Beta is beautiful

All hail the early adopters

The first people to try a new product or new idea are enthusiasts, visionaries, tinkerers, and experimenters. They are the crazy ones. They live on the bleeding edge. They put up with half-baked, pre-release products for the opportunity of reaping early rewards, bragging rights for beating others to the punch, and having vendors pay them respect.

You know these early adopters. When a new piece of software comes out, they early adopters have to try it. When a different approach to training appears, they volunteer their organization for a pilot test. When a voice-activated cell phone that translates six languages hits the market, they want to take home the very first one. Manual? We don’t need no stinking manual!

Early adopters enjoy shaping products and services before the concrete sets. They regard problems as opportunities to give feedback. Frequently, they are artistic, creative people trapped in rigid organizations. Pushing the envelope feeds their need for variety and innovation.

Silicon Valley would wither without them, for they provide the initial toe-hold for unproven concepts.

This is the early-adopter version of Eating the Dog Food. If you are not comfortable with typos, sentence fragments, missing chapters, and perhaps a few urban legends trying to pass themselves off as truth, wait a while. The dotted-i, crossed-t version will be out eventually, and it will have the topics and corrections noted by the early adopters.

If you are an enthusiast, please assume your preferred identity: you are a participant, not a reader. When you dig into the online material here, please add comments and make suggestions. Help me make this better. Join the community, stoke discussion, and raise a ruckus.

Beta today, beta tomorrow, beta forever

To a software developer, code that is not ready for general release is termed beta. Beta users have a different relationship with vendors. Their input is valued. What used to be a complaint becomes a suggestion for improvement. The developer and the user are partners, working together to improve the product. This is why Tim O’Reilly says that the perpetual beta phenomenon is a core aspect of Web 2.0.

A developer who calls a release beta recognizes that nothing is ever finished. There’s always room for improvement. This lack of arrogance is endearing, but something more profound is going on.

Everything is connected to everything else. That’s the heart of the network age. And it’s why every product is beta. The world is forever changing: Everything flows. Thus, when a company says a product is beta, it demonstrates its recognition that nothing lasts forever and there’s always room for improvement.

Peter Drucker said the purpose of business is to create and maintain a customer. A developer who says, “Here’s what we’ve got now, but something better is on the way,” forms a relationship of mutual self-interest with the customer. The developer who says, “This product is final. We won’t be doing anything more with it. This is as good as it gets,” gives the buyer no incentive to participate in a continuing relationship. Beta empowers the customer to decide what’s good enough. Nothing’s set in stone. Nothing is absolute.

It’s even more important to label learning beta than software. All learning is cocreation, a product of a learner and an outside agent.

A professor gave her class a paper on urban sociology to read, explaining that they would be tested at the end of the hour. The professor gave another class the same paper and instructions plus a warning that the material was controversial; it might not be correct. In other words, the paper was beta.

The group that read the beta paper scored higher. Why? Because uncertainty engages the mind.

This is why it makes sense to label all learning activities beta. Engage the learners’ minds. For that matter, mark plans beta: It will invite participation. And make your department beta — after all, everything’s an experiment

Of course, as with everything else here, this chapter is still in beta.