Misguided Adventures in Stale Knowledge Repositories

Greg Bloom, the founder of the Open Referral project, recently published a project Year in Review. He opened by succinctly telling the story of Open Referral:

We started Open Referral to address a systemic problem: it’s hard to find trustworthy information about the health, human, and social services available for people in need. We have many sources of community resource directory information — with more emerging all the time — but they all struggle to sustain themselves while trying to meet the diverse needs of their communities, and competing with each other (by default or by design) along the way.

We know that it shouldn’t be technologically hard to solve this problem by enabling community resource information systems to cooperate with each other — but it will take a movement to make it happen.

Not only is this a very clear description of the problem Open Referral is trying to solve, this is a very clear description of a problem that many communities have.

Many communities of practice that I work with have a simpler, but no less nefarious version of this same problem. Sharing resources and articles seems like high value, low-hanging fruit. This often takes the form of sharing information in-flow — on mailing lists, Slack, whatever the group’s primary messaging system might be.

This generally works well enough. Contributing and consuming are both easy, and there’s no cost to the information going stale, because you’re using a channel that’s essentially disposable. Sometimes, the channels even include searchable archives, which give you some measure of persistence.

At some point, someone almost always has the bright idea to compile a repository of resources on the web. This almost never works well. People are rarely thoughtful or — more importantly — iterative about figuring out how to contribute, curate, and consume these resources. And so these projects fail.

There aren’t good turnkey solutions for this. The reason is that it’s a hard, context-dependent problem. Good solutions are possible, but you have to commit to being iterative and experimental. If you’re not already iterative and experimental, you can get there through commitment and practice. Doing so is, ultimately, a social challenge, not a technical one.

Greg is grappling with a harder problem, but he’s doing it the right way — by treating it as a social problem, and incorporating technology in a thoughtful way. It’s really cool to see a lot of hard work start to pay off.

Recommended Readings on Doug Engelbart’s Ideas

Earlier this month, someone asked me for the best resources to learn about Doug Engelbart’s work. Doug didn’t publish prolifically, but he wrote quite a bit, and some of his papers are must-read classics. You can find most of his writing and many other great resources at the Doug Engelbart Institute, which is curated by his daughter, Christina.

Start with his classic paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”, which he published in 1962.

For Doug’s own historical overview of his work (published in 1985), read, “Workstation History and the Augmented Knowledge Workshop.”

For a deeper understanding of his conceptual framework for high-performance teams, knowledge work, and the role of technology, read, “Knowledge-Domain Interoperability and an Open Hyperdocument System” (1990) and “Toward High-Performance Organizations: A Strategic Role for Groupware” (1992).

I’ve written a lot about Doug and his work over the years, and it represents only a fraction of what I learned from him. For a high-level overview of his work and why I think he’s so important, start with my tribute to him when he passed away in 2013 (“Inventing the mouse was the least of it”) as well as my more personal tribute.

Brad Neuberg also wrote an excellent overview of Doug’s ideas. There are also short video clips of me, Brad, Jon Cheyer, and Adam Cheyer at a memorial service for Doug that I think are worth watching.

Luisa Beck did a great podcast earlier this year for 99% Invisible on Doug’s design philosophy, featuring Christina and Larry Tesler.

For more down-and-dirty essays about and inspired by Doug’s thinking, read:

For more on Dynamic Knowledge Repositories (DKRs) and Networked Improvement Communities (NICs), read:

Finally, for a detailed repository of notes and recommendations from when I first started working with Doug in 2002, see this list. Sadly, many of the links are broken, but most are probably findable via search.

If you have others to recommend and share, please post in the comments below!

Collaboration as a System

I spent this past Saturday in Sebastopol “tutoring” Gail Taylor, Todd Johnston, and Tiffany Von Emmel on online Collaborative Tools. I lured Matthew O’Connor into helping by boasting of Gail, Todd, and Tiffany’s deep thinking about and practice of collaboration.    (LVC)

One of our exercises was to walk through all of our respective digital workspaces, demonstrating how we read and wrote email, and worked with online tools. I had gotten some idea of how Matthew worked when we paired at the Wikithon earlier this month, but I was still blown away by his walkthrough. He’s really thought deeply about his work processes and has optimized his online workspace accordingly.    (LVD)

Matthew expressed surprise that he was the only one who had done this, especially since I had proclaimed these folks to be gurus. I didn’t have a chance to discuss this with him on Saturday, so I thought I’d post some thoughts about that here.    (LVE)

To be good at collaboration, you have to treat it as a system. That system includes things like communication, community, Knowledge Management, learning, and leadership.    (LVF)

Most Collaborative Tools companies are either in the communication or the Knowledge Management business. They’re usually selling pipes, PIMs, or document management tools. All of those things have something to do with collaboration, but they are not in and of themselves collaboration. Then again, no tools are. A hammer is a tool for hammering, but it is not itself hammering.    (LVG)

When I think about High-Performance Collaboration, I envision groups with excellent Group Information Hygiene. Ideally, you’d also like every member of the group to have outstanding Personal Information Hygiene (like Matthew), but it’s not a prerequisite. You’d like to see every member to be past a certain threshold of competence for all aspects of the system, but I don’t think it’s necessary for everyone to be great at all those things. On a great basketball team, you’d like everyone to be in good shape and have good fundamentals, but some players are going to be superior shooters while others will be great rebounders. It’s not necessary, nor realistic, nor possibly desirable to have 12 Magic Johnsons on a team.    (LVH)

Implicit in my One Small Change post is that there is no one thing. I can think of a number of small, concrete changes that could result in significant improvements in collaboration. This is one of the main reasons why Pattern Languages — collections of named, concrete patterns — are fundamental to The Blue Oxen Way.    (LVI)

Personal Information Hygiene is a critical pattern, because it fosters trust. My advice to groups with trust issues would be to eschew squishy exercises and look at people’s Personal Information Hygiene instead. However, past a certain level, I don’t see great Personal Information Hygiene as being the primary hallmark of a great collaborator.    (LVJ)

Good Personal Information Hygiene

Chris Dent and I were chatting about my recent forays into David Allen‘s Getting Things Done, which led to this classic line from Chris:    (KXN)

Someday someone, maybe one of us, will poop out a “collaboration requires good personal information hygiene” thing.    (KXO)

Consider this post a poop.    (KXP)

When we founded Blue Oxen Associates, we were supposed to be a place for those on the cutting edge of collaboration. I quickly discovered that most people who want or claim to be on the cutting edge are held back by poor Personal Information Hygiene. People need to start with themselves before they worry about the group if they want to improve their ability to collaborate. (This is a general theme that extends beyond Knowledge Management.)    (KXQ)

Signs of poor Personal Information Hygiene:    (KXR)

  • Not keeping track of action items. (Not delivering on them is a sign of poor work discipline.)    (KXS)
  • Constantly asking questions that have been answered before. (This is also a great sign of poor Collective I Q.)    (KXT)
  • Asking to resend an email rather than looking things up yourself.    (KXU)
  • Losing track of email (including not responding quickly).    (KXV)

I have good Personal Information Hygiene, with two exceptions: I don’t answer email promptly, and I have a poor paper filing system (hence my recent foray into GTD). My digital information repository, on the other hand, is excellent — well linked and decently refactored. I generally find what I’m looking for and sometimes even find things I’m not looking for. I’ve started collecting some of my habits on my public Wiki at Life Hacks.    (KXW)

(Bill Seitz has often strongly expressed a similar view — that good organizational Knowledge Management needs to start with good Personal Information Hygiene. See his Wiki page on PersonalKnowledgemanagement.)    (KXX)

Extreme Learning

This “Extreme” business is getting a bit out of control, but Jay Cross has written a great piece for CLO (April 2005) entitled, “Extreme Learning: Decision Games.” Jay describes to Knowledge Management companies based in Singapore — Straits Knowledge and Pebble Road — who were commissioned to help companies learn how to do business in China.    (JS7)

Foreign businesspeople new to China have an extraordinarily difficult time learning to sense and respond to the culture’s complexities. They don’t need more information — they need to be able to read what’s going on so they will know how to use the information they’ve got. Until now, no one could figure out how to transfer the insight of experienced foreign entrepreneurs.    (JS8)

These two companies attacked the problem by creating decision games, asking participants to work through scenarios, then having experts explain what would happen and why.    (JS9)

These decision games repeatedly test a person’s judgment and knowledge while allowing them to engage with business colleagues in a complex and ambiguous environment. While they are learning about a particular domain, participants also gain insight into the perspectives, styles and capabilities of their colleagues.    (JSA)

Think about it: Exposing novices to multiple ways of seeing and sizing up situations is how expertise is built. Switching the focus from teaching content to challenging contexts intensifies learning. Participants become so involved, they don’t even break for coffee.    (JSB)

This is a fantastic, collaborative alternative to traditional top-down teaching.    (JSC)