Standing on the shoulders of giants

A recent exchange of views on the actKM mailing list inspired me to think about writing about my own Web2.0 experience, and what it means for me. Then the now-famous Wired article was published (no link — it has had enough — but here is a good early critique). I commented on the article’s point of view over at LawyerKM, but I think there is more to add.

My comment at LawyerKM:

Blogging is just writing. Did people stop keeping diaries because Samuel Pepys came along? Did the New York Times render The Journal News obsolete? We don’t all blog for a mass audience (I think the best bloggers actually blog for themselves).

When we write, the medium we choose is often selected because it fits the subject matter or the context particularly well. Sometimes I write in a Moleskine. Sometimes I write in Word. Sometimes a blog is best. People can’t comment on my Moleskine, and people outside the firm cannot see my Word document. If I am lucky they may have something interesting to say about the blog, or it may spur them to write something of their own elsewhere. Either of those reactions is fine by me — they spread knowledge.

To be honest, when I started doing this I did not expect to be part of the spread (and growth) of knowledge. I think this platform, along with many other Web2.0 tools, is first of all a mechanism for developing personal knowledge. Flickr,, Librarything, these are all excellent ways of storing information that we already have or that we create. The fact that they are online is a bonus — their contents are thereby always ready for use. (Up to a point.) When you layer on top of that the capability to tag your information, it becomes even more useful. I can see how many of my books have an Irish connection, for example (or I would if I had finished tagging them all), which would be difficult without the technology. Then, more significantly, these systems are open by design so that all the information I create can be shared with others.

This tagging and sharing gets better and better. One can create networks of like-minded people and easily dip into the pool of information that interests them. But this is just information. It has no context beyond the association of the raw data and some tags which make sense only to the person using them.

It is the next step where things get really interesting. One of the reasons why I started blogging outside the firewall (I have been doing it at work for some time) is that I needed to add more context to some of the material that I found online and stored in I could only do that by writing about it. How should I do that? As mentioned in my original comment, I am fond of my Moleskine notebooks, but it is difficult to link lots of different web pages together using paper and ink. They have their place, but this is not it. In order to make more sense of this ocean of information, one has to start swimming. And so this blog. Its first purpose is to give me a place where I can start to make more sense of things.

And then unexpectedly people start to join in. They pick up on things that one writes, and they leave comments or write on their own blogs. A cycle starts. Before you know where you are, there are new ideas driving new blogposts. I can honestly say that my understanding of a whole range of things has increased directly as a result of these interactions. And these are interactions that I could never have had if I had remained a silent user of Across my chequered career, I have collaborated with people in a variety of different ways — writing articles with colleagues, speaking at conferences with people I had just met, participating in Usenet and on mailing lists — but this experience has been as good as the most fruitful of all of those others.

That is why blogging will not go away. It enhances the human capacity to communicate and it does so in a fair and just way. It gives everyone access to giants on whose shoulders they can stand in order to see further. We all get better by that collaborative effort: the lone genius is mythical.

Interestingly, bearing in mind that the Wired piece promoted Twitter as the new great thing, I have come to this conclusion in part because of my short experience in using that service. That has shown me more of the people I know only virtually: fellow bloggers, commenters, journalists and cultural icons. Twitter gives more context to the blogs, comments, articles and podcasts that these people produce. With that additional context, they have commensurately greater value. 

Altogether awesome.

Coming back to earth, and to the queries raised by the actKM conversation, how does all this translate into the working environment? There are two issues.

  1. (How) can the enterprise leverage the activities of its people using Web2.0?
  2. Can we replicate the success of Web2.0 inside the firewall?

On one view, we should be concerned that people’s use of these external services creates valuable knowledge that is effectively lost to the business because it cannot be searched, stored or managed as a discrete set. My own experience makes me sanguine about this risk. If people use these tools to develop themselves and their knowledge in ways that would not be possible inside the enterprise, then the business can only be richer as a result. If they do not develop, then there is no useful additional knowledge created and the enterprise should only be concerned at the waste of time (which may well be the employee’s own, which cannot be a concern).

The second point is a more challenging one. One of the real points of value in external collaboration is the sheer diversity of potential collaborators. That diversity is most unlikely to be reflected in any but the largest businesses. This is why we need to manage internal collaboration. On that point, I finally got a chance today to review James Robertson’s presentation “Ten tips for succeeding at collaboration” recorded at the Open Publish 2008 conference in Sydney, July 2008.

James presents a really simple, but effective, model for successful collaboration. One of the most powerful elements for me was the distinction between publishing and collaboration, and especially the need to bridge the gap between the two in clearly defined ways. With the benefit of this insight from the other side of the world, I think I will be able to do some of the things I need to do much better than I would otherwise. Thank you James.