff member proposed the third milestone. They did not elaborate further, so work didn’t proceed. I did not have the hypothesis-driven research training at the time to carry this milestone out. There was no null hypothesis given. There are framing problems with how the original hypothesis was formulated.


4. The fourth milestone is listed as not achieved. This is incorrect. I did several SITCRC presentations and workshops for Westpac and Sensis (PowerPoint presentation here from a December 2006 session) which had ‘commercial in confidence’ discussion of my research program and specific issues that each company faced. I also worked on a project with SITCRC member The Distillery at the request of the SITCRC’s chief executive officer. I noted opportunities featured in news stories in a public blog. I emphasised the role of environmental scanning, opportunity evaluation, strategic foresight and strategic intelligence as organisational capabilities for disruptive innovation.  I provided specific guidance for the Smart Services CRC successful bid, which subsequently led to a new, $A120 million dollar research consortium.


Courtesy of Rosie X, I even had a personal project intranet that SITCRC staff could access, with internal interviews and other draft materials.


The SITCRC’s annual report concludes that The Disruptive Internet project “will not be completed” by June 2007 and thus the “contract of researcher not extended.”


What actually happened:


(1) In February 2007, the SITCRC’s senior management decided to cut staff, despite the success of the Smart Services CRC bid. The university-based team I was on would possibly be cut from three to two researchers. The SITCRC’s chief executive officer and most of the senior people who comprised the bid team also left the organisation. (I later learned after studying mergers and acquisitions that this is common during the post-merger integration phase.)


(2) There had been infra-team personality conflicts on my research team for over a year previously (which did negatively impact on my work). I was unable to get my program manager’s approval to publish material that was more suited to theory-building academic journals than to non-peer reviewed industry reports. (I also had the support of several SITCRC commercial partners.) At the time, in late 2006 and early 2007 there  were uncertainties regarding if the Smart Services CRC bid would be successful. I felt certain team members narrowly prioritised their work in new project proposals and claimed professional expertise which they did not have — which in turn raised ethical and professional dilemmas for me. I raised these issues via SITCRC and university processes for research disputes. The SITCRC deferred to the university process.

Two days after I did raised the research dispute, the program manager (who later wrote the negative review) told me that my contract — which ended in a week — would not be renewed. This pre-empted the faculty and university processes for handling and resolving research disputes. No alternative dispute resolution mechanisms were made available. This ended my potential involvement in the Smart Services CRC, which I had worked for months on the successful bid for, and contributed to the conceptualisation of its research programs.


There were other more constructive avenues ways to have resolved these issues. The SITCRC’s 2006-07 annual report’s assessment does not reflect these complexities, of course. The whole negative experience led me to raise some research management issues in the Australian Government’s 2008 Review of the National Innovation System and Review of the CRCs Program.


My CV (PDF) and Publications (PDF and archive) detail subsequent non-CRC research. Since the SITCRC, I have worked on a sensitive university-wide audit; helped research teams to get Australian Research Council Linkage grants and funds from other competitive sources; and co-published in A-level peer reviewed academic journals. My personal research is now more highly cited (here) than the jointly-authored research I did in the SITCRC.

Worth Reading: Stafford Beer-Brian Eno, M&A and R&D

Personal Research Program

The Stafford Beer-Brian Eno Connection: Alex Hough of Manchester Business School mentions how the cybernetics scientist Stafford Beer influenced musician and producer Brian Eno. Beer also influenced a generation of researchers and practitioners in modular organisational design, management, and systems thinking. Eno’s collaborator Robert Fripp was influenced by a precursor, John Godolphin Bennett‘s systematics.

START Bulletin Fall 2009: The US National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) has just released its Fall 2009 bulletin
on its programs of research and major research reports. I’m always on
the lookout for ‘good practice’ examples of how to communicate the
research results to different audiences.

R&D Management
: Michel Bauwens tipped me off to a special issue on Henry Chesbrough‘s ‘open innovation’ and ‘open R&D’: looks very interesting. Journal article idea: Under what conditions might the innovation tournament be a more efficient allocative mechanism for R&D resources, human capital and commercialisation than other institutional structures, such as university-industry consortia and joint ventures?

SmartyGrants: An intriguing new package developed by the Australian Institute of Grants Management for grant-makers and grant-writers to manage the end-to-end grant cycle. SmartyGrants uses a subscription-based ‘software as a service’ delivery model, akin to Salesforce.com.

Mergers & Acquisitions

M&A Market Themes: NYT‘s Steven M. Davidoff on the US M&A market and Warren Buffett’s acquisition of the railway Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Davidoff’s new book Gods at War: Shotgun Takeovers, Government by Deal, and the Private Equity Implosion (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009) surveys the recent M&A market and deal trends.

‘Sell’ for Research Renegades
: Edward Robinson’s Bloomberg Markets cover-story showcases a group of ‘sell-side’ researchers who have gone solo. Robinson notes the good security analysts have gone to hedge funds whilst others have founded independent research firms. This is a model I suggested the Smart Services CRC look at during its initial planning stages for its lessons on commercially relevant research and human capital management.

The Myer IPO: Fairfax’s Michael West blames Myer for ruining the Australian IPO market for others. Three observations: (i) I agree with West that Myer’s private equity owners were driven by a macroeconomic/monetary policy timing window to cash out after their cost cutting and change management; (ii) Brokerages and commission-based sales provided an ‘echo chamber’ to talk up the Myer IPO so that the underwriter’s market-making activities are supported in the aftermarket; and (iii) always factor in market volatility into daily commentary — an 8% shift is normal in the current market conditions due to buyer-seller resistance, post-IPO speculation and different views of Myer’s fair market value — and the likelihood that the underwriter and other investment banks will attempt to stabilise the stock’s support level.

Noosphere Memes

Vale Claude Levi-Strauss: The anthropologist’s structuralist approach is credited with changing how we perceived primitive societies and their cultural and religious practices. He is probably best known in popular culture for naming the Fine Young Cannibals‘ most successful album.

Spearheading Social Media Innovation

Congrats to QUT’s Axel Bruns who now spearheads the Smart Services CRC‘s Social Media program and is likely to become a Chief Investigator in the ARC’s Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. The significance of these appointments is that Bruns has the academic track record as an internationally recognised expert to make a strong research business case to government policymakers, grant-making agencies and institutions for large-scale social media-oriented research.

Bruns’ career illustrates how to navigate the academic research game: it has changed from conference papers and solo projects to team-based projects in competitive institutional contexts. Bruns co-founded the online academic journal M/C Media & Culture in 1998 which became an important open publishing journal in digital media studies and criticism. His PhD thesis cemented his academic credentials, and led to Bruns’ produsage theory of user-created content. This work has underpinned a publications record, collaborations such as Gatewatching with emerging scholars, and streams at the Association of Internet Researchers and Australian and New Zealand Communication Association conferences. Thus, in a relatively short time, Bruns has positioned himself as an internationally recognised scholar on digital and social media innovation.

The next generation of digital and social media researchers can learn from Bruns’ example and career-accelerating strategies.