Choosing focus

I am part-way through a long post on personal knowledge management, which may see the light of day sometime this century. In doing so, I have been reflecting on something that I mention a lot in these posts: focus. I have been guilty of using the word in a very loose “I know it when I see it” fashion, but I am beginning to realise that a bit more explanation is in order.

Monochrome grass

I have an interest in photography, where focus is clearly a part of taking good pictures. However, there is more to it than that. Cameras come with a number of settings that affect the image — what is actually in focus. All of these settings require the photographer to make choices, which are similar to the choices we make when we talk about focus in a more general sense.

The first choice to be made is selection of a lens (or a zoom setting, for lenses with a variable focal length). Is the subject of the image distant or close? Do you want to concentrate on a single item or a large landscape? Variants of these questions can be used when considering personal focus as well. Is your objective finely detailed and distinct? If so, make sure you concentrate on it to the exclusion of other things (the telephoto or macro lens). Is it more diffuse — exploratory, perhaps? Then use a more inclusive approach (a wideangle lens).

Then there is a set of choices that are all interlinked — aperture, shutter speed, ISO (sensitivity or film speed, for non-digital photography). These need to be set to take into account the depth of field required (how much the subject stands out from the background or foreground), whether the subject is moving, and how much ambient light there is. Again, similar considerations can be borne in mind in a non-photographic context. Does your objective stand apart from other issues or do you need to consider it in a wider context? Are things moving fast, so quick action is required, or is a slower, more reflective pace acceptable? How much information is there on the topic — do you need highly sensitive receptors or is a strong filter preferable?

Once you have thought about all those variables, it is time to compose the image. Like everything else, careful thought about these preparatory questions improves the quality of the output. Equally, whether the output is good or not, it can be used to refine the initial settings before repeating the action. A plan-do-refine approach can also be useful in other contexts too. I can’t pretend to be a great photographer, but I do try to get better.

How different is the social web (and why)?

When I spoke at the Headshift insight event back in September, one of the points I made was that new forms of interaction on the web might feel subtly different from older ones. A couple of recent blog posts have called this to mind again. So here are some of my thoughts.

Barn Owl in flight

Over at the 3 Geeks… blog, Lisa Salazar argues that there is nothing new about social media.

Social networking isn’t new. I t has been around since the very first introduction to the internet. Just like Alexander Graham Bell, the first sign of life on the internet was an communication between UCLA and Stanford computers in 1969. And that certainly was social–the internet was built in response to the threat of USSR dropping bombs onto the US. Not exactly friendly but certainly social.

Through the internet, I have met people from all around the world. As I like to say on my job, I have traveled “virtually” everywhere.

Like Lisa, I have been online in one way or another for many years, but I feel that things have changed significantly between my early experiences and now. (This may just be a function of who we are — it is quite possible that Lisa invested better in her early online community than I did — so we should just be regarded as two anecdotal data-points.)

It is true that, as Lisa points out, people have built communities using e-mail lists, IRC and Usenet (as well as the closed networks such as Prodigy, AOL, Compuserve, The WELL, CIX, and all the others) since the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Those networks have been used to create content and connect people, just as we do now with the plethora of Web2.0 tools. Where is the difference? I am still trying to work it out.

I used to have an interest in Internet governance. I was a member of the CYBERIA-L mailing list (now apparently defunct [Update April 2015: I have since learned that the list has been resuscitated.]); I spoke at conferences in the US and UK; I wrote journal articles. But I never felt a connection with the governance community in the way that I do with the KM community now. It was as if we were all operating in our own focused silos. (That may also have been a result of the academic ivory towers that many of us inhabited.) I also pursued personal interests in Usenet newsgroups and on CIX. Those activities rarely spilled over into my work interests. I think that partitioning of lives is a hint as to how the old online world differs from the new one.

By contrast, my Web2.0 journey has been more open and fruitful. Apart from a couple of abortive attempts at blogging (I had no real focus, so they withered away very quickly), I started as most people do — reading other blogs and then graduating to comments. Once the comments became longer I felt I had found my voice and it was time to start blogging. At the same time, Facebook and LinkedIn gave me connections with and insights into people on whose blogs I had commented. As people started reacting to my blog posts with their comments and on their own blogs, I found that I was part of a real community. That sense of community has only deepened over time and with more interactions via Twitter and the like. I have even met some people face to face.

The difference between then and now, for me, is that the variety of interactions and ‘places’ where I engage with this community has broken down the silos that I experienced in the past. Because it is impossible not to see more facets of someone’s life and personality in their blogs, comments, tweets and status updates, it becomes easier to see them as real people — not just participants in a mailing list discussion, a conference or a newsgroup. We talk of work-life balance, but as Orson Wells points out early in this interview (from 0:48), there isn’t really a distinction.

Interviewer: Would you say that you live to work or work to live?

Welles: I regard working as part of life. I don’t know how to distinguish between the two; I know that one can and people do. I honestly think the best answer to that question that I can give you is that the two things aren’t separated in my mind.

Interviewer: There are people who devote everything to their work and have no life at all, but you have lived in a big way and you have worked in a big way…

Welles: And I don’t separate them. To me they are all part of the… Work is an expression of life for me.

For many of us, I think this is now true of our interactions with each other via online networks. Earlier this week, John Bordeaux provided a magnificent example of this in his post, “A Year Ago.” This time last year, John was laid off. His reaction was unconventional, but may offer a taste of future convention.

Using online social media tools, I stitched together a loose network of future colleagues and relationships to be tended.  Rather than broadcasting my increasingly urgent need for income, I trusted the network effect would work in time.

And it did.

Today I find myself engaged in meaningful and rewarding work to redesign a failed education system; working alongside leading professionals in innovation, public policy, and social change.

A year ago, I could not predict where I would be today.  Such is the nature of complexity and networks.  The theory suggested I should place myself in conversations, expand my connections into new networks, and a vocation would emerge.  (While I embrace the notion, I hope I never again have to conduct such experiments with my family’s financial health.)  I saw the traditional reaction to job loss as creating one-to-one intense conversations trying to match my talents to a company’s need.  Instead, I took this path.  Which amounted to no path at all, certainly not one any could predict.  To paraphrase Mr. Frost, that has made all the difference

The thing is, we knew that John was going through this. Not from his blog, but from changes in his LinkedIn status, from clues in his tweets. I hope he felt that the support we were able to give (often from a distance) was enough.

Ultimately, I think John’s experience shows that effective participation in online networks allows one to see a more authentic picture of people. Perhaps it is becoming less true that “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

It’s mine and I will choose what to do with it

This isn’t a political blog, and it is a coincidence that I came across a couple of things that chime with each other on the same day that the UK government has started to reverse from its enthusiastic promotion of ID cards for all.

The first juicy nugget came from Anne Marie McEwan. In writing about social networking tools and KM, she linked some of the requirements for successful social software adoption (especially the need for open trusting cultures) to the use of technology for monitoring.

And therein lies a huge problem, in my strong view. Open, trusting, transparent cultures? How many of them have you experienced? That level of monitoring could be seen as a version of Bentham’s Panopticon. Although the research is now quite old, there was a little publicised (in my view) ESRC-funded research project in the UK, The Future of Work, involving 22 universities and carried out over six years. One of the publications from that research was a book, Managing to Change?. The authors note that:

“One area where ICT is rapidly expanding management choices is in monitoring and control systems … monitoring information could connect with other parts of the HRM agenda, if it is made accessible and entrusted to employees for personal feedback and learning. This has certainly not happened yet and the trend towards control without participation is deeply disquieting.

If ICT-based control continues to be seen as a management prerogative, and the monitoring information is not shared with employees, then this is likely to become a divisive and damaging issue.”

On the other hand, the technology in the right hands and cultures creates amazing potential for nurturing knowledge and innovation.

What struck me about this was that (pace Mary Abraham’s concerns about information disclosure), people quite freely disclose all sorts of information about themselves on public social networking sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on. The fact is that some of this sharing is excessive and ill-advised, but even people who have serious reservations about corporate or governmental use of personal information lose some of their inhibition.

Why do they do this? In part it may be naïveté, but I think sometimes this sharing is much more knowing than that. What do they know, then? The difference between this voluntary sharing and forced disclosure is the identification of the recipients and (as Anne Marie recognises) trust. Basically, we share with people, not with organisations.

The second thing I found today was much more worrying. The UK Government is developing a new strategy for sharing people’s personal information between different government departments. It starts from a reasonable position:

We have a simple aim. We want everyone who interacts with Government to be able to establish and use their identity in ways which protect them and make their lives easier. Our strategy seeks to deliver five fundamental benefits. In future, everyone should expect to be able to:

  • register their identity once and use it many times to make access to public services safe, easy and convenient;
  • know that public services will only ask them for the minimum necessary information and will do whatever is necessary to keep their identity information safe;
  • see the personal identity information held about them – and correct it if it is wrong;
  • give informed consent to public services using their personal identity information to provide services tailored to their needs; and
  • know that there is effective oversight of how their personal identity information is used.

All well and good so far, but then buried in the strategy document is this statement (on p.11):

When accessing services, individuals should need to provide only a small amount of information to prove that they are who they say they are. In some situations, an individual may only need to use their fingerprint (avoiding the need to provide information such as their address).

But I can change my address (albeit with difficulty). I can never change my fingerprints. And fingerprints are trivially easy to forge. Today alone, I must have left prints on thousands of surfaces. All it takes is for someone to lift one of those, and they would have immediate access to all sorts of services in my name. (An early scene in this video shows it being done.

What I really want to be able to do is something like creating single-use public keys where the private key is in my control. And I want to be able to know and control where my information is being used and shared.

Going back to KM, this identity crisis is what often concerns people about organisationally forced (or incentivised) knowledge sharing. Once they share, they lose control of the information they provided. They also run the risk that the information will be misused without reference back to them. It isn’t surprising that people react to this kind of KM in the same way that concerned citizens have reacted to identity cards in the UK: rather than No2ID, we have No2KM (stop the database organisation).

Detroit: the picture in our attic

I haven’t seen that many of the great American cities. I have visited New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington DC, but not San Francisco, LA, Atlanta, or Seattle. However, I can say that I have lived in one: Detroit. It still remains my favourite. It saddens me greatly that this vibrant town has become a byword for depression and misery.

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In the Summer of 1985, I spent six weeks at Wayne State University Law School, which had an exchange programme with my home university. (This may seem odd, until one adds the information that the University of Warwick was actually sited on the edge of Coventry, the closest Britain came to having a Motor City.) In retrospect, this was a very happy time. I had work to do (mainly researching the activities of the Department of Housing and Urban Development with special reference to the Urban Development Action Grant program), but I also explored the city itself. Not just the civic magnificence of Woodward Ave (the Public Library and the Institute of Arts), but also the commercial opulence of the Fisher Building and General Motors Building in the New Center and the comparatively characterless Renaissance Center downtown.

My recollection of the city, though, is not rooted in these overbearing buildings and boulevards. It was the people and heart of Detroit that I fell for. Even in the mid-80s the beginning of decay was obvious. There were neighbourhoods that had not been touched since being burned in the 1967 riots. Few streets were without a gap where a house had been torched. Even so, everyone I met was unfailingly courteous and welcoming. I walked nearly everywhere, and never felt particularly unsafe. (Although being propositioned by a rather seedy gentleman downtown one afternoon was a bit of a low point. He thought I was Canadian.)

Because of GM and their ilk, Detroit is very much in the news at the moment. Whatever the cost to the American tax-payer (which appears to be the greatest concern to the likes of the Harvard Business School and the Wall Street Journal), the real cost is being felt by the people of Detroit left behind as their more mobile neighbours abandon this great city. As Don Witt, the cab driver in the interview above, puts it:

They [the motor industry] have always been the heart of Detroit — the heart and soul of Detroit. They made the middle class in Detroit. If General Motors and Chrysler go bankrupt, I don’t know what’s going to happen to the city for a while. … You’re actually destroying the middle class of Detroit so that, along with the city, you’re going to have to rebuild the middle class.

[I hope non-UK readers can see the footage. There is an associated story on the BBC News website.]

Bill Ives recently linked to a touching collection of photographs of Detroit’s dereliction. Others have also documented the physical toll wrought by the decline of this city.

I cannot pretend to understand all of this. But I feel that Detroit (along with similar cities) bore the brunt of our prosperity. Just as Dorian Gray stayed beautiful as his picture aged, we have prospered as Detroit suffered. It suited the motor industry to concentrate its activities (almost to the exclusion of everything else) in a small number of locations. As a consequence, the failure of that industry brings about the failure of the city. There was no back-up plan. The diversity of Detroit’s people was not matched by diversity in its industrial leaders. That is surely unforgiveable.


I spent the Easter holidays in Italy. However, that wasn’t the full extent of my holiday. For various practical reasons, including personal preference, I drove to our destination (the rest of the family flew). On my way back, I was able to spend some extra time sight-seeing.

One of the things I wanted to do was to see some of the First World War cemeteries. I didn’t know why — it was just something I had never done. I am glad I did, although it was much more harrowing than I expected.

Prior to the First World War, the bodies of soldiers who fell in battle tended to be buried, cremated, or left in situ. The cemeteries created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (founded in 1917) provide a clean break with this tradition. The Commission’s principles have been emulated by other nations and traditions, but few memorials are as moving as those on the Western Front. The simplicity of those principles is immensely respectful of the dead.

  • Each of the dead should be commemorated by name on the headstone or memorial
  • Headstones and memorials should be permanent
  • Headstones should be uniform
  • There should be no distinction made on account of military or civil rank, race or creed

Wherever you are in the UK, you are never far from a memorial to local soldiers, sailors or airmen lost in war during the last century. Even the school I attended had a plaque immortalising the old boys who had given their lives in 1914-1918 or 1939-1945. (I saw similar memorials in many Italian towns and villages as well.) Despite these constant reminders, I was not prepared for the emotional impact of the memorials in West Flanders.

Despite the generally flat landscape of Jacques Brel’s plat pays, there is a curved low ridge around Ieper (Ypres), which has been the site of conflict on a number of occasions (even before WWI). Between 1914 and 1918, a number of battles over this salient accounted for the lives of about 450,000 young men. (All the information provided in West Flanders suggested nearly 250,000 soldiers of the France and the British Empire, together with just over 200,000 German soldiers.) These numbers are almost unimaginable, but awful when you can actually see the landscape over which they fought.

The only way I could start to comprehend the scale of this sacrifice was to personalise it. In Ieper, I found five graves belonging to soldiers killed on the same date as my visit, 21 April, but in 1918.

  • 139636 Lance Cpl. E.J. Jones (Royal Engineers)
  • 18934 Lance Cpl. A.R. Ockelford (Royal Engineers)
  • 143532 2nd Corporal R. Wilson (Royal Engineers)
  • 177166 Sapper Oliver Smith (Royal Engineers)
  • 42544 Private C.G Hawkes (Essex Regiment)

May they rest in peace.

At the largest cemetery of all, Tyne Cot, the dead of Passchendaele 1917 are commemorated. Here there are nearly 12,000 men buried, and a further 35,000 whose graves are unknown remembered on a massive memorial wall. Another 55,000 casualties whose graves are unknown are commemorated on the walls of the Menin Gate in Ieper.

The emotional impact of these names, and the landscape over which the men bearing them fought and lost their lives, was heightened by the knowledge that so many of them were born in the 1890s and slain in their 20s. My own children were born in the 1990s. Little facts like this start to put the large numbers into perspective.

Working effectively

At this time of year many people resolve to adopt new ways of working, which they hope will make them more effective at their jobs. Even at other times, sites such as 43 Folders and Lifehacker, tools like David Seoh’s Printable CEO and books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done are perennially popular. Even I have a copy.

In fact, I have spent many hours searching for more effective ways of working. As far as I can tell, this is the ultimate displacement activity. But I have never had any success with any of the methods advocated in these sources. Part of this is undoubtedly due to my innate laziness. However, I have come to the view that although I am interested in new working techniques and ways of organising my time and activities, I am a basically disorganised person and I am unlikely to change that. As such, I have settled on some techniques that may only work for me.

At the heart of this system (if it is a system) are two principles:

  1. The more complex a way of working is, the more likely it is to be ignored.
  2. The test of a good system is how well it fits with existing practices.

Over the years I have discovered that I just don’t do categorisation. My CDs are stacked irregularly, my bookshelves are a shrine to serendipity, my e-mail is never filed in topical folders. However, I do have a fairly strong sense of time. If someone asks me to find something in one of the many piles on my desk, I do so by thinking when I last saw it. That will put it in a particular place, or close to some other things I was working on at the same time. I have tried storing e-mails in folders as I work on them, but the only result is that I can’t find them when I need them. Instead, I keep everything in a folder for each year. I find Outlook’s native search function is quite good enough to find anything I have stored away.

img_3869_webI have a fondness for gadgets. This also extends to non-electronic things — especially stationery and pens. As a result, I have had many Moleskines. I have also acquired a few very nice fountain pens. I have tried to use the Moleskines to fit particular productivity mechanisms. However, I got bored with most of them. Finally, I settled on a simple solution — basic note-taking. I now combine my basic tendency to thing of things chronologically with my interest in pens and paper. Essentially, I now make notes all the time (as long as I remember). As well as capturing things on delicious or in e-mail, I make a note of the salient points that made me want to store them away. I make notes of conversations. I make notes in meetings. As I do this, I mark the notes in the margin — a box marks a to-do (with room for a tick when it is done); an asterisk marks something important; an arrow marks something relevant to a future date or for someone else. In order to mark the passing of time, I start each day with the date, and mark continuation pages with the date in the top left-hand corner. I also use a different pen on alternate days. One day will be the Lamy 2000 using blue ink, the next I will use black ink in the Rotring 600. I also sometimes use the notebook for first drafts of or notes towards blog posts or other writing — I tend to do this in pencil.

Since starting this process about three months ago, I have impressed myself by keeping up with it. I really think it might work for me. I even managed to carry undone to-dos over when I filled one notebook. Obviously, the note-taking is only part of the process. In order to keep up with the tasks I set myself, I set aside some time each day and a little more at the end of the week to review recent notes. Occasionally, this has brought to light other things that I had not marked as significant at the time. It has also helped me keep my focus on my key priorities.

It may seem odd that I use pen and paper, with the drawbacks that old technology entails. However, I think the advantages outweigh those drawbacks. My penmanship is pretty poor, but I think it is improving as I use it more, whereas my very basic keyboarding skills seem to have reached a plateau (at not particularly speedy). Pen and paper are also more acceptable to use in a wider variety of contexts. So I aim to use the right tool for the job. Another reason for avoiding a technology solution is that it helps me avoid the distractions that are just an Alt-Tab away.

Having tried it, I think my method works because it is simple, and because it fits the way I naturally think and work. Anything more complex might become an end in itself. This method is, for me, a facilitator. It might not work for anyone else, but I think those basic principles are still a good test for systems of various kinds — whether personal or organisational.

Happy New Year!

Settling accounts

It is an old English tradition that Christmas Day, as one of the quarter days, is a day for settling accounts. Over the past eleven months I have unexpectedly and gratifyingly incurred a number of debts.

The most significant is owed to Mary Abraham, who posed a question to a few of us back in November: how do you decide how/what/when to blog?  Finally, here are my thoughts.

The how is easily dealt with. I use whatever comes to hand when I have an idea. I have started blog posts from my Blackberry, using the mobile tool; I have worked directly in the full WordPress dashboard; I have recently started using BlogDesk as an offline editor — very useful when on the train without connectivity; and I have sometimes written the bulk of a blog post in long-hand (for which, read “scrawl”) in my notebook. Essentially, I use whatever works at the time.

What I blog is linked inextricably to why I blog. I have come to rely on this as my place for crystallising thoughts. More than anything else, I am continually learning about things that are at least tangentially related to my work. I find I learn best by reading, cogitating and discussing (which can extend to formal presentations or writing). The blog is therefore my place to do this — primarily for my own benefit. I do something similar at work, but that is only a limited solution. I have found that two significant things characterise people who do KM. They are firstly extremely willing to discuss ideas, even with total strangers. This makes KM conferences especially useful for the mingling time, even if the official content is of marginal utility. The second thing is that they tend to be rare or isolated within their own organisations. This makes it (a) difficult to find local kindred spirits with whom to discuss KM topics, but (b) easy to created mutually rewarding realtionships with KM people in other organisations. As a result, I think sharing my thoughts here results in a greater benefit to me and to the firm I work in because of the way that people in the wider world engage with it.

So the things I blog about are the things that pique my interest and which I think can usefully form the basis of this wider engagement. When I started out, I thought I would be able to use the blog to challenge accepted KM truths and traditions. This hasn’t worked out quite as I expected, but I may yet get there with time.

Finally, when do I blog? Practically speaking, it tends to be in the gaps of the day — on trains, while the children watch TV, and so on. Taking a different perspective on the question, I tend to write when I have been free to ponder for a while. At times when work requires more action than thought, it is harder to get round to blogging. That explains some of the gaps in transmission during the past year.

One of the reasons I eventually took the plunge to start blogging publicly was that I found conversations via comments on other people’s blogs valuable. In particular, Doug Cornelius’s KM Space and Neil Richards’s Knowledge Thoughts provided places where I developed some of the thinking that started me on this track. Having started by commenting, I particularly appreciate those who have commented on or linked to my posts during the year:

Many thanks to you all, and I hope the festive season brings you all you hoped for, with an exciting new year in prospect!

(For completeness, you might be interested in the answers provided to Mary’s question by Jordan FurlongPatrick Lambe and Doug Cornelius.)

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.

    Back again

    There’s been another long gap in transmission. This time I can blame work followed by a holiday in Ireland and catching up with work again for the past week.

    (I don’t know how some people manage to find the time to blog as much as they do. I only do this from home — because access is too slow at work and because this definitely isn’t about work, except tangentially — and I keep getting sucked into other stuff.)

    Anyway, here are some random bits from the last few weeks.

    We spent the last two weeks in August in Ireland — mostly wet, but with a glorious few days (including the day of the Connemara Pony Show, which was a blessing, given that most of the family wanted to spend the whole day there. Our base in Connemara was a cottage owned by Liz Kane, a local fiddle player. When we first arrived, she was still on tour in the USA, but when she got back she kindly dropped in and played for us. She also listened to the girls playing their violins, and talked about the way she teaches traditional fiddle to the local children.

    What I found interesting was that in her teaching Liz said she concentrates on the sound. Rather than using formal written music, she uses a shorthand notation that is much easier for children to pick up, and her objective is to get them to play by ear. Along the way, some of them do learn formal notation, but that is incidental. Liz also looked at one of the music books that we had taken along, and was quite critical of it — not because the tunes were wrong, but because her understanding of the music and the practicalities of playing it led her to suggest some minor changes. In doing so, she amply demonstrated two things for me (and you should bear in mind that I am not musical, apart from enjoying other people’s playing). Firstly, her changes were clearly part of the tradition — just because one hears a tune played in a particular way, that does not mean that it is fixed that way. It is permissible, even encouraged, to seek alternatives that might sound better or suit one’s playing better. The second thing was that it made the poverty of explicit knowledge clear to me. A simple rendition of a musical score (an expression of the knowledge of the composer) will often be cold and lifeless. It is only when one can bring to the score a set of tacit understandings, opinions and traditions that real music results.

    We spent the second week in a very different way. While the rest of the family rode every day (even the one recovering from a broken ankle), I tried being a tourist. However, it turns out that some parts of Ireland are truly short of interesting things to visit. (I think this is caused by a variety of things, but the island’s 20th century history doesn’t lend itself to the preservation of stately homes, which is one of the mainstays of Anglo-Scottish tourism.) As a result, I spent a lot of time in bookshops like Woulfe’s in Listowel and O’Mahony’s in Limerick. That’s my kind of holiday! I had gone with a stock of Irish-tinted books (such as Paul Muldoon’s survey of Irish literature, To Ireland, I, Gerard Donovan’s new collection of stories, Country of the Grand (a Librarything Early Reviewer’s copy), and At Swim-two-birds by Flann O’Brien), and I bought more, but the reading that made most impact on me was about France. 

    Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of France, is almost incredible. He gives a striking account of how rural France before (and in some instances after) 1900 was conventionally poverty-stricken and backward, but whose traditions and practices made perfect sense and probably produced a much more viable and sustainable community than the modern emphasis on commerce and constant economic improvement. His writing is beautifully lucid and often sheds light on modern issues as well as historic ones.

    For example, in writing about the persecution of the cagots (a rootless tribe scattered throughout France), Robb illustrates the self-perpetuating truth of prejudice across the ages:

    It finally became apparent that the real ‘mystery of the cagots’ was the fact that they had no distinguishing features at all. They spoke whichever dialect was spoken in the regions and their family names were not peculiar to the cagots. They did not, as the Bretons believed, bleed from the navel on Good Friday. The only difference was that, after eight centuries of persecution, they tended to be more skilful and resourceful than the surrounding populations, and more likely to emigrate to America. They were therefore feared because they were persecuted and might therefore seek revenge.

    Then, referring to Flaubert’s fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye, home to Madame Bovary:

    A progressive bourgeois like the town chemist, M. Homais, who is not directly dependent on the land, can afford to revel in the stupidity of peasants: ‘Would to heaven our farmers were trained chemists or at least lent a more attentive ear to the counsels of science!’ But improving land is expensive and animals are a comfort. A peasant might invest in fertilizer and increase the yield of grain, but why should she risk her livelihood in a volatile market? Grain prices are even less reliable than the weather. A pig in the paddock is worth more than the promise of a merchant in the city.

    Only people who have more than one source of food would use the expression ‘stuck in their ways’ as an insult. The smallholders of Yonville had good reason to be cautious. At about the time when the novel takes place, in the little market town of Ry, which Flaubert appears to have used as a model for Yonville-l’Abbaye, a woman complained to the authorities that she and her children were starving to death.

    If Yonville or Ry had been better connected to the city of Rouen, which in turn was connected by the river Seine to Paris and the Channel ports, they would have suffered more from shortages and unrest. In troubled times, towns and villages that lay within the supply zone of cities were sucked dry by military commissioners and the civilian population. Agricultural progress might create a surplus and encourage investment, but it could also create excessive demand and a transport network that would quickly pump out the region’s produce. Wheat growers and wine growers were more worldly but also more vulnerable to change. In the poorer parts of southern France, where the staple crop, the chestnut, was expensive to transport and not much in demand, winter supplies remained safely in the region.

    There are pre-echoes of our flat world in this passage. As we have over-specialised ourselves, we have imposed similar specialisation on others. See the tragic irony in this report from Agence France-Press about the travails of Kenyan bean growers:


    “Kenya strayed from sustainable farming and followed the temptation of exporting, when it’s clearly preferable to produce and consume locally,” says Claude-Marie Vadrot, an ecology expert with French weekly Politis.

    “With subsistence farming, there’s more or less always a market for your products, but when French or European retailers no longer want beans, then Kenya will be left with nothing,” he explains.

    Going back to Ireland, there is a link between this and the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. It is claimed by many that one of the reasons why the potato blight had the impact that it did was that during this period Ireland remained a net exporter of food (grain and meat). The potato became the default foodstuff for the tenantry. When the crops failed, starvation was inevitable.

    Who says we learn from history?

    CSR, and in memoriam

    Today is the fourth anniversary of the premature death of my former academic colleague John Parkinson. I still miss him, as I am sure do many others. He once kindly gave me a copy of J.B. Priestley’s English Journey (now out of print, apparently), which I cannot now read without a multiple sense of loss — nostalgia, grief and regret.

    It is hardly a fitting tribute to the author of Corporate Power and Responsibility, but when writing a guest blog entry on our CSR blog last week I had John in mind. It was only after finishing work for the day — on my walk back to the station — that I realised his anniversary was so close.

    Requiescat in pace.