Social: location, listening, connection, reciprocation

As happens from time to time, there is a bit of a backlash against Twitter and other forms of social media at the moment. Jon Ronson is publicising the paperback edition of his book, so the headlines focus on his ‘disenchantment with social media’. Ed Sheeran has chosen to concentrate on some new experiences ahead of releasing his third album, so he has turned away from social media. In highlighting these examples, we run the risk of misunderstanding what being online can mean. Despite the stories we are told, it is more important that social media are social, rather than media.


A city street might have many purposes, and see many forms of human behaviour: teenage shopping, adult drunkenness, coupling, casual conversation, protest, police brutality, acts of charity, theft, commercial deliveries, commuting by car, walking, running, sports events… the list is potentially endless. But we rarely define the street by one, or even a small group, of these activities. We are more likely to talk about the activity itself, with the location either ignored or sidelined.

We have yet to reach that level of maturity when talking about online interactions. Too often it is still the case that the medium in which something happens is identified as a cause of that something. Our understanding of these platforms is thereby impoverished.

I have been ‘online’ in some form or another for almost 25 years, starting with places like Usenet and CIX. Over this time, I have noticed some recurring patterns in the way people become social online.

Where to go?

As we become familiar with our own towns and cities, we learn quickly where the best places are for particular types of gathering. There is no point in holding a protest where we can’t be seen or heard. Likewise, an intimate dinner isn’t likely to be found in a casino. There is a huge range of online places, each of which supports different kinds of interaction. Some are also specialised as to the topics they cover. On the larger platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, everyone needs to create their own community.

When things start to go wrong online, the cause is often a lack of common understanding about the nature of place. If one person thinks they are in the right place for a contemplative discussion about life, but someone else considers that their agressive responses about the government’s political choices, there is no common ground. Sadly, this kind of mismatch still happens too often — often because people forget or don’t know about the next point.


This step is one that many people do instinctively, but is sometimes missed by those who don’t understand its importance. Euan Semple wrote about this very well today:

We’ve all had that situation of having agreed to link with someone on LinkedIn and then second message they send is trying to sell us something. Or maybe we’ve been reading that influential industry blogger’s posts for years and, thanks to their easy going style, feel like we know them – but how would they react if we reach out and try to connect with them?

This is why lurking matters. Finding the people you want to connect with, working out where they spend time and watching how they behave. You need to learn the ropes, get to understand the rules and the etiquette of people and situations. Think about the person you are about to connect with. What are their challenges and priorities? What sort of language do they use? What is your motivation for connecting with them and is it mutually beneficial?

For many people, it is enough to listen. Nearly a decade ago, Jakob Nielsen drew together a number of strands of research to suggest that as a rule of thumb, 90% of participants in online communities merely observed the discussion. (Of the rest, 9% contributed occasionally and 1% were responsible for most of the contributions.) This 90-9-1 rule has been challenged more recently by researchers at the BBC, but their data was gathered by survey rather than from monitoring actual community usage.

Whatever the figures, lurking is a natural human behaviour. As we circulate round a drinks party, we listen to the conversations around us and familiarise ourselves with what is going on before joining any of them. And we only join in when we have something interesting to add. Listening skills are valued as a means of generating trust. The same should be true of lurking. Learning about a community by sitting respectfully and observing what it does and what the key norms are only helps when the time comes to join in.

Making connections and sharing

When the time comes to speak up, rather than listen, normal social convention requires that one adds some kind of value to the conversation. That is true online just as it is in the pub. Commenting on a blog post or joining a Twitter conversation is most meaningful when the original participants benefit and the remaining audience gets something they might not have had without the intervention.

This cycle of connection and reciprocation is common offline, and is reinforced by all sorts of social and implicit norms. It is often harder to express (let alone enforce) similar norms online, which is why trolling can become a problem. Online, it is also much more likely that there is no homogeneous audience. The troll’s audience is almost certainly completely different from that of the person he attacks.

I have no deep-seated aversion to ‘content marketing’ — after all, this blog is probably an example of the genre. However, there is a growing body of material that is pushed willy-nilly via various ‘channels’ with no real appreciation of the way other people interact in those fora, and with little engagement by way of conversation. I do have an aversion to that because it uses a social medium in an unsocial way, and thereby taints it.

[In January, I will be running a workshop aimed at PSLs, but possibly of wider interest, on good social media use. Sign up on the Ark Group website if you’re interested.]

Knowledge-sharing cars

I am ambivalent about the current efforts being expended by Google and others on autonomous vehicles. As a society we appear to have backed ourselves into a corner where the only way out is to shift a ton of metal alongside driver and passengers. Self-driving cars don’t do much to change this, and hand-wringing articles about how the trolley problem might be resolved by autonomous vehicles are a distraction.

Nonetheless, it appears that the efforts of Google and others will produce self-driving vehicles for the mass market, so it is interesting to look at the work they are doing. Google has been particularly forthcoming about their research, as shown in this TED talk by Chris Urmson, who has headed up Google’s self-driving car programme since 2009.

There is a lot of interesting information here about what Google is doing with its cars and how they are coping with real-world traffic situations. He is particularly persuasive on the safety point — human beings are responsible for many more accidents resulting in death or serious injury. If the future of transportation has to involve cars, far better that those cars are not driven by distracted and borderline incompetent human beings.

But the point I found most intriguing comes when we are introduced to the way Google’s car sees the world. (This runs from about 7’48” in the video.)

The starting point, basic driving on grade-separated highways, centres on perception (where the car sees itself and the other road-users in the world) and experience (what has happened before that might happen again). This is roughly where Google were when they started serious work in 2009. (What Chris Urmson calls “a geometric view of the world.”)

Once Google moved the cars onto city streets, there was immediately much more complex information to handle. The cars needed to be aware of objects other than other vehicles — pedestrians, animals, road works, litter, and so on. At this point, the cars need to be able to deal with a range of different signals — flashing lights on police vehicles or school buses, for example. They also need to judge and work around the behavioural expectations of other road users at a host of different levels — some signalled and some implicit. At 10’09”, Urmson tells us the key to their success in this effort:

The way we accomplish this is by sharing data between the vehicles.

At first this is just sharing information about the location of hazards like road works between vehicles, so that their shared understanding of the environment is constantly updated. Over time, this has developed into a massive shared database of all of the things that all of the cars have seen over time. Hundreds of thousands of objects have been observed by the cars in multiple dimensions. All these objects (cars, people, animals, cars, trucks, cyclists…) can be used by Google’s cars later on to help them understand novel objects and situations by comparison with what has already been seen and recorded. Further than that, this data can be used to build a model of how different objects might behave in the world — improving the predictive capability of the fleet immeasurably.

Google’s cars will always be better than humans in terms of their capacity for observation, speed of reaction and ability to deal with crises calmly and decisively. Urmson shows in detail how this is achieved even when a hazard is partly concealed by other traffic in the section of video from 12’30” to 13’24”. That gives them an edge as individuals. Their constant sharing of data is where the real differentiation occurs. They are constantly learning by sharing.

Humans will never have the processing capabilities of an autonomous car. But there will always be somethings that we can do immeasurably better than technology. The key to future success is working out what those things are and concentrating on them. But we can also learn from Google’s cars. By sharing what we know as widely as possible and actively using what is shared with us, we can develop a better picture of the world and act within it.

Your knowledge-sharing capability is almost certainly nowhere near as good as a dumb car. But the car can show you why you should be better at it. Google’s cars understand that more can be achieved by sharing than by hoarding. We should learn the same.

Working with intent

San Gimignano towers

“Why?” is the question of the moment.

  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • Why are you doing that?

Fewer and fewer people accept what they are told at face value. Many organisations, professions and individuals are treated with a modicum of mistrust. Until we know and accept why someone is behaving as they are, we may be suspicious of their motives.

In particular, the way we think about work is changing. After a century of treating work as a mechanical activity, typified by the Taylorist school of management, we are being guided by a number of critical thinkers to wonder why things are organised the way they have been for so long. We know that even a simple instruction will often be freighted with meaning — the bigger picture. Until we know and accept what that picture shows, we may be cynical about the task.

San Gimignano towersThere are many reasons for this suspicion and cynicism. Everyone will have their own combination of factors. But one stands out for me. The pervasiveness of alternative sources of information means that it is harder to conceal the impact of decisions made.

These sources of information are not the traditional media or sanitised official channels, but networks of individuals sharing items of genuine interest. And in that sharing, as Euan Semple pointed out earlier this week, intent is critical.

Intent also came up in an article by Eric Kraus on Medium, “Social Intent:
Interested vs. Interesting”. Eric’s article is particularly illuminating in the way he distinguishes between the core intent prevalent in public social media and that which is most useful in the use of social tools within organisations.

Facebook and Twitter are social networking platforms I’m sure many of us are familiar with. They were created and became popular during the Culture of Personality. It’s not surprising these social platforms define success by things called “Likes” and “Favorites”. While there are many great benefits to these platforms, many people use them to share personal information. And on these tools…they strive to be the most “interesting” or liked person.

In our professional careers, having a message ‘Liked’ by our peers doesn’t necessarily have a great correlation to our success. So, it doesn’t make a lot of  sense that the way we use Facebook and Twitter today would be helpful in collaborating with or leading our teams.

I argue, it’s actually not a problem with the tools. It’s a problem with our intent. I’ve heard from many leaders who say they struggle with enterprise social because they fear posting messages that are not insightful to their team… Their intent is to be interesting. I think they have it backwards.

The ‘Culture of Personality’ that Krause refers to was posited by the historian Warren Susman as a development resulting from the 20th century decline in natural communities in favour of larger cities and organisations where it was hard to know people well.

During this time, we think of people with qualities like knowledge and communication skills. People valued “personality” more so than ever. Are you outgoing? A good public speaker? Are you liked among your peers?

In prior times, when small farming communities were more prevalent and people had real connections within and to those communities, Susman identified a ‘Culture of Character’.

We think of people during this time as having qualities like being helpful. People valued, above all else: “Character”. Were they good people? Were they generous? Did they benefit and provide value to their community?

Kraus argues that meaningful use of social tools within organisations demands that people use them with the kind of intent that comes with a culture of character.

This resonates with something I have linked to before — Pixar’s ways of selecting people to work well within that organisation. The key factors are described by Randy Nelson (then Dean of Pixar University and now Head of Artistic Development and Training at DreamWorks Animation) in this video clip.

The key section for now is transcribed below.

What we’ve gotta find is people who are extremely broad. And the predictor there, we want somebody who is more interested than they are interesting. Yeah, anybody can have a pink Mohawk and enough piercings so that wind blows, you whistle without pursing your lips.

That’s interesting and that’s easy to get. Interested is tough. That’s a real skill and I’m sure all of you have that sense, somebody in your life who you just always think of when you think, that’s the person I want to talk to. Why? Because they’re so bright? Yeah they’re bright. But what they do is they amplify me. They give me what I need. I say, I’ve got a problem and they lean in. They don’t say, “Oh yeah, I got problems too. I bet my problems are more interesting than your problems.” No. They want to know what you want to know. They want to know what’s bothering you.

That’s the kind of intent that builds an organisation where people should be less cynical and suspicious because they understand why others are behaving the way they are — their intent is clear.

Surely that is a meaningful goal for any organisation? Increasingly, good people will move away from the places where being interesting is valued more highly than being interested.

[Picture note: this is a view of the famous towers of San Gimignano, built for no other purpose than to express the power of rival Guelph and Ghibelline families.]

Asking better questions, getting better insight

Over the past few months I have been using a model that Nick Milton shared on his blog, to help people understand that the knowledge activities they have traditionally espoused only tell half the story.

I have reservationas about the tacit/explicit distinction, but that is irrelevant for now. The key thing for me is that there is a clear and meaningful difference between systems and tools that push knowledge to people and the activities that develop people’s ability to pull knowledge at the moment of need.

In another post, Nick describes advising an organisation which had over-emphasised the push side of the table. I think many law firms are in this position now. We have developed vast banks of precedents, practice notes, process guides, checklists and so on; and we have encouraged in our lawyers a dependency on these things. To a point, this is all good. These tools help people to dispose efficiently of the work that should not require great thought. But what about those areas where great thought is required. How do we build people’s capability to get to the insight and expertise that will help them solve the trickier problems that clients bring?

We can throw technology at the problem again — search engines will allow people to draw on the vast pool of work that has already been done. Sometimes that will disclose a really useful document that contains just the right information to help the lawyer arrive at a suitable answer. More often, though, it will produce nothing at all or many documents none of which actually help directly. Those many documents may, however, help to identify the right people to ask for help.

So it comes back to asking. Nick Milton has made this point in a couple of posts on his blog this week. The more recent post, “Asking in KM, when and how?”, identifies a number of situations in which asking might be institutionalised: communities of practice, after action reviews, and retrospects; but it doesn’t get to the heart of the question. What does good asking look like?

Fortunately, help is at hand. (The topic must be in the air at the moment for some reason.) Ron Ashkenas, in an HBR blog post, “When the Help You Get Isn’t Helpful“, explores what happens when someone shares their knowledge in a way that is actually useless.

Consider John, an account executive who is contemplating how to expand into a new market segment — one that is wrought with regulatory challenges. With a puzzled look on his face, he walks past Samantha, who asks, “Are you okay?” John responds, “Not really, I’m trying to figure out how to gain access for more of our products into Latin America.” Samantha immediately runs to her office and returns with a 100-page analytical report detailing the region. She then spends the next ten minutes going over a how-to guide on conducting market research. Out of respect to Samantha, John patiently listens. But despite her good intentions, Samantha’s input is counterproductive. John might have benefited from Samantha’s time if she had focused on solving his regulatory conundrum. Instead, John walks away feeling even more frustrated and perplexed.

What happened here? John presented Samantha with a problem, and she offered help. I suspect this kind of unfocused response is common. I know I have been guilty of it in the past, and I suspect I will be again in the future. The difficulty is that people are actually very poor at asking questions. Why that might be is a conundrum for a different time. Fortunately, Ron Ashkenas has some guidance to get better at asking.

Target your requests. Instead of asking whoever is available, intentionally target certain individuals. Create a list of people who have access to resources, information, and relevant experience about your problem. Expand your list to include friends and colleagues who tend to challenge the norm and see the world differently. Make a point of including people who are likely to have useful views but you might hesitate to approach because you think they are too busy or wouldn’t be interested.

Frame your question. Before asking for input, figure out what you really need: What kind of advice are you looking for? What information would be useful? Are there gaps in your thinking? Then consider how to frame your question so that you solicit the right advice.

Redirect the conversation. If the person offering advice jumps to conclusions, be prepared to redirect them. Most people will not be offended if you politely refocus them. For instance, had John interrupted Samantha’s lecture on market research by saying, “The issue isn’t our understanding of the market, it’s how to deal with the area’s regulatory restrictions. That’s where I could use some help,” Samantha could have spent the next ten minutes firing off some useful ideas.

This doesn’t feel like rocket science. Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague. Yet again, the key to good a outcome here is the same as it is in many other contexts. Careful preparation and clarity of scope will generate the answer you need. (It is also important to be comfortable with the possibility that there is no answer. If you are precise and clear, the fact that no answer is forthcoming is much more likely to be an accurate reflection of there being no answer available at all.)

I think this is an iterative process:

  • Work out exactly what you need to know. What is the gap in your understanding that needs to be filled in order to resolve the issue raised by your client?
  • Who is the best person to answer that question? Do you know that person already, or will you need to seek advice from others? Plan how to ask the right question to identify that person.

Repeat until satisfied…

KM conferences: KM Legal and KMUK 2010

Last week, I attended Knowledge Management UK — the Ark Group’s flagship KM conference. Last month I attended and presented at their equivalent for the legal community — KM Legal. There is probably a blog post to be written about the need for both, but this is not it. I just wanted to bring together a few thoughts.

(Rather than one of my own pictures, as usual, I was going to add one of someone else’s. But it isn’t available for embedding, so you can see it on Flickr instead. The whole set is worth a look too — it captures the spirit of KMUK pretty well, I think.)

A key difference between the two conferences was in the approach to social media. The chair of KM Legal suggested that tweeting should be kept to a minimum in order to prevent distractions, but at KMUK it was positively encouraged. (There is another post to be written about the pros and cons of conference tweeting…) In fact, KM Legal conformed to the stereotype of lawyers, in that there were very few screens evident in the audience — most people were taking notes the old-fashioned way, using pen and paper.

So I didn’t send more than a couple of tweets about KM Legal, but I tweeted quite a bit during KMUK (which seems to have been appreciated by some of those who couldn’t be at the conference). I also used Posterous to share longer thoughts about some of the sessions:

(I have also added a feed from my posterous site, where I am writing more frequently these days, to the menu at the right here.)

If I had to pick out a theme common to both conferences, I think it is probably a realisation that the old approaches are not enough. At KM Legal there was virtually no reference to know-how databases or knowledge repositories. Instead, people were talking about the way that KM was (or should be) embedded in the strategic processes of their firms — making a real contribution to debates about legal process outsourcing, practice management, and strategy. At KMUK, we were encouraged by Dave Snowden to reposition KM as sensemaking and by Dillon Dhanecha to avoid doing things that would not demonstrably add value to the organisation. I hope Dillon writes up some of his thoughts because I sensed a bit of a tension between what he said about ensuring that people only did what they knew would add value (which appeared to suggest an approach that exclude experimentation, serendipity and emergence) and his exhortation to follow Richard Branson and “screw it, let’s do it.”

However, the best thing about both conferences was the annual renewing of acquaintances and meeting new people. Nick Davies reprised his award-winning contribution to KCUK 2009 in a couple of sessions that really brought home the importance of personal contact. These conferences (and others, I am sure) prove his point.

What do we do with knowledge?

Every now and then, I discover a new way in which my assumptions about things are challenged. Today’s challenge comes in part from the excellent commentary on my last post (which has been so popular that yesterday quickly became the busiest day ever here). I am used to discussions about the definition or usage of ‘knowledge management’, but I thought ‘knowledge sharing’ was less controversial. How wrong can one be?

Table at Plas Mawr, Conwy

The first challenge comes from Richard Veryard. His comment pointed to a more expansive blog post, “When does Communication count as Knowledge Sharing?” Richard is concerned that the baggage carried by the word ‘sharing’ can be counter-productive in the knowledge context.

In many contexts, the word “sharing” has become an annoying and patronizing synonym for “disclosure”. In nursery school we are encouraged to share the biscuits and the paints; in therapy groups we are encouraged to “share our pain”, and in the touchy-feely enterprise we are supposed to “share” our expertise by registering our knowledge on some stupid knowledge management system.

But it’s not sharing (defined by Wikipedia as “the joint use of a resource or space”). It’s just communication.

I agree that if people construe sharing as a one-way process, it is communication. (Or, more accurately, ‘telling’, since effective communication requires a listener to do more than hear what is said.) In a discussion in the comments to Richard’s post, Patrick Lambe defends his use of ‘sharing’ and Richard suggests that knowledge ‘transfer’ more accurately describes what is happening. I also commented on the post, along the following lines.

I can see a distinction between ‘sharing’ and ‘transfer’, which might be relevant. To talk of transferring knowledge suggest to me (a) that there is a knower and an inquirer and that those roles are rarely swapped, and (b) that there needs to be a knowledge object to be transferred. (As Richard puts it, “a stupid knowledge management system” is probably the receptacle for that object.)

As Patrick’s blog post and longer article make clear, the idea of the knowledge object is seriously flawed. Equally, the direction in which knowledge flows probably varies from time to time. For me, this fluidity (combined with the intangible nature of what is conveyed in these knowledge generation processes) makes me comfortable with the notion of ‘sharing’ (even given Richard’s playgroup example).

In fact, I might put it more strongly. The kind of sharing and complex knowledge generation that Patrick describes should be an organisational aspiration (not at all like ‘sharing pain’), while exchange or transfer of knowledge objects into a largely lifeless repository should be deprecated.

I think Richard’s response to that comment suggests that we are on the point of reaching agreement:

I am very happy with the notion of shared knowledge generation – for example, sitting down and sharing the analysis and interpretation of something or other. I am also happy with the idea of some collaborative process in which each participant contributes some knowledge – like everyone bringing some food to a shared picnic. But that’s not the prevailing use of the word “sharing” in the KM world.

This was a really interesting conversation, and I felt that between us we reached some kind of consensus — if what is happening with knowledge is genuinely collaborative, jointly creating an outcome that advances the organisation, then some kind of sharing must be going on. If not, we probably have some kind of unequal transfer: producing little of lasting value.

Coincidentally, I was pointed to a really interesting discussion on LinkedIn today. (Generally, I have been deeply unimpressed with LinkedIn discussions, so this was a bit of a surprise.) The question at the start of the discussion was “If the term “KM” could get a do-over what would you call the discipline?” There are currently 218 responses, some of which range into other interesting areas. One of those areas was an exchange between Nick Milton and John Tropea.

Nick responded to another participant who mentioned that her organisation had started talking about ‘knowledge sharing’ rather than ‘knowledge management’.

Many people do this, but I would just like to point out that there is a real risk here – that sharing (“push”) is done at the expense of seeking (“pull”). The risk is you create supply, with no demand.

See here for more detail:

The blog post at the end of that link is probably even more emphatic (I will come back to it later on). John had a different view:

Nick you say “sharing (“push”) is done at the expense of seeking (“pull”). The risk is you create supply, with no demand.”

This is true if sharing is based on conscription, or not within an ecosystem (sorry can’t think of a more appropriate word)…this is the non-interactive document-centric warehousing approach.

But what about blogging experiences and asking questions in a social network, this is more on demand rather than just-in-case…I think this has more of an equilibrium or yin and yang of share and seek.

People blog an experience as it happens which has good content recall, and has no agenda but just sharing the raw experience. Others may learn, converse, share context, etc…and unintentionally new information can be created. This is a knowledge creation system, it’s alive and is more effective than a supply-side approach of shelving information objects…and then saying we are doing KM…to me KM is in the interactions. We must create an online environment that mimics how we naturally behave offline, and I think social computing is close to this.

Nick’s response was interesting:

John – “But what about blogging experiences and asking questions in a social network, this is more on demand rather than just-in-case”

Asking questions in a network, yes (though if I were after business answers, i would ask in a business network rather than a social network). Thats a clear example of Pull.

Blogging, no, I have to disagree with you here. I am sorry – blogging is classic Push. Its classic “just in case” someone should want to read it. Nobody “demands” that you blog about something. You are not writing your blog because you know there is someone out there who is waiting to hear from you – you write your firstly blog for yourself, and secondly “just in case” others will be interested.

Blogging is supply-side, and it’s creating stuff to be stored. OK, it is stored somewhere it can be interacted with, and there is a motivation with blogging which is absent with (say) populating an Intranet, but it is stll classic supply-side Push. Also it is voluntary push. The people who blog (and I include myself in this) are the ones who want to be heard, and that’s not always the same as “the ones who need to be heard”. Knowledge often resides in the quietest people.

This exchange puts me in a quandary. I respect both Nick and John, but they appear to be at loggerheads here. Can they both be right? On the one hand, Nick’s characterisation of supply-side knowledge pushing as something to be avoided is, I think correct. However, as I have written before, in many organisations (such as law firms), it is not always possible to know what might be useful in the future. My experience with formal knowledge capture suggests that when they set out to think about it many people (and firms) actually rate the wrong things as important for the future. They tend to concentrate on things that are already being stored by other people (copies of journal articles or case reports), or things that are intimately linked to a context that is ephemeral. Often the information stored is fairly sketchy. One of the justifications for these failings is the the avoidance of ‘information overload’. This is the worst kind of just-in-case knowledge, as Nick puts it.

I think there is a difference though when one looks at social tools like blogging. As Nick and John probably agree, keeping a blog is an excellent tool for personal development. The question is whether it is more than that. I think it is. I don’t blog here, nor do I encourage the same kind of activity at work because someone might find the content useful in the future. I do it, and encourage it, because the activity itself is useful in this moment. It is neither just-in-case nor just-in-time: it just is.

In the last couple of paragraphs, I was pretty careless with my use of the words ‘information’ and ‘knowledge’. That was deliberate. The fact is that much of what we call KM is, in fact, merely manipulation of information. What social tools bring us (along with a more faceted view of their users) are really interesting ways of exposing people’s working processes. As we learnt from Nonaka all those years ago, there is little better for learning and development of knowledge than close observation of people at work. (Joining in is certainly better, but not always possible.) What we may not know is where those observations might lead, or when they might become useful. Which brings me to Nick’s blog post.

We hear a lot about “knowledge sharing”. Many of the knowledge management strategies I am asked to review, for example, talk about “creating a culture of knowledge sharing”.

I think this misses the point. As I said in my post about Push and Pull, there is no point in creating a culture of sharing, if you have no culture of re-use. Pull is a far more powerful driver for Knowledge Management than Push, and I would always look to create a culture of knowledge seeking before creating a culture of knowledge sharing.

Nick’s point about knowledge seeking is well made, and chimes with Patrick Lambe’s words that I quoted last time:

We do have an evolved mechanism for achieving such deep knowledge results: this is the performance you can expect from a well-networked person who can sustain relatively close relationships with friends, colleagues and peers, and can perform as well as request deep knowledge services of this kind.

Requesting, seeking, performing: all these are aspects of sharing. Like Richard Veryard’s “traditional KM” Nick characterises sharing as a one-way process, but that is not right — that is the way it has come to be interpreted. Sharing must be a two-way process: it needs someone to ask as well as someone who answers, and those roles might change from day to day. However, Nick’s point about re-use is a really interesting one.

I suggested above that some firms’ KM systems might contain material that was ultimately useless. More precisely, I think uselessness arises at the point where re-use becomes impossible because the material we need to use is more flawed than not. These flaws might arise because of the age of the material, combined with its precise linkage with a specific person, client, subject and so on. Lawyers understand this perfectly — it is the same process we use to decide whether a case is a useful precedent or not. Proximity in time, matter or context contributes significantly to this assessment. However, an old case on a very different question of law in a very different commercial context is not necessarily useless.

One of the areas of law I spent some time researching was the question of Crown privilege. A key case in that area involved the deportation of a Zairean national in 1990. In the arguments before the House of Lords, the law dating back to the English Civil War was challenged by reference to cases on subjects as varied as EC regulation of fisheries and potato marketing. That those cases might have been re-used in such a way could not have been predicted when they were decided or reported.

In many contexts, then, re-use is not as clear-cut an issue as it may appear at first. My suspicion is that organisations that rely especially highly on personal, unique, knowledge (or intellectual capital) should be a lot more relaxed about this than Nick suggests. His view may be more relevant in organisations where repetitive processes generate much more value.

On the just-in-case problem, I think social tools are significantly different from vast information repositories. As Clay Shirky has said, what we think is information overload is actually filter failure. Where we rely solely on controlled vocabularies and classification systems, our capability to filter and search effectively runs out much sooner than it does when we can add personalised tags, comments, trackbacks, knowledge about the author from other sources, and so on. Whereas repositories usually strip context from the information they contain, blogs and other social tools bring their context with them. And, crucially, that context keeps growing.

Which brings me, finally, back to my last post. One of the other trackbacks was from another blog asking the question “What is knowledge sharing?” It also picks up on Patrick’s article, and highlights the humanity of knowledge generation.

…we need to think laterally about what we consider to constitute knowledge sharing. This morning I met some friends in an art gallery and, over coffee, we swapped anecdotes, experiences, gripes, ideas and several instances of ‘did you hear about?’ or ‘have you seen?’… I’m not sure any of us would have described the encounter as knowledge exchange but I came away with answers to work-related questions, a personal introduction to a new contact and the germ of a new idea. The meet up was organised informally through several social networks.

The key thing in all of this, for me, is that whether we talk of knowledge sharing, transfer, or management, it only has value if it can result in action: new knowledge generation; new products; ideas; thoughts. But I think that action is more likely if we are open-minded about where it might arise. If we try and predict where it may be, and from which interactions it might come, I think it is most probable that no useful action and value will result in the long term.

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.”

Model KM — iTunes or Spotify?

The current craze amongst the UK musical digerati is a service based in Sweden called Spotify. Simply put, it is a legal way to play any music you could imagine (although there are the usual absences — The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, for example) without buying a copy of the CD or downloading a permanent digital version. Previously, when I thought about subscription-based music services, I was not sure what the attraction would be. I like to have my music with me wherever I am — in the car, on the train, walking to work. On reflection, however, that is just a habit that I developed when I first acquired an iPod. Prior to that, my music was something that belonged at home or (in limited quantities) in the car. 

Spotify has changed my outlook. I still have all my music to carry with me, but I also have a vast collection at my disposal when I am at the computer. As a result, I have renewed my acquaintance with music that I would never have bought in permanent form. It is like having a radio station with an amazingly large and personal playlist. I can also decide whether I like something enough to buy it to add to the portable permanent collection.

So why the KM connection in the title? It occurred to me that a personal collection of music (often housed in iTunes) could be likened to an organisational knowledge repository. By comparison, access to a remote and unimaginable database of music if replicated in the knowledge context could be so many things. For law firms there are online information and knowledge services, but they tend to be structured in the way that the service provider dictates. Spotify imposes no structure. Consider this “Spotification” of a domestic CD collection. It is effectively a visual mapping of a CD collection onto Spotify links. The physical asset (a CD) is used as a metaphor for a virtual one. At a more basic level, users can create playlists of the music they like (just as in iTunes, but a little more basic at present).

Another important distinction between iTunes and Spotify is that I don’t have to worry about uploading new content to Spotify. Someone else does that (just as they do in an online legal information service). So we can think of Spotify in the KM context as a place where anything one might want to hear (know about) is available, as opposed to the place where one can only hear (find out about) what one already knows. Surely that is a better position to be in?

There is also a social feature to Spotify. Playlists can be personal (here is all the music I like) or collaborative (let’s share all the tracks of a certain type that we like). That feature could be replicated in know-how systems as a form of joint research (here are the useful resources on a topic of mutual interest). As yet there is no tagging in the system, and it is tied to the internet and to computers (although I gather there is an iPhone client in the works, and rumour has it that a limited offline capability may also be forthcoming). The future looks interesting for music and for KM, but I wonder what will be the ultimate mortal wound for internal knowledge repositories.

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?

The millennial organisation

I can’t remember how I found it, but there is a snappy presentation by Sacha Chua on Slideshare entitled “The Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work.” I think it is misnamed — it is actually a valuable guide to Web 2.0 for people of any generation. See what you think:

Slide 5 is the best:

Here’s how to wow with Web 2.0:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Reach out
  4. Rock
  5. Repeat from #1

So true. Almost everything I try and do (and encourage others to try and do) comes down to one or more of these things.

However, there is something else buried in the presentation which I found just as interesting. I thought this was an internal presentation for people at IBM (where Sacha works), and so when I saw a link to their blogging guidelines I assumed they might be behind the IBM firewall. In fact they are on public view, and are well worth reading. Apart from the content, which is balanced and intelligent, this statement caught my eye:

In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice—and also to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM itself, as the company sought to embrace the blogosphere. Since then, many new forms of social media have emerged. So we turned to IBMers again to re-examine our guidelines and determine what needed to be modified. The effort has broadened the scope of the existing guidelines to include all forms of social computing.

So that is why the guidelines are balanced and intelligent — the people they affect have collaborated to create something that serves IBM well, in addition to taking account of the reality of engagement with social media.

IBM is clearly a company that understands the positive impact of social media on its business. I don’t think this is solely because part of the business is actually to develop products for collaboration.

Compare this approach with a comment in an article in the Financial Times last week: ” Law firms are at the cutting edge of internet tools.” We’ll ignore the verity or otherwise of the headline — maybe that’s a topic for another day. No — something curious was buried in the middle of the article:

Enterprises often let the beast out of the cage by introducing Web 2.0 and are faced with the ramifications of clogging the enterprise with unapproved, chaotic information.

Who said this? A fuddy-duddy technophobic managing partner? A stereotypically controlling CIO? No. It is a direct quote from Dr Michael Lynch, OBE, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Autonomy Corporation plc. I find this really odd. Here is Autonomy’s vision:

Autonomy was founded upon a vision to dramatically change the way in which we interact with information and computers, ensuring that computers map to our world, rather than the other way round.

Human-friendly or unstructured information is not naturally found in the rows and columns of a database, but in documents, presentations, videos, phone conversations, emails and IMs. We are facing an increasing deluge of unstructured information, with 80% now falling into this category and, according to Gartner, the volume of this data doubling every month. As the amount of unstructured information multiplies, the challenge for the modern enterprise is trying to understand and extract the value that lies within this vast sea of data.

I suspect that Lynch’s full comment has been cut short by the FT. Surely he meant to go on to say that his company could undo this chaos? As reported, however, the statement is more likely to be used by more risk-averse firms to avoid adoption of social software inside the firewall. In doing so, they will miss one of the key points of this kind of technology.

As Andrew McAfee puts it (building on a 1973 article, “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter), the use of social software inside the firewall creates opportunities for innovation and value-creation. (Strong ties are found between colleagues who work closely together, while weak ties are found in a wider, more casual, network.)

A tidy summary of SWT’s conclusion is that strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).

Information in the network of weak ties can surface by a variety of means — especially tagging and search. Information only exists in that network if people adopt an approach like Sacha Chua’s — read, write, reach out. If a business fails to provide opportunities for its people to build and contribute to networks of weak ties, they make a serious mistake.

Tom Davenport has asked “Can Millennials Really Change the Workplace?” Maybe we should looking not at Millennial individuals, but at whether our businesses are themselves behaving millennially, and facilitating Generation Y approaches for all our people. Frederic Baud is sceptical :

Enterprise 2.0 represents a real paradigm shift for process oriented organizations.

I hate to use the term “paradigm shift”, because it has been used so many times, and for quite common situations. But in this case, I’m starting to wonder if there is not indeed a very distinctive approach between the two modes that would require organization to adopt very different ways to think about their internal dynamics.

This may be true, but now is surely an obvious time to think about those internal dynamics. Competition between enterprises in all markets is becoming increasingly close. Businesses worrying about coping with “unapproved chaotic information” may well find that their unsinkable ship has the tidiest set of deck-chairs at the bottom of the ocean. Those who start thinking creatively about the power of these disruptive technologies will probably find that they are first in line for the life-rafts.

If your organisation is thinking of getting serious about becoming Millennial, you will find few better summaries of the practical issues than Lee Bryant’s “Getting started with enterprise social networking.” (And if the sinking ship metaphor is too brutal for you, try Jack Vinson’s porch.)