Knowledge Management as Information Brokering

David Gilmour, CEO of Tacit Knowledge Systems, wrote an excellent (and short) essay in the October issue of Harvard Business Review entitled, “How to Fix Knowledge Management.” The gist of the article:    (P3)

The problem is that most organized corporate information sharing is based on a failed paradigm: publishing. In the publishing model, someone collects information from employees, organizes it, advertises its availability, and sits back to see what happens. But because employees quickly create vast amounts of information, attempts to fully capture it are frustrated every time. Even the most organized efforts collect just a fraction of what people know, and by the time this limited knowledge is published, it’s often obsolete. The expensive process is time consuming, and it doesn’t scale well. (16)    (P4)

Gilmour’s solution:    (P5)

Instead of squelching people’s natural desire to control information, companies should exploit it. They should stop trying to extract knowledge from employees; they should instead leave knowledge where it is and create opportunities for sharing by making knowledge easy for others to find. This requires a shift away from knowledge management based on a publishing model, and a focus on collaboration management based on a brokering model. (17)    (P6)

Tacit Knowledge Systems‘s system does this by scanning all of the email and other documents on a corporate network, and building profiles of individuals based on these behaviors. The system can then alert people to other individuals with similar interests, brokering an introduction between them. If you think there are potential privacy problems here, you’re not alone. Josh Tyler‘s SHOCK works in a similar way, but distributes control of the profile to the individual; see his paper, “SHOCK: Communicating with Computational Messages and Automatic Private Profiles.”    (P7)

IT as Commodity and its Contribution to Productivity

There were two interesting articles about IT and productivity in the Harvard Business Review this past year: Nicholas Carr’s “IT Doesn’t Matter” (May) and Diana Farrell’s “The Real New Economy” (October).    (OK)

Carr’s title is a bit misleading. It’s not that IT no longer matters at all; it’s that IT is less important (for most companies — a subtle, but important disclaimer) from a strategic standpoint, because it has become a commodity. Carr writes:    (OL)

What makes a resource truly strategic — what gives it the capacity to be the basis for a sustained competitive advantage — is not ubiquity but scarcity. You only gain an edge over rivals by having or doing something that they can’t have or do. By now, the core functions of IT — data storage, data processing, and data transport — have become available and affordable to all. Their very power and presence have begun to transform them from potentially strategic resources into commodity factors of production. They are becoming costs of doing business that must be paid by all but provide distinction to none. (42)    (OM)

IT, according to Carr, is infrastructural technology, and like the infrastructural technology of the past (e.g. railroads, power grid, etc.), once it’s built-out, the potential competitive advantages for individual companies go away. Just as most companies don’t develop strategies centered around usage of electricity, neither should they invest considerable resources into developing strategies centered around IT.    (ON)

Based on this argument, Carr proposes three “new rules for IT management”:    (OO)

  • Spend less    (OP)
  • Follow, don’t lead    (OQ)
  • Focus on vulnerabilities, not opportunities    (OR)

He closes his article by saying:    (OS)

IT management should, frankly, become boring. The key to success, for the vast majority of companies, is no longer to seek advantage aggressively but to manage costs and risks meticulously. If, like many executives, you’ve begun to take a more defensive posture toward IT in the last two years, spending more frugally and thinking more pragmatically, you’re already on the right course. The challenge will be to maintain that discipline when the business cycle strengthens and the chorus of hype about IT’s strategic value rises anew. (49)    (OT)

The “vast majority of companies” is the only disclaimer in the entire article, but it’s enough to appease me somewhat. Carr is absolutely right. Most companies are not in the position to leverage IT in innovative and strategic ways, because they lack the in-house expertise. This is evident in how most companies overspend on IT — for example, on upgrading PCs and software too aggressively.    (OU)

However, while many things we associate with IT have indeed become commoditized, I still don’t think it’s right to call IT as a whole a commodity. Perhaps the problem is with the breadth of the term; we need something more concrete in scope.    (OV)

This is somewhat evident in Farrell’s article, where she addresses the famous Productivity Paradox. In the past 10 years, national productivity numbers have increased significantly, and yet, upon closer examination of the data, Farrell did not find a significant correlation with investments into IT. According to Farrell, a combination of innovations in technology and business practices is responsible for the productivity increase. These productivity increases intensify competition, which then starts this cycle of innovation anew.    (OW)

Farrell concedes Carr’s point about the rapid diffusion of IT eroding individual competitive advantage. However, she also notes that coupling IT with more unique capabilities restores that advantage.    (OX)

Farrell concludes her article by identifying three common practices in companies that have successfully invested in IT:    (OY)

  • They targeted investments at productivity levers that mattered most for their industries and themselves.    (OZ)
  • They carefully thought through the sequence and timing of investments.    (P0)
  • They didn’t pursue IT in isolation; instead, they developed managerial innovations in tandem with technological ones.    (P1)

This last point is crucial. IT is inherently different from other infrastructural technologies in that its potential for coevolution is enormous and still largely unexplored.    (P2)

George Soros: “The Bubble of American Supremacy”

George Soros has an excellent article in this month’s The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “The Bubble of American Supremacy,” where he decries the neoconservative Bush doctrine and proposes an alternative. Soros compares the Bush doctrine to a financial bubble:    (OE)

The quest for American supremacy qualifies as a bubble. The dominant position the United States occupies in the world is the element of reality that is being distorted. The proposition that the United States will be better off if it uses its position to impose its values and interests everywhere is the misconception. It is exactly by not abusing its power that America attained its current position. (65)    (OF)

One of Soros’s criticisms is that framing our fight against terrorism as a “war” instead of “crime-fighting” dooms it to failure. (See my previous entry on George Lakoff and framing.) War assumes that there is an enemy state, which is not currently the case. Terrorism has always been a problem (although the scope and form in which it took place on September 11 was unprecedented), and will never completely go away. Worse, war implies and, in some ways, condones the existence of innocent victims, some of whom will undoubtedly become terrorists themselves in response. Soros says:    (OG)

The most powerful country in the world cannot afford to be consumed by fear. To make the war on terrorism the centerpiece of our national strategy is an abdication of our responsibility as the leading nation in the world. Moreover, by allowing terrorism to become our principal preoccupation, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands. They are setting our priorities. (66)    (OH)

Soros concludes by proposing a cooperative approach towards building collective security:    (OI)

I propose replacing the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action with preventative action of a constructive and affirmative nature. Increased foreign aid or better and fairer trade rules, for example, would not violate the sovereignty of the recipients. Military action should remain a last resort. The United States is currently preoccupied with issues of security, and rightly so. But the framework within which to think about security is collective security. Neither nuclear proliferation nor international terrorism can be successfully addressed without international cooperation. The world is looking to us for leadership. We have provided it in the past; the main reason why anti-American feelings are so strong in the world today is that we are not providing it in the present. (66)    (OJ)

Church of Purple: The IDs the Thing

Some interesting posts in the blogosphere today that are relevant to Purple Numbers. First, Seb Paquet pointed to Matt Mower‘s recent “Show Anchors” bookmarklet, which displays named anchors on an HTML page. It’s a good hack, and it will hopefully encourage people to do more fine-grained linking, which is one reason for Purple Numbers.    (NW)

Second, Bill Seitz referenced Bob Du Charme’s article earlier this year on the deprecation of the “name” attribute for the new (but optional) “id” attribute in HTML, and asked whether this is relevant to Purple Numbers. It’s very relevant. Widespread use of ID attributes will hopefully make people understand the value of stable IDs for addressing (as opposed to the relative addressing enabled by things like XPointer).    (NX)

Purple Numbers are about two things: Making people aware of fine-grained addressability, and assigning stable IDs to each of these chunks. The former is what most people see, but good UIs will eventually (hopefully) make this feature irrelevant. The latter is the truly important contribution.    (NY)

Church Of Purple    (NZ)

As an aside, earlier this month, what started as an innocent question about blogging on the Collaboration Collaboratory turned into a massive discussion about many things, including Purple Numbers. At one point, I casually threw out the term, “Church Of Purple,” which Chris Dent and I had often used in our private conversations. Woe was me.    (O0)

We have a lot of smart members and some great discussions. The truth, however, is that half of our members are crazy. Peter Jones embodies our group’s split personality, mixing in profound comments with witticisms that usually leave me shaking my head and holding my sides. Peter decided that all good churches require a T-shirt, hymn, and Bible, and he proposed a few candidates for the latter. Chris has already blogged Peter’s Church Of Purple hymn (a merciless parody of Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze). Here’s Peter’s excerpt from the Book of Purple:    (O1)

And lo, Engelbart looked down upon the text and saw that there were unidentified paragraphs, and that the lack of identifiers was a pestilence upon the augmentation.    (O2)

Perhaps deciding that Peter wasn’t being silly enough, Chris concocted a logo for the Church Of Purple, which I have dutifully added to this blog.    (O3)

Out of the silliness emerged perhaps the best example for why we need Purple Numbers, courtesy of Matt Schneider (and also blogged by Chris). Matt recounted an encounter with his then 82-year old father:    (O4)

I handed him a Bible and Hawaii (he’s a big Michener fan). I asked him to quickly turn to paragraph 536 of Hawaii. He looked over the top of his glasses at me. I smiled and then asked him to turn to Psalm 23:4. Light went on.    (O5)

December GivingSpace Workshop

There were several interesting presentations at Tom Munnecke‘s December 11 GivingSpace workshop, as well as some worthwhile discussion. Some quick thoughts and tidbits:    (NA)

The workshop began with one of Paul Andrews‘s Improbable Pairs videos. This one told the story of Yitzhak Frankenthal, an Israeli whose son was killed by Palestinians, and Jawad Tibi, a Palestinian whose brothers were killed by the Israeli military. Their tales are gutwrenching, but rather than respond with hatred, the two formed a group called the Parents Bereavement Forum, a support group for both Israeli and Palestinian families personally affected by the violence. Paul filmed and edited their stories masterfully. The video was only about ten minutes, but there was not a dry eye in the audience.    (NB)

Heather Wood-Ion gave a marvelous talk on transformation. An analogy she made that stood out for me was that the mythology in nonprofits centers around martyrdom. Words like “sacrifice” and “suffering” are bandied about. The mythology in forprofits centers around heroes. There, people talk about building legacies. These attitudes explain why nonprofits are so poor at collaborating with each other. There is a sense that martyrdom and collaboration are mutually exclusive. People want to share their stories of suffering, not of what went right and why. (There was some followup discussion about this at the Blue Oxen Collaboration Collaboratory.)    (NC)

Megan Smith, one of the founders of Planet Out and currently a Reuters Digital Visions Fellow at Stanford and an employee at Google, explained the 2/3 rule: Two-thirds of every successful community on the Internet consists of conversations. Successful sites, she said, are good at gardening those conversations. Megan also described a giant LCD map of the world at the Google offices. When someone in the world queries Google, a light blinks at that location on the map. What strikes Megan is that there are entire regions of the world that are always dark, a vivid visual reminder of the digital divide. In addition to being a clear thinker and a dynamic storyteller, Megan also demonstrated a diplomat’s touch, when she very skillfully and transparently defused an exchange between participants that had gotten very heated.    (ND)

Jerry Michalski explained his acronym du jour: MADA (Memory, Analysis, Discourse, Action). MADA struck me as an excellent (better?) synthesis for what Doug Engelbart calls CoDIAK (Collective Development, Integration, and Application of Knowledge). Jerry had the line of the workshop, when he pointed to the conversation map that Megan had drawn on the white board, and said, “All that discussion without memory and analysis is like going around in a giant circle jerk.” Jerry also suggested that business are partially to blame for why we don’t have better tools for group memory. Business of culture, he observed, don’t want us to have a memory. They want us to buy what they’re currently telling us we need. (See also my previous notes on group memory.)    (NE)

Richard Gabriel talked about the Hillside Group and Pattern Languages. He said that the Hillside Group “practices an aggressive disregard for novelty.” Jerry, incidentally, called Pattern Languages “deglazed wisdom.” Jerry was on fire that day.    (NF)

We participated in a Conversation Cafe for the latter part of the workshop. The topic was, “What can we do to create self-organizing systems that discover and replicate positive, scalable, small things?” We broke into several small groups, sat at different tables in the “cafe,” and drew on butcher paper as we talked. Here’s an excerpt from a previous blog entry about one of those conversations:    (NG)

Another great example of the challenges of SharedLanguage cropped up at the GivingSpace workshop in SanFrancisco last Thursday. Six of us were discussing small, concrete steps that lead to transformation, and HeatherNewbold described how MattGonzalez? for Mayor campaign buttons had galvanized the progressive community in SanFrancisco. Four of us knew exactly what Heather was describing, because we lived in the Bay Area and followed local politics. All she had to do was mention the buttons, and we understood what she meant. The other two people at our table, however, had no idea what we were talking about. One was from SanDiego, and the other simply didn’t follow politics.  T    (NH)

Here are the two products of the conversations at our table, courtesy of Fen Labalme.    (NI)

Every time I participate in one of these workshops, I find myself paying close attention to the facilitation itself, inevitably comparing it to other experiences. Shelley Hamilton’s technique shared some similarities with the MGTaylor process, and at one point, she cited Stuart Kaufman’s work, which also inspired Matt Taylor and Gail Taylor. Overall, Shelley did a good job. I especially liked the Conversation Cafe. The one thing I didn’t like was that there was no Report Out session following the cafe. It would have been nice to have had a group session where we summarized our conversations and sought connections between those summaries.    (NJ)