Archive for July 30th, 2009

Now and then

A couple of days ago, Patrick Lambe posted a really thoughtful piece considering the implications of heightened awareness from the new generation of social software tools as opposed to the traditional virtues of long-term information storage and access. If you haven’t read it, do so now. (Come back when you have finished.)

Laid down

The essence of Patrick’s piece is that when we focus our attention on the here and now (through Twitter or enterprise micro-blogging, for example), we forget to pay attention to the historically valuable information that has been archived away. This is not a problem with technology. He points to interesting research on academics’ use of electronic resources and their citation patterns.

How would online access influence knowledge discovery and use? One of his hypotheses was that “online provision increases the distinct number of articles cited and decreases the citation concentration for recent articles, but hastens convergence to canonical classics in the more distant past.”

In fact, the opposite effect was observed.

As deeper backfiles became available, more recent articles were referenced; as more articles became available, fewer were cited and citations became more concentrated within fewer articles. These changes likely mean that the shift from browsing in print to searching online facilitates avoidance of older and less relevant literature. Moreover, hyperlinking through an online archive puts experts in touch with consensus about what is the most important prior work—what work is broadly discussed and referenced. … If online researchers can more easily find prevailing opinion, they are more likely to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles. … By enabling scientists to quickly reach and converge with prevailing opinion, electronic journals hasten scientific consensus. But haste may cost more than the subscription to an online archive: Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.

Now this thinning out of long term memory (and the side effect of instant forgettability for recent work that does not attract fast consensus) is observed here in the relatively slow moving field of scholarly research. But I think there’s already evidence (and Scoble seems to sense this) that exactly the same effects occur when people and organisations in general get too-fast and too-easy access to other people’s views and ideas. It’s a psychosocial thing. We can see this in the fascination with ecologies of attention, from Tom Davenport to Chris Ward to Seth Godin. We can also see it in the poverty of attention that enterprise 2.0 pundits give to long term organisational memory and recordkeeping, in the longer term memory lapses in organisations that I have blogged about here in the past few weeks…

Jack Vinson adds another perspective on this behaviour in a post responding to Patrick’s.

I see another distinction here.  The “newer” technologies are generally about user-engagement and creation, whereas the “slower” methods are more focused on control and management activities much more so than the creation.  Seen in this light, these technologies and processes spring from the situation where writing things down was a time-consuming process.  You wanted to have it right, if you went to that much effort.  Unfortunately, the phrase “Document management is where knowledge goes to die” springs to mind.

In knowledge management, we are trying to combine the interesting knowledge that flows between people in natural conversation as well as the “hard knowledge” of documented and proven ideas and concepts.  KM has shown that technology just can’t do everything (yet?) that humans can do.  As Patrick says, technology has been a huge distraction to knowledge management.

I think Jack’s last comment is essential. What we do is a balance between the current flow and the frozen past. What I find fascinating is that until now we have had few tools to help  us with the flow, whereas the databases, archives, taxonomies and repositories of traditional KM and information management have dominated the field. I think Patrick sounds an important warning bell. We should not ignore it. But our reaction shouldn’t be to reverse away from the interesting opportunities that new technologies offer.

It’s a question (yet again) of focus. Patrick opens his post with a complaint of Robert Scoble’s.

On April 19th, 2009 I asked about Mountain Bikes once on Twitter. Hundreds of people answered on both Twitter and FriendFeed. On Twitter? Try to bundle up all the answers and post them here in my comments. You can’t. They are effectively gone forever. All that knowledge is inaccessible. Yes, the FriendFeed thread remains, but it only contains answers that were done on FriendFeed and in that thread. There were others, but those other answers are now gone and can’t be found.

Yes, Twitter’s policy of deleting old tweets is poor, but even if they archived everything the value of that archive would be minimal. Much of what I see on Twitter is related to the here and now. It is the ideal place to ask the question, “I’m looking at buying a mountain bike. For $1,000 to $1,500 what would you recommend?” That was Scoble’s question, and it is time-bound. Cycle manufacturers change their offering on a seasonal and annual basis. The cost of those cycles also changes regularly. The answer to that question would be different in six months time. Why worry about storing that in an archive?

Knowledge in law firms is a curious blend of the old and the new. Sometimes the law that we deal with dates back hundreds of years. It is often essential to know how a concept has been developed over an extended period by the courts. The answer to the question “what is the current position on limitations of liability in long-term IT contracts?” is a combination of historic research going back to cases from previous centuries and up to the minute insight from last week’s negotiations on a major outsourcing project for a client. It is a real combination of archived information and current knowledge. We have databases and law books to help us with the archived information. What we have been lacking up until recently is an effective way of making sure that everyone has access to the current thinking. As firms become bigger and more scattered (across the globe, in some cases) making people aware of what is happening across the firm has become increasingly difficult.

Patrick’s conclusion is characteristically well expressed.

So while at the level of technology adoption and use, there is evidence that a rush toward the fast and easy end of the spectrum places heavy stresses on collective memory and reflection, at the same time, interstitial knowledge can also maintain and connect the knowledge that makes up memory. Bipolarity simply doesn’t work. We have to figure out how to see and manage our tools and our activities to satisfy a balance of knowledge needs across the entire spectrum, and take a debate about technology and turn it into a dialogue about practices. We need to return balance to the force.

That balance must be at the heart of all that we do. And the point of balance will depend very much on the demands of our businesses as well as our interest in shiny new toys. Patrick is right to draw our attention to the risks attendant on current awareness, but memory isn’t necessarily all it is cracked up to be. We should apply the same critical eye to everything that comes before us — how does this information (or class of information) help me with the problems that I need to solve? The answer will depend heavily on your organisational needs.


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