My software developer friends talk a lot these days about two words/concepts: Agile and Scrum. At first I thought it was typical dev talk with no relevance for newsrooms, but I eventually realized these notions are part of a major shift in the way all companies — including media companies — will have to adapt.

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An overview of the agile process

As Wikipedia explains it, agile software development is a group of methodologies based on iterative and incremental development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Key points from the Agile Manifesto are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Even though these principles may seem rather vague, the agile philosophy has very concrete and precise implementations such as the Scrum methodology. The main roles in Scrum, according to Wikipedia, are:

  • The “ScrumMaster,” who maintains the processes (typically in lieu of a project manager)
  • The “Product Owner,” who represents the stakeholders (such as the customers or users) and the business
  • The “Team,” a cross-functional group of about 7 people who do the actual analysis, design, implementation, testing, etc.

When combined with an open source approach, this can be an efficient way of doing things. For instance, the virtual world Second Life is reworking its “viewer” (user interface) using the Scrum methodology and it’s publishing the documentation of the entire process.

The developers reach out to users in order to determine priorities, and users can monitor the progress being made in fast iterations.

The founder of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, recently started another company, LoveMachine, a crowdsourced review and bonus system (among other projects). Here’s how the company’s website describes the operation:

We are also a different kind of company. Instead of interviewing to work here, you just get to work. If you’d like to join our team, first sign up at the worklist, where you can see and bid on the jobs we need done, then enter our live workroom and talk to other team members!

LoveMachine attempts to be completely transparent, and to introduce market-based price discovery systems for jobs that are typically done by employees in a traditional bureaucratic structure.

I wondered whether we could imagine a newsroom being so transparent and open: Publishing worklists that are open for bidding, granting open access to a live workroom, allowing anyone to collaborate.

I met Philip Rosedale in Second Life and asked him what he thought about applying these principles to a media organization. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Q&A

Philip, is LoveMachine an example of Scrum?

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Philip Linden is Rosedale’s Second Life persona

Philip Rosedale: That company started from scratch with not one line of code written. So we could do things completely differently in order to create software as efficiently, enjoyably and fast as possible.

Scrum is really becoming the mainstream way of looking at best practices. At LoveMachine we brought this to another level, for the whole company. We provide a tremendous amount of transparency. We ask people to bid for a small piece of work, or if you do a small piece of work, you set the price afterwards — we trust you. Psychological research — using brain scans — demonstrated that this tends to be much more rewarding than being paid upfront. Because people set their own prices, it makes them very engaged.

Within the company, there are people with a budget and they accept work from other people. Because everything is transparent, there is a rapid setting and finding of the right price.

You recently returned as CEO at Linden Lab (the company behind Second Life). Do you apply the same principles there as at the LoveMachine?

Rosedale: We are not applying those same principles in Linden Lab. That is a relatively large company involved in complex projects. However, Linden Lab is the place where six years ago we started applying these ideas of recognizing the work of [colleagues] in a transparent way.

So does this mean that large companies cannot apply the methodology of LoveMachine?

Rosedale: Large companies will partially apply this because these techniques allow for such fast and efficient work. For instance, they’ll do so for open source projects. But they will not adopt this en masse, because of the weight of tradition.

Could it be applied by newspapers or other mainstream media?

Rosedale: It’s a promising way of organizing highly motivated contributors working in a decentralized way. Traditional, well-established companies will not [implement] this overnight, but they’ll experiment.

99 designs is a bidding platform which can be used when you want a logo or web design. It is highly efficient and is also used by media companies.
More in general, one should take advantage of the fact that many different people are capable [of doing] a certain task. Instead of only relying on a very limited number of employees, one can appeal to a much larger distributed community of contributors. It makes much faster and cost-effective development possible.

Speaking from a European perspective, I cannot imagine the labor unions would applaud this.

Rosedale: Labor unions as collectives can only agree on increases in wages, while in some situations it’s more rational to lower the wages. There is a trade-off between job security and efficiency. In times of technology-driven major change, unions are an interesting problem.

Could developing countries benefit from this, and who would profit most, the West or developing countries?

Rosedale: Developing countries have less institutional hurdles for adopting this way of working. I’ve been reading the book The Rational Optimist [by Matt Ridly], which explains how technologically driven change is beneficial for humanity, and actually the developing world profits even more from technological change than the industrialized countries — which means that technology helps narrow the gap.

More trouble for established media companies

Rosedale’s vision is optimistic on a macro level and seemingly well suited for young, small and nimble companies. But his points also made me understand that big, established media companies may be in more trouble than they realize.

Today’s media companies are increasingly becoming technology companies. So while the big, established companies find it difficult to lower their cost structure and change their legacy organizational structure, newer start-ups are adopting transparent methods that enable them to develop technology much faster and cheaper.

Chances are that they will be the champions in an era of mobile, ubiquitous media.

Image of Agile process via Wikipedia

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife, Liesbeth.