Category Archives: Work

From bureaucracy to agility

Last year, I referred to a post by Olivier Amprimo, who was then at Headshift. He is now working at the National Library Board in Singapore, and is still sharing really interesting thoughts. The latest is a presentation he gave to the Information and Knowledge Management Society in Singapore on “The Adaptation of Organisations to a Knowledge Economy and the Contribution of Social Computing“. I have embedded it below.

For me, the interesting facet of what Olivier describes is the transition from bureaucratic organisations to agile ones, and what that means for KM. Traditional KM reflects what Olivier isolates in the bureaucratic organisation, especially the problem he describes as the confusion between administrative work and intellectual work. In doing traditional KM (repositories of knowledge, backed up with metrics based on volume) we run the risk that administrative work is enshrined as the only work of value. However, it is the intellectual work where agility can be generated, and where real value resides.

Olivier describes the agile organisation as one where the focus is on rationalisation of design.

What is important is how the individual forms and is conditioned by work. The work is the facilitator. This is the first time that the individual has been in this position. This is where the knowledge economy really starts.

I found an example of the kind of agility that Olivier refers to in an unexpected place: a short account of the work of Jeff Jonas, who is the chief scientist of IBM’s Entity Analytics group. His work with data means that he is an expert in manipulating it and getting answers to security-related questions for governmental agencies and Las Vegas casinos. For example, he describes how he discussed data needs with a US intelligence analyst:

“What do you wish you could have if you could have anything?” Jonas asked her. Answers to my questions faster, she said. “It sounds reasonable,” Jonas told the audience, “but then I realized it was insane.” Insane, because “What if the question was not a smart question today, but it’s a smart question on Thursday?” Jonas says.

The point is, we cannot assume that data needed to answer the query existed and been recorded before the query was asked. In other words, it’s a timing problem.

Jonas works with data and technology, but what he says resonates for people too. When we store documents and information in big repositories and point search engines at them, we don’t create the possibility of intelligent knowledge use. The only thing we get is faster access to old (and possibly dead) information.

According to Jonas, organizations need to be asking questions constantly if they want to get smarter. If you don’t query your data and test your previous assumptions with each new piece of data that you get, then you’re not getting smarter.

Jonas related an example of a financial scam at a bank. An outside perpetrator is arrested, but investigators suspect he may have been working with somebody inside the bank. Six months later, one of the employees changes their home address in payroll system to the same address as in the case. How would they know that occurred, Jonas asked. “They wouldn’t know. There’s not a company out there that would have known, unless they’re playing the game of data finds data and the relevance finds the user.”

This led Jonas to expound his first principle. “If you do not treat new data in your enterprise as part of a question, you will never know the patterns, unless someone asks.”

Constantly asking questions and evaluating new pieces of data can help an organization overcome what Jonas calls enterprise amnesia. “The smartest your organization can be is the net sum of its perceptions,” Jonas told COMMON attendees.

And:

Getting smarter by asking questions with every new piece of data is the same as putting a picture puzzle together, Jonas said. This is something that Jonas calls persistent context. “You find one piece that’s simply blades of grass, but this is the piece that connects the windmill scene to the alligator scene,” he says. “Without this one piece that you asked about, you’d have no way of knowing these two scenes are connected.”

Sometimes, new pieces reverse earlier assertions. “The moment you process a new transaction (a new puzzle piece) it has the chance of changing the shape of the puzzle, and right before you go to the next piece, you ask yourself, ‘Did I learn something that matters?'” he asks. “The smartest your organization is going to be is considering the importance right when the data is being stitched together.”

Very like humans, then? A characteristic of what we do in making sense of the world around us is drawing analogies between events and situations: finding matching patterns. This can only be done if we have a constant awareness of what we already know coupled with a desire to use new information to create a new perspective on that. That sounds like an intellectual exercise to me.

It’s not my problem

As I was catching up on my RSS feeds this morning, something by Jack Vinson caught my attention.

Tools of the trade

When LinkedIn launched groups, in which like-minded people could discuss topics of common interest, it seemed like a sensible idea. Unfortunately, it is much easier to start a group than to search for an existing one, so there are many groups covering similar ground. As a result, one ends up being a member of a multitude of groups and participating in none.

Unlike me, however, Jack has engaged with some of these discussions, and in one in particular (referenced in his blog post) he tries to move the responses to a standard question in an interesting direction.

The question (posed by a knowledge manager in the mining industry) was simple enough:

I need to put together an AFE (authorization for expenditure) to start the KM program in my company, but the executives are still asking ROI questions. They have the mandate to innovate but just don’t get it. KM is about setting the baseline for indirect ROI or am I wrong?

Naturally enough, this produced some interesting answers focusing on measuring ROI or on ways of persuading the executives by other means. Jack’s response came from at the problem from a different angle:

Maybe it is not time to implement software? Instead approach the executives with the problems they have articulated (such as “innovation”), and propose changes to the process that will help remove or reduce the severity of the problems. A lot of that will have to do with the way people work, regardless of whether there is specific software in place to make it happen. What can you do with the software you have today? What could you do in addition if you were to buy the software you are proposing to buy?

I found this recasting of the question really valuable. Too often, issues are raised about the ROI of particular interventions (social software, KM activities, and so on), but account is rarely taken of the price of doing nothing. The fact is that these projects are rarely undertaken for their own sake — at least, they shouldn’t be. Instead, they are (or should be) proposals to deal with an existing business problem. That problem usually belongs to someone else — whether that be a manager in a particular part of the business, or someone in the leadership team. As Dave Snowden put it in a discussion panel at last weeks KCUK conference, we need to think about what the objects of KM are. He proposed just two:

  • improving decision making
  • creating the conditions for innovation

Given that the decision making process generally belongs to someone else, they need to judge whether (a) it is in need of improvement and (b) how best to improve it. We have a role in helping them with those judgments (by showing them alternatives, for example), but they have to make the call whether a KM approach is the right one.

Ultimately, then, it is our job to show people what is possible, and to offer a variety of options for resolving problems. Our preference for one solution over another may well be misinformed — we can rarely appreciate the full context. That is one reason why many big KM projects have failed in the past — they were not driven by the business, and so the investment that really counts was missing.

What do we talk about when we talk about work?

For too long, I have had Theodore Zeldin’s little book, Conversation, on my wish-list. Prompted by a colleague’s comment I finally tracked a copy down. (It is out of print, but extremely easy to find on Amazon or Abebooks.) I wish I had done so sooner.

The word ‘conversation’ is scattered throughout this blog. Like many others, I have made the assumption that people at work converse readily with each other and that one of our challenges in making knowledge use at work better is to capture those conversations or their product in as simple a way as possible. Zeldin’s argument is that in fact we do not know how to converse.

[T]he more we talk, the less there is that we can talk about with confidence. We have nearly all of us become experts, specialised in one activity. A professor of inorganic chemistry tells me that he can’t understand what the professor of organic chemistry says. An economist openly admits that “Learning to be an economist is like learning a foreign language, in which you talk about a rational world which exists only in theory.” The Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies [sic], established to bring all the world’s great minds together, was disappointed to find that they did not converse much: Einstein, a colleague said, “didn’t need anybody to talk to because nobody was interested in his stuff, and he wasn’t interested in what anybody else was doing.”

No wonder many young people hesitate to embark on highly specialised careers which make them almost feel they are entering prison cells. … Even a BBC producer I met in the corridors of Broadcasting House, when I asked how his job was affecting his brain, said, “The job is narrowing my mind.”

Poor quality conversations don’t just happen at work — Zeldin sees the problem manifested (in different ways) in the family, in love and generally across our social interactions. Our focus, however, is work. What is Zeldin’s prescription?

Almost everyone says that the more varied the people they meet at work, the more fun it is, though often they exchange only a few words. But creativity usually needs to be fuelled by more than polite chat. At the frontiers of knowledge, adventurous researchers have to be almost professional eavesdroppers, picking up ideas from the most unobvious sources.

Zeldin’s book was published in 1998. A year later, David Weinberger made the link between good conversation and KM.

The promise of KM is that it’ll make your organization smarter. That’s not an asset. It’s not a thing of any sort. Suppose for the moment that knowledge is a conversation. Suppose making your organization smarter means raising the level of conversation. After all, the aim of KM was never to take knowledge from the brain of a smart person and bury it inside some other container like a document or a database. The aim was to share it, and that means getting it talked about.

This view puts KM at the heart of business since business is a conversation. … It’s not just that good managers manage by having lots of conversations… All the work that moves the company forward is accomplished through conversations —oral, written, and expressed in body language.

So, here’s a definition of that pesky and borderline elitist phrase, “knowledge worker”: A knowledge worker is someone whose job entails having really interesting conversations at work.

The characteristics of conversations map to the conditions for genuine knowledge generation and sharing: They’re unpredictable interactions among people speaking in their own voice about something they’re interested in. The conversants implicitly acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers (or else the conversation is really a lecture) and risk being wrong in front of someone else. And conversations overcome the class structure of business, suspending the org chart at least for a little while.

If you think about the aim of KM as enabling better conversations rather than lassoing stray knowledge doggies, you end up focusing on breaking down the physical and class barriers to conversation. And if that’s not what KM is really about, then you ought to be doing it anyway.

One of the ways that we can encourage good conversations is to expose people to a wider variety of experiences and inputs than they would expect for themselves. I mentioned in a previous post how important this is for designers. It is important for all professionals. Likewise, one of the key factors improving people’s collaboration and knowledge sharing through better conversations is familiarity with other people. In most workplaces, it is obvious that different groups engage with each other in different ways depending on how their physical proximity and familiarity. We can influence these factors architecturally.

Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille) makes this point in an interview in The McKinsey Quarterly. Talking about the Pixar studio building, he said:

Steve Jobs basically designed this building. In the center, he created this big atrium area, which seems initially like a waste of space. The reason he did it was that everybody goes off and works in their individual areas. People who work on software code are here, people who animate are there, and people who do designs are over there. Steve put all the mailboxes, the meeting rooms, the cafeteria, and, most insidiously and brilliantly, the bathrooms in the center — which initially drove us crazy — so that you run into everybody during the course of a day. He realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. So he made it impossible not to run into the rest of the company.

That’s great if one has the opportunity to influence architecture. What can we do otherwise? Zeldin might be able to come to the rescue. He has created The Oxford Muse: “A foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life.” One of their projects is Muse Conversations:

At the invitation of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, we organised a Muse Conversation Dinner. The participants sat at tables laid for two, each with a partner they had never met before. A Muse Conversation Menu listed 24 topics through which they could discover what sort of person they were meeting, their ideas on many different aspects of life, such as ambition, curiosity, fear, friendship, the relations of the sexes and of civilisations. One eminent participant said he would never again give a dinner party without this Muse Menu, because he hated superficial chat. Another said he had in just two hours made a friend who was closer than many he had known much longer. A third said he had never revealed so much about himself to anybody except his wife. Self-revelation is the foundation on which mutual trust is built.

Even short of this, there are all sorts of small things that we can do. I think the important thing is to be aware (and to spread the awareness) that there are always more interesting things to know than what we already know, and that the people who know them are interesting in their own right. We just need to seek them out.

[A credit and an apology. The latter is due to Raymond Carver for corrupting a title of his. Mary Abraham is owed the former: colleague mentioned Conversation after I referred him to Mary’s post, “Confessions of a Corporate Matchmaker”, which underlines the point that those responsible for KM have an essential part to play in generating good connections from which good conversations should flow.]

Star-shaped workers

Jason Plant drew my attention today to an old HBR article: “Introducing T-Shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation“. The article, by Morten T. Hansen and Bolko von Oetinger, dates from 2001 and shows how much our views on KM have changed over the past eight years. It starts by asserting that centralised knowledge management efforts and those depending on technology have not been especially successful. The alternative, it is suggested, depends on people behaving differently.

We suggest another approach, one that requires managers to change their behavior and the way they spend their time. The approach is novel but, when properly implemented, quite powerful.

We call the approach T-shaped management. It relies on a new kind of executive, one who breaks out of the traditional corporate hierarchy to share knowledge freely across the organization (the horizontal part of the “T”) while remaining fiercely committed to individual business unit performance (the vertical part). The successful T-shaped manager must learn to live with, and ultimately thrive within, the tension created by this dual responsibility.

The question the authors pose next remains an interesting one, but for different reasons. “Why rely so heavily on managers to share knowledge?” The alternative they pose is a knowledge management system.

The trouble is that, while those systems are good at transferring explicit knowledge—for example, the template needed to perform a complicated but routine task—direct personal contact is typically needed to effectively transfer implicit knowledge—the kind that must be creatively applied to particular business problems or opportunities and is crucial to the success of innovation-driven companies. Furthermore, merely moving documents around can never engender the degree of collaboration that’s needed to generate new insights. For that, companies really have to bring people together to brainstorm.

But why concentrate on managers to do this brainstorming and collaboration? The article (or at least the excerpt available online) does not appear to admit the possibility that workers at a lower level might have a responsibility to share knowledge, or that they would even be able to reach outside their silos to people at a similar level in different business units.

Eight years later, it is clear that what we actually need is not T-shaped managers, but *-shaped workers. That is, people who can share knowledge effectively within their business unit (with junior and senior co-workers): | , with colleagues at the same level in different business units: — , and even others at different levels in other areas of the business: / and \ .

Adding all these pieces together: | — / \ we get a star shape or asterisk: * . I think that is a reasonable goal for people in modern businesses: to share knowledge freely, without respect for organisational boundaries or hierarchy. Any business that relies on T-shaped managers is likely to miss the benefits offered by wider knowledge sharing. Organisations with star-shaped workers will make the most of their knowledge.

Why are we doing this KM thing?

I was reading Strategic Intuition (there will be more on this fascinating book at a later date) on the train home yesterday, and was prompted to ask myself an odd question: “why are we doing knowledge management? What will be different, and for whom?”

The passage that made me ask this question was a description of a firefighter’s decision-making process.

Never once did he set a goal, list options, weigh the options, and decide among them. First he applied pressure, then he picked the strongest but newest crew member to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher, and then in the truck they put the victim into the inflatable pants. Formal protocol or normal procedure certainly gave him other options — examine the victim for other wounds before moving him, put the victim into the inflatable pants right away, and assign someone experienced to bear the greatest weight of the stretcher — but Lieutenant M never considered them.

The researcher whose work is described here (Gary Klein) started out with the hypothesis that the decision-making process would conform to the model of a defined goal, followed by iterative consideration of a series of options. However, he rapidly discovered that this model was wrong. Instead, what he saw in the experts that he studied (not only firefighters, but soldiers in battle, nurses, and other professionals) was overwhelmingly intuitive weighing of single options. (There is more in the book about why this is.)

We often talk about decision-making processes, and one of the goals of knowledge management is often to improve those processes by, for example, ensuring better access to information, or by honing the processes themselves (the HBR article by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone on “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” is an excellent example of the latter). Although these activities may well improve decision-making, those decisions are ultimately made by people — not processes. The question I posed for myself, then, was: what impact does KM have on people? Exactly how will they be better at decision-making as a result of our work?

My instinctive answer is that I want them to become experts (and therefore able to act swiftly and correctly in an emergency) in whatever field they work in. That means that we should always return our focus to the people in our organisations, and respond to their needs (taking into account the organisation’s direction and focus), rather than thinking solely about building organisational edifices. The more time that is spent on repositories, processes, structures, or documentation, the less is available for working with people. In becoming experts in our own field, we also need to be more instinctive.

Coincidentally, I read two blog posts about experts over the weekend. The first was Arnold Zwicky bringing some linguistic sanity to counter fevered journalistic criticism of ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’.

Kristof is undercutting one set of “experts”, people who propose to predict the future. Lord knows, such people are sitting ducks, especially in financial matters (though I believe they do better in some other domains), and it’s scarcely a surprise that so many of them get it wrong.

Other “experts” offer aesthetic judgments… and still others exhibit competence in diagnosis and treatment…, and stlll others simply possess extensive knowledge about some domain…

The links between these different sorts of expert/expertise are tenuous, though not negligible. Meanings radiate in different directions from earlier meanings, but the (phonological/orthographic shapes of the) words remain. The result is the mildly Whorfian one that people are inclined to view the different meanings as subtypes of a single meaning, just because they are manifested in the same phonological/orthographic shapes. So experts of one sort are tainted with the misdeeds of another.

Expertise that results from real experience, study, insight, rationality and knowledge does not deserve to be shunned as mere pontification. It can save lives.

The other blog post, by Duncan Work, is a commentary on a New Scientist report about how people react to advice they believe to be expert. It appears that key areas in their brains simply turn off — they surrender the decision-making process to the expert.

This phenomenon has both adaptive and non-adaptive effects.

It is evolutionarily adaptive by being a “conformity-enforcing” phenomenon that can kick in when a large group needs to quickly move in the same direction in order to survive a big threat.   It’s also adaptive when the issues are extremely complex and most members of the population don’t have the knowledge or experience to really evaluate the risks and make a good decision.

It is evolutionarily non-adaptive when there is still a lot of confusion around the issue, when the experts themselves don’t agree, and when many experts are guided by narrow interests that don’t serve the group (like increasing and protecting their own personal prestige and wealth).

The real problem is not just that many of the crises now facing businesses are founded in actions, decisions and behaviours that few people understand. It is that we make no distinction between different categories of expert, and so we follow them all blindly. At the same time, as the New York Times op-ed piece critiqued by Zwicky illustrates, many of us do not actually respect experts. In fact, what we don’t respect are people who style themselves experts, but who are actually driven by other interests (as Work points out).

So if our KM work is at least in part to make people into experts, we probably need to rescue the word from the clutches of people who profess expertise without actually having any.

Book Review: Generation Blend

I have already voiced my scepticism about Generation Y, so it may seem odd that I chose to buy Rob Salkowitz’s book Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. However, there is a lot in this book that does not depend on an uncritical acceptance of the “generations” thesis. It provides a sound practical basis for any business that wants to, in Salkowitz’s words, “develop practices and deploy technology to attract, motivate, and empower workers of all ages.”

As one might expect, underpinning Generation Blend is the thesis that there are clear generational (not age-related) differences that affect how people approach and use technology. In this, Salkowitz builds on Neil Howe and William Strauss’s book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069. However, generational differences are not the starting point for the book. Instead, Salkowitz begins by showing how technology itself has changed the working environment irrevocably. In doing so, he establishes the purpose of the book: to allow organisations to develop the most suitable strategy to help their people to cope with those changes (and the many more to come).

Organizations invest in succeeding waves of new technology — and thus subject their workers to waves of changes in their lives and workstyles — to increase their productivity and competitiveness. Historically, productivity has increased when new technology replaced labor-intensive processes, first with mechanical machinery, and now electronic information systems. (p. 24)

Dave Snowden has started an interesting analysis of these waves of change, and Andrew McAfee’s research shows that IT makes a difference for organisations. What Salkowitz does in Generation Blend is to provide real, practical, insights into the way in which organisations can make the most of the abilities of all generations when faced with new technology. When he does discuss the generations, it is important to remember that his perspective is entirely a US-centric one. That said, the rest of the book is generally applicable. This is Salkowitz’s strength — he recognises that there are real exceptions to the broad brush of generational study, and his guidance focuses on clear issues with which it is difficult to disagree. As one of the section headings puts it, “software complexity restricts the talent pool,” so the target is to accommodate different generational approaches in order to loosen that restriction. Chapter 3 of the book closes with a set of tables outlining different generational attributes. I found these very useful in that they focused the mind on the behaviours and attitudes affecting people’s approach to technology, rather than as a hard-and-fast description of the different generations.

Salkowitz’s approach can be illuminated by comparing three passages on blogging.

The open, unsupervised quality of blogs can be deeply unsettling to people who have internalized the notion that good information comes only from trusted institutions, credentialed individuals, or valid ideological perspectives. (p. 82)

On the other hand:

Blogs and wikis create an environment where unofficial and uncredentialed contributors stand at eye level with traditionally authoritative sources of knowledge. This is perfectly natural to GenXers, who believe that performance and competence should be the sole criteria for authority. (p. 147)

And, quoting Dave Pollard with approval:

“I’d always expected that the younger and more tech-savvy people in any organization would be able to show (not tell) the older and more tech-wary people how to use new tools easily and effectively. But in thirty years in business, I’ve almost never seen this happen. Generation Millennium will use IM, blogs, and personal web pages (internal or on public sites like LinkedIn, MySpace and FaceBook) whether they’re officially sanctioned or not, but they won’t be evangelists for these tools.” (p. 216)

 There is here, I think, a sense of Salkowitz’s desire to engage older workers as well as his concern that unwarranted assumptions about younger people’s affinity with technology could lead businesses towards the wrong courses of action.

At the heart of Generation Blend is a critique of existing technology, in which Salkowitz points out that current business software has a number of common characteristics:

  • It tends to be complex and overladen with features
  • It focuses on efficiency
  • It is driven by the need to perform tasks
  • It supports a work/life balance that is “essentially a one-way flow of work into life” (p. 147)

These characteristics have come about, Salkowitz argues, because the technology has largely been produced by and for programmers whose values and culture:

…independence, obsession with efficiency as a way to save personal time and effort, low priority on interpersonal communication skills, focus on outcomes rather than process (such as meetings or showing up on a regular schedule), seeing risk in a positive light, desire to dominate through competence — sound like the thumbnail descriptions of Generation X tossed out by management analysts. (p. 149)

Since this group is clearly comfortable with technology, and is also increasingly moving into leadership and management roles, Salkowitz provides them with guidance on making technology accessible to older workers and on making the most of the skills and insights of younger workers. He does this in general terms throughout the book, but most convincingly in the final three chapters. Two of these use narrative to show how (a) the fear can be taken out of technology for older people and (b) the younger generation can be involved directly in defining organisational strategy.

In the first of these chapters, Salkowitz describes a non-profit New York initiative, OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which trains older people in newer technologies, so that they can comfortably move into roles where those skills are needed. OATS has found that understanding the learning style of these people allows them to pick up software skills much more quickly than is commonly assumed.

While younger people learn technology by handson experimentation and trial and error, [Thomas] Kamber [OATS founder] and his team find that older learners prefer information in step-by-step instructions and value written documentation. (p. 167)

At the other end of the generational scale, Salkowitz starts with a statement that almost reads like a manifesto:

Millennials may be objects of study, but they are also, increasingly, participants in the dialogue, and it is silly (and rude) for organizations to talk about them as if they are not already in the room. (p. 190)

He goes on to illustrate the point with an account of Microsoft’s Information Worker Board of the Future, which was a “structured weeklong exercise around the future of work,” which the company used to help it understand how its strategy should develop in the future. It was judged to be a success by bringing new perspectives to the company as well as showing Microsoft to be a thought leader in this area.

…the organizational commitment to engage with Millennials as partners in the formation of a strategic vision can be as valuable as the direct knowledge gained from the engagement. Strategic planning is a crucial discipline for organizations operating in an uncertain world. When it is a closed process, conducted by experts and senior people (who inevitably bring their generational biases with them), it runs a greater risk of missing emergent trends or misjudging the potential for discontinuities that could disrupt the entire global environment. Opening up the planning process to younger perspectives as a matter of course rather than novelty hedges against the risks of generational myopia and also sends a strong positive signal to members of the rising generation. (p. 209)

Generation Blend ends with a clear exposition of the key issues that organisations need to address in order to make the most of their workers of all ages and the technology they use.

Organizations looking to effectively manage across the age gap in an increasingly sophisticated connected information workplace should ask themselves five questions:

  1. Are you clearly explaining the benefits of technology?
  2. Are you providing a business context for your technology policies?
  3. Are you making technology accessible to different workstyles?
  4. Does your organizational culture support your technology strategy?
  5. Are you building bridges instead of walls? (p. 212)

The last two of these are particularly interesting. In discussing organisational culture, Salkowitz includes careful consideration of knowledge management activities, especially using Web 2.0 tools. He is confident that workers of all generations will adapt to this approach to KM at a personal level, but points to real challenges: “[t]he real difficulties… are rooted in the business model and in the way that individual people see their jobs.” (p. 229) For Salkowitz, the solution is for the organisation to make a real and visible investment in knowledge activities — he points to the use of PSLs in UK law firms as one example of this approach. Given the tension between social and market norms that I commented on yesterday, I wonder how far this approach can be pushed successfully.

Running through Generation Blend is a thread of involvement and engagement. Salkowitz consistently advocates management approaches that accommodate different ways of extracting value from technology at work. This thread emerges in the final section of the book as an exhortation to use the best of all generations to work together for the organisation — building bridges rather than walls.

Left to themselves, workers of different ages will apply their own preconceptions and experiences of technology at work, sometimes leading to conflict and misunderstanding when generational priorities diverge. But when management demonstrates a commitment to respecting both the expectations of younger workers and the concerns of more experienced workers around technology, organizations can effectively combine the tech-savvy of the young with the knowledge and wisdom of the old in ways that make the organization more competitive, more resilient to external change, more efficient, and more open. (p. 231)

I think he is right in this, but it will be a challenge for many organizations to do this effectively, especially when they are distracted by seismic changes outside. My gut feeling is that those businesses that work hard at the internal stuff will find that their workforce is better able to deal with those external forces.

Social norms and knowledge sharing

Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, is a really eye-opening read. He deconstructs a number of traditional economic constructs with humour and insight. Most importantly, he uses careful experimentation to demonstrate exactly how irrational we are.

In the video above, Ariely talks about the difference between people’s behaviour in a situation governed by social norms by comparison with market norms. He examines this difference in Chapter 4 of the book: “The Cost of Social Norms.” Reading this chapter, I thought I had found the answer to why incentives do not work in knowledge management initiatives.

Ariely’s argument is that in a situation governed by social norms, people will help without thought of a financial reward. On the other hand, interactions governed by market norms are very different.

The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits. Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean — in fact, they also include self-reliance, inventiveness, and individualism — but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments. When you are in the domain of market norms, you get what you pay for — that’s just the way it is. (p. 68)

The trouble is that whilst knowledge sharing is at its heart a social activity, it takes place in an environment governed by market norms — the workplace. Naturally enough, there is an inclination to want to recognise good knowledge behaviours in the only way that an employer knows: financially. As Neil Richards has explained, this just does not work. Ariely describes an experiment in which people were asked to perform a mundane and fruitless task on a computer. One group was paid $5 for the task, another group just 50¢, and a third was asked to do it as a favour. The productivity of the $5 group was slightly lower than the ‘favour’ group, but the 50¢ group was over 50% less productive than the others.

Perhaps we should have anticipated this. There are many examples to show that people will work much more for a cause than for cash. A few years ago, for instance, the AARP asked some lawyers if they would offer less expensive services to needy retirees, at something like $30 an hour. The lawyers said no. Then the program manager at AARP had a brilliant idea: he asked the lawyers if they would offer free services to needy retirees. Overwhelmingly, the lawyers said yes.

What was going on here? How could zero dollars be more attractive than $30? When money was mentioned, the lawyers used market norms and found the offer lacking, relative to their market salary. When no money was mentioned they used social norms and were willing to volunteer their time. Why didn’t they just accept $30, thinking of themselves as volunteers who received $30? Because once market norms enter our considerations, social norms depart. (p. 71, my emphasis)

It is possible to use gifts to thank people for their efforts, and still stay inside the social norms. However, if one suggests that the gift has a monetary value, the market norms reassert themselves. Although Ariely doesn’t say so, I suspect that using small-scale rewards on a regular basis (such as a box of chocolates for the best contribution to know-how every month) would also be regarded as market-related. Gifts need to be a surprise to be valued as part of a social interaction.

Later in this chapter, Ariely describes how a social situation can take a long time to recover from being drawn into the market. He tells a story of a childrens’ nursery that had previously used social sanctions (guit, mainly) to control parents who picked their children up late. When the nursery started to impose fines for lateness instead, parents applied market thinking and the incidences of lateness increased. When the fines were removed, the parents continued to pick up late as they had done in the fines era — guilt no longer worked as a sanction.

One problem for some law firms is that they have given knowledge management responsibilities to a specific group of people (Professional Support Lawyers, or equivalent). Because those people (rewarded according to the market) have a defined role, it can be difficult to motivate others in the firm to share knowledge as a social obligation. Unfortunately, the market value of effective knowledge sharing is almost certainly more than most employers could afford. “Money, as it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well.” (p. 86)

Having established that the balance between social and market norms is a very senstive one, Ariely is still convinced that there is a real place for social norms in the workplace.

If corporations started thinking in terms of social norms, they would realize that these norms build loyalty and — more important — make people want to extend themselves to the degree that corporations need today: to be flexible, concerned, and willing to pitch in. That’s what a social relatinonship delivers. (p. 83)

As well as these thoughts on knowledge sharing in the enterprise, Ariely’s chapter explains much to me about the success of so-called social computing tools (and also why they are well-named). They play on the genuine human desire to comply with social norms of exchange, assistance, generosity and collaboration. The challenge is to import this desire into the organisational context, without running into market norms.

Ten tips

Andrew McAfee lost a bet, so today he is tweeting at least 100 times. So far, he has asked ten baseball-related questions (all way over my head), and posted links to 20 poems that are available online. Now he has listed the ten things he has learned from teaching.

  1. Don’t be afraid of silence in the classroom
  2. Ask clear questions
  3. Trust your students
  4. Be the person who most wants to be in the room
  5. Start on time, end on time
  6. Check your fly
  7. Be more concerned with the destination than the journey
  8. We get smarter via respectful disputation
  9. It’s better to be well-rested than well-prepared
  10. Most students appreciate being held to high standards

These are excellent tenets for all sorts of interactions, not just teaching. Sometimes the relationship between lawyers and their clients has many similarities to the teacher-student relationship. The same is true for internal consultants (like KM people) and their internal clients. In case they need translation, here is my gloss on Andy’s ten points.

  1. Silence is not bad — so long as it signifies that people are thinking about what you are saying.
  2. If you are clear what you want from people, you have to have understood it better, and they will know why it is important.
  3. Internal consultancy is a kind of leadership — the organisation has trusted you to take it somewhere new, so you owe it to those you are leading to trust them too.
  4. If you don’t care deeply about what you are doing (and show it), everyone will know, and take their cue from you.
  5. At the most basic level, punctuality is respectful — but it also shows that you have made a plan and have stuck to it. If you can do that with the small things, people will believe that you can do the same with the big ones.
  6. There is always something obvious to remember to do. Remember to do it, otherwise people will notice.
  7. If there is agreement about what the outcome should be, that is what is most important. If you start to quibble about the route-plan, you run the risk that you lose internal clients along the way.
  8. If there are differences of opinion, they only fester if left unspoken. Clearly-expressed alternative perspectives can lead to a much better outcome — be open to them.
  9. Do the best preparation that you can, but an alert mind can overcome gaps in that preparation (and there will always be gaps).
  10. Just because you have been asked to advise on something, don’t let the client (internal or otherwise) get away without doing their bit — the outcome will be better and will be better implemented if they engage properly.

Thanks for the thought-provoking tweets, Andy! (He has ten good things about Boston coming up, so I’m off to enjoy those. It’s one of my favourite American cities.)

Social = people = personal first

I have been thinking recently about the power of social software at work — prompted in part by my post earlier in the week, but also by news that Cogenz, an enterprise social bookmarking tool, is now available as an on-premises version at a strikingly reasonable cost. (This may not be new news, but I only heard of it this week.) I have also been pondering the 800lb gorilla in this room: Sharepoint. After this cogitation, I have come to the view that successful enterprise social software has to put the enterprise last. This is a reversal of the traditional paradigm of business computing.

Since the birth of LEO nearly 58 years ago, computers have been part of business. By and large, their role has been to automate, speed up, replicate, organise, make more efficient, or otherwise affect work activities. That is, their primary impact has been on things that people would not do unless there was a business reason for them to be done. As a by-product in later years, people started to use business-related software to manage domestic or private activities (writing letters, making party invitations or balancing household accounts, for example), but these tended to be peripheral. During this time, if they had a home computer at all, people would expect technology at work to be ahead of what they had at home.

Over the past 5-10 years the balance between personal and business technology has changed completely. Driven by (a) the spread of internet connectivity (especially wi-fi) into the home, (b) the need to support other digital technologies (cameras, music players, gaming devices, for example), and (c) increased functionality and connectivity in small-format devices (mainly mobile phones), it is now frequently the case that people’s domestic technology outstrips that provided to them at work. Alongside this change in the hardware balance of power (and for similar reasons), software has also become much more focused on enhancing the things that people might want to do for themselves, rather than for a salary.

These changes are part and parcel of Web 2.0, social software, social networking — call it what you will. Those tools work because they serve an individual need before they do anything else. A couple of examples by way of illustration.

  • Delicious works in the first instance because it helps people store pointers to web pages that they find useful. Because that storage takes place independently of the computer the user sits at, it is ideal for people who access the internet from a variety of locations (home, work, a public library, and so on). Better than that, delicious allows people to start to classify these pointers, or at least tag them with useful aides-memoire. Both of those things — location-independent storage and tagging — mean that delicious is already more useful than the alternative (browser-based bookmarks). The final piece in the jigsaw — sharing of bookmarks — is just the icing on the cake. The social aspect only comes into play once personal needs are satisfied.
  • Flickr has a similar dynamic. As digital camera use spreads, people start to need different ways of showing pictures to their friends and families. It is rare that people will print all of their holiday snaps so that they can take them to work and make their colleagues jealous. Instead, they can upload them to the website and share the link. After a while, having uploaded hundreds or thousands of pictures, finding the right ones becomes difficult. But flickr offers the possibility of tagging individual pictures or grouping them in sets. That organisation makes it much easier to show them with the right people. But it also means that other people’s pictures can be discovered because they have used the same tags. Like delicious, the social aspect — sharing, commenting on, and collecting other people’s pictures — comes after the personal.

Unlike the telephone, or e-mail, which depend for their efficacy on network effects, these social tools have value at a non-networked, private, personal level. Unsurprisingly, the early adopters of those first communications technologies were large organisations. If nothing else, they were able to create small network effects internally or between each other. For example, universities were early users of e-mail because it sat well with traditional inter-institution academic collaboration. By contrast, businesses and other organisations have typically lagged behind individuals in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools. (To be clear, individuals at work may well be early users of these tools, but their employers tend to see the light much later.)

As a general rule of thumb then, technologies supporting new types of social interaction tend to be proved by use in a non-commercial context and by providing real personal value ahead of any network effect. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work out. Twitter, for example, provides little personal value without the network effect. However, I think the fact that there is such a low barrier to entry to the twitter network explains that. It also came late to the social party, and so it could piggyback on existing networks. Sometimes the social element doesn’t have a particularly great impact. Many people on flickr do not use the full range of tools (commenting, tagging, etc). I use Librarything primarily as a catalogue of my books, to make sure that I don’t duplicate them. There is a social side to the service, but I haven’t really engaged with it. That does not diminish the utility of the site for me or for anyone else using it.

This week’s McKinsey Quarterly report on “Six ways to make Web 2.0 work” includes a similar point:

2. The best uses come from users—but they require help to scale. In earlier IT campaigns, identifying and prioritizing the applications that would generate the greatest business value was relatively easy. These applications focused primarily on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of known business processes within functional silos (for example, supply-chain-management software to improve coordination across the network). By contrast, our research shows the applications that drive the most value through participatory technologies often aren’t those that management expects.

Efforts go awry when organizations try to dictate their preferred uses of the technologies—a strategy that fits applications designed specifically to improve the performance of known processes—rather than observing what works and then scaling it up. When management chooses the wrong uses, organizations often don’t regroup by switching to applications that might be successful.

In practice, I suspect this means that corporate information is less likely to lead to social interactions (even inside the firewall) than personal content is (such as collections of links, and views expressed in blogs). People are more likely to appreciate the value of other people’s personal content than anonymous material, no matter how relevant the latter is supposed to be to their work. More importantly, when someone appreciates the value of being able to create their own content by using a tool or system provided by their employer, they are more likely to support and promote the use of that tool or system amongst their colleagues. That way success lies.

But what of existing corporate systems? Can they have social elements successfully grafted onto them? This question is most commonly asked of Sharepoint because, as Andrew Gent has put it “Is SharePoint the Lotus Notes of the 21st Century?“. He starts with praise.

The result is a very powerful collaboration, simple document management, and web space management system. It didn’t hurt that V2 of the team collaboration portion of the product (known at the time as Windows SharePoint Services) was “free” for most enterprise Office customers. SharePoint essentially invented a market segment which until that point had been occupied by “integrated” combinations of large and/or complex product sets. Just as Lotus Notes did 20 years ago.

Another similarity is the limitations of the basic architectural design of the product. All products have what could be called a “design center” — a focal point — an ideal business problem that the product tries to solve. The design center defines the core architectural goals of the product. SharePoint’s design center is flexible collaborative functionality centered around light-weight document management and customizable portals.

And the fact is SharePoint’s design center hit a bull’s eye. The need for easy-to-use collaboration spaces and web sites that don’t require web programming — that work well with Microsoft Office and the Microsoft security model — has been a big hit inside corporations. As a salesman for a competing product once told me, his job is not so much selling their own product, but explaining why customers shouldn’t use SharePoint.

But then things get ugly:

SharePoint is designed with flexibility at the space or site level. It allows individuals to take responsibility for managing their own sites and collections of sites. But if — from a corporate or even a divisional level — you want to manage the larger collection, SharePoint becomes resistant — almost belligerent — to control.

The inability to create even simple relationships between lists in different spaces (beyond simple filtered aggregation) without programming is the first sign of strain in SharePoint’s design. Then there are site columns. Site columns let you — ostensibly — define common metadata for multiple lists or libraries. However, you cannot enforce the use of site columns and site columns only work within a single site collection. There is no metadata control across multiple site collections. In other words, simplified control within the sites leads to lack of control at the macro level.

These are all just symptoms of a larger systemic issue: SharePoint is designed around the site. In Version 3 (also know as MOSS 2007) site collections have been introduced to provide some limited amount of cross-site control. But the underlying design principles of SharePoint (ie. user control and customization) work against control at the higher level.

So there is a fundamental reason why Sharepoint will not be able to move from the merely collaborative to the genuinely social. It is driven by the need to support existing business structures and pre-defined designs. Sharepoint uses cannot be emergent, a key feature of Enterprise 2.0 tools (as explained by Andrew McAfee and Rob Salkowitz), because they need to be planned from the outset. In David Weinberger’s terms, the filtering takes place on the way in, not on the way out. As JP Rangaswami suggests, filtering on the way out provides opportunities for more interesting knowledge management.

1. In order to filter on the way in, we need to have filters, filters which can act as anchors and frames and thereby corrupt the flow of information. We’ve learnt a lot about anchors and frames and their effect on predilections and prejudices and decision-making. With David’s first principle, we reduce the risk of this bias entering our classification processes too early.

2. I think it was economist Mihaly Polanyi  who talked about things that we know we know, things that we know we don’t know and things that we don’t know we don’t know. Again, filtering on the way in prevents us gathering the things that we don’t know we don’t know.

3. The act of filtering is itself considered necessary to solve a scale problem. We can’t process infinite volumes of things. But maybe now it’s okay to be a digital squirrel, given the trends in the costs of storage. [Sometimes I wonder why we ever delete things, since we can now store snapshots every time something changes. We need never throw away information]. Filtering on the way out becomes something that happens in a natural-selection way, based on people using some element of information, tagging it, collaboratively filtering it.

Thanks to Euan Semple, we do at least know that Microsoft’s heart is in the right place:

…the highlight so far for me of FASTForward ’09 has been getting to know Christian Finn, director for SharePoint product management at Microsoft. Christian is a really nice guy who has been going out of his way to spend time with the bloggers from the FASTForward blog and myself getting his head around the social computing world we all get so excited about.

I am interested to see how this engagement works out for Microsoft and for us. Especially because I think one of the underpinnings of the Microsoft/Apple dichotomy is the two companies’ different approaches to the corporate and the personal. Apple has always been more focused on the personal, while Microsoft concentrated on enterprise needs. This nearly killed Apple in the years when “personal computers” were really more likely to be desktop enterprise systems. Apple has made a comeback on the back of increased personalisation of technology. Can Microsoft work out how that is done?

Time and Promotion

Heather Milligan has just published the third blog post in a series on “Marketing Me.” The series (of four planned posts) is intended as a counter to what Heather calls “the worst piece of advice I ever got.” This was: “Do a good job, Heather, and they’ll notice you.” Naturally enough, they didn’t.

The third post, entitled “When do you find the time?” contains some really useful tips:

  • Manage your process
  • Avoid distractions
  • Clear your life
  • Make social networking part of your job
  • Take Advantage of Technology
  • Filter the Noise
  • Have faith, it will settle down

One of the actions under the heading “clear your life” resonated with something I wrote about last year. Here’s Heather’s story:

I went through my calendar and started to cross out everything that really wasn’t necessary, beginning first with the television. What was I watching that I didn’t enjoy? What was complete junk that I really didn’t need to watch? Gone.

And here is Clay Shirky:

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

Coincidentally, Charles Arthur has posted a link to a long interview with Clay Shirky in the Columbia Journalism Review. He then poses an interesting question:

But what also occurred to me that is not said anywhere, ever, yet seems to me to be ineluctably true is that part of the falling-away of long-form content (which includes novels and newspapers and other things that require some time in a quiet place) is down to the way that life is just getting more intense.

Is it just me, or are people generally having to run harder to keep up? I’m intrigued by the question of how many hours people have to work to have the “average” standard of living. I’m sure there’s data that American workers haven’t seen an increase in living standards over the past howevermany years. I wonder if the same exists for Britons, Europeans, people all over the place? Even as living standards rise, the rising tide means that if you fall out of the boat you’ve still got a lot of swimming to do.

The comments on Charles’s post are worth reading as well. There is an emerging theme that we tend to fill what we think is empty space with things like TV, radio, music, video games and so on, and that the increasingly portable nature of those things makes us think that we have no time to spare. In fact, those activities represent someone else’s priorities and we could use the time better to think about things that are more important to us.

That leads to Heather’s point about social networking:

I was asked recently how I was learning/managing social networking and my work load. Well, part of the answer is that my continuing education, which is what this was for me in the beginning, is part of my job. As the marketing professional for my law firm, I must keep up with not only the happenings in the industry, but the advances in technologies.

In addition, by marketing myself, I am building relationships with peers, vendors, reporters, publishers, and other professionals which all benefit my firm.

That is clearly more important than watching yet another cookery programme on TV, surely? I certainly think it is. If your life is too intense, I think you need to work out whether that intensity is being driven by things that are in fact of  little interest and value to you.