Thursday, June 28, 2007


Patrick Lambe writes about Chronic Organisational Knowledgeitis (which he suggests may be a collective relative of individual Infoluenza). Knowledgeitis is a "lifestyle" disease that cannot be cured using a quick fix of technology.

This triggers all kinds of thoughts about changes in medicine & public health and links to KM (and organisational development in general).

The history of medicine between the Napoleonic Wars & WWII is truly amazing. Two centuries ago, surgery was something barbers did in their spare time and provided you didn't die of blood loss, shock or secondary infection - all was peachy. At the smarter end of town, individual physicians plied their trade. Most had a reputation as quacks and they were definitely the social inferiors of clergymen & lawyers (a situation that is now reversed).

So what happened? The linking of medical practice to biological science in areas such as germ theory & then genetics, improved training & the development of an education system to spread these new practices, more investment & state involvement in public health.

To an extent, modern medicine is a victim of its own success. The power of vaccinations, pharmaceutical techniques & surgical interventions has turned the traditional situation (where illness & death was the norm for most people) on its head in the developed world. What it has left are those conditions with complex causes (such as cancer or mental illness) that we only partially understand. Such conditions often have a significant "lifestyle" component ("lifestyle" is a nice shorthand for the contexts we make for ourselves). The specialisation of much of modern medical research has left it ill-equipped to deal with these complex conditions but this is definitely changing. However in the interim, a holistic view of self & the world (no matter how barmy) is part of the attraction of alternative therapies.

This is analogous to the role that IT has played in the corporate since WWII. Information systems & automation have had a dramatic impact on our working lives where the problems are not complex. Need to know how much inventory you have? Easy. Need to automate financial transfers & bill payment? Sorted.

But IT has had comparatively little impact on complex problems related to knowledge, leadership, etc (N.B. Much of the advice by business gurus in these latter areas reminds me of aromatherapy or reiki).

To go off on a different tangent, a female friend once observed that women tend to have a holistic view of their bodies where as men view their bodies as machines to be run & fixed. Men are notoriously bad at going to the doctor when unwell (possibly because it reminds them of their dependence on their bodies). This "macho" approach to KM "health" is visible in many organisations. This may simply be due to ignorance or an impatience for quick fixes but I suspect many senior managers do not want to admit vulnerability. If you are dependent on the knowledge of subordinates (i.e. if you are not omniscient) then that means you have to manage them in a different manner than if you had all the answers.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Social Software & Social Order

Social class is one of those dynamite topics along with religion and politics. And it's dynamite because distinctions of power and money lie in the background of our interactions with others yet it is considered inappropriate to talk about them openly - esp. in supposedly democratic societies. Just ask your colleague how much they earn and offer to tell them how much you do (N.B. This latter act is taboo in European or US society but is more common in India) and then bask in the awkward silence*.

Which is what makes this essay on Facebook & MySpace by Danah Boyd so interesting. Also check out this post on Orkut & India by Shobha.

This presents something of a challenge for Webtopians (which is a strawman occasionally inhabited by a real writer). Web 2.0 technologies are supposed to break down existing power structures. We are all supposed to collaborate as equals for the greater good. But people cannot help but take the social structures their bodies grew up in online as well. Our virtual existences are a hybrid of the old and the new. We have already created new social forms but we cannot junk the old ones yet.

To contradict that famous New Yorker cartoon: on the internet, people can know whether you are dog - and even what breed of dog you are.

"Your Facebook Profile is ready, sir."

*Traditional social order is reliant on groups staying silent on their position in the pecking order - historically God was used to sanction why I live in a mansion & you cannot pay the rent. Now genetics, personal effectiveness & free-market economics take the starring role in the theatre of justification.

Tagged & Bagged

Nimmy has tagged me for "8 random things about me". Here goes:

  1. I was born in Plymouth UK.
  2. I was born tongue-tied (stop laughing at the back).
  3. I am naturally an introvert...
  4. ...but I am also an immigrant.
  5. I write & perform poetry as a hobby. Some of it makes people laugh.
  6. I played the tuba at school. That also made people laugh (but not in a good way).
  7. I have had my reiki channels opened.
  8. I believe I can fly (no, hang on, that's R Kelly, we often get confused).

I tag:
I will leave a comment on their respective blogs in one week. But first I selfishly want to find out if i. they read what I write or ii. they have a vanity feed in place.

The rules....
-Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
-People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
-At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment and tell them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Where does trust come from?

There has been a lot written about social capital & trust - however I have come across comparatively little that discusses how we come to trust people and how we then continue to trust them (or not). My suspicion is that the decision to trust someone (& I am stealing this from someone else, possibly Dave) is Kleinian rather than Classical. Rather than comparing the attributes of an individual against certain weighted criteria ("hmmm, a 6.4 on the speaking nicely but a 2.3 on the shifty eyes") we make a first fit pattern match based on their identity. Out of the people I have met before, who is this person like and did I trust them? This match will be contextual - i.e. if we are dealing with a volvo-driving estate agent then the patterns we look for may depend on whether we are buying a house or a car.

This implies a few things:

  • No one has just one identity. Therefore we may try to use one trusted identity to promote an unknown one (e.g. "we play golf together & you trust me then, how about buying your computers from my business"). However that transfer is not automatic (e.g. I may trust my friend with my life in a car - but not under the knife in an operating theatre).

  • The more diverse our experiences of dealing with particular kinds of people, the better our decisions should be regarding their trustworthiness as the more robust & complete our patterns will be.

  • Our feelings on meeting people can be a reliable guide as to their trustworthiness (as we experience our pattern recognition as intuition) - but how reliable depends on the robustness of our patterns.

  • An awareness of the strengths & weaknesses in our pattern repertoires can improve our decision-making. One way of compensating for a lack of experience on our own part is to draw on the experiences of others ("I dunno, with your experiences in snake charming, what do you think of her python control claims?")
This is not to say that we never make decisions around trust consciously or by weighing criteria - just that these occasions are in the minority.

Image Source: Natalie Dee

P.S. Kim has an interesting post on trust where this thoughts first emerged.

Personal Productivity Tools (History of Content Part 2)

In the beginning there was Excel. Well first there was VisiCalc then there was Lotus 1-2-3 then there was Excel. Then there was also Word - ignoring WordStar & WordPerfect for now. Then there was Powerpoint.

And lo the trinity of personal productivity tools was complete. And verily were the people more productive. Well some of the time. Provided they didn't have to work with anyone else. Because when they did, the version control for Excel & Word documents would get screwed up - even with the track changes option on (because several people would need to change documents in concurrently rather than consecutively).

Word, Excel & Powerpoint have subtly shaped the way the work - and therefore who we are. Not in a major, like the ideas & practices of Islam shaped the lives of those converted or born into that faith (and also those who traded with them). But in a myriad of imperceptible ways. And in turn the nature of our jobs & desires has chaped their development in the technology dialectic.

Personal computers fitted in well with an individual, task-focused world. They have got steadily less personal over the last 15 years - their island solitude breached by the technologies of email, the internet, IM & the management injunctions to collaborate, cooperate & team, goddamnit, people ("Look, we all went off on that one day course and did the 'catching one another' exercise, I think we work together pretty well, don't we guys? Er, guys?").

An Englishman's laptop is no longer his castle. Which is why I think the replacement of personal productivity tools with collective productivity tools is likely to happen. However it won't happen tomorrow nor will it necessarily lead to more democratic workplaces - not all Collectives are friendly (just ask the Soviets).

"Our collaboration suite is just fine thank you..."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Art & Identity

Brad pointed me towards the Art of Islam exhibition at NSW Gallery this weekend. From austere Korans in kufic script to decadant Mughal daggers encrusted with jewels, the historical breadth of Islamic culture is on display. Random notes / questions:
  • Islamic lands are at the crossroads of Asian & European trade routes and artists had drawn on designs from China, India & Europe as well as the pre-Islamic traditions of Persia, North Africa, etc.
  • The hajj is a requirement for every able-bodied muslim. Travel guides were available listing which ships to take to Mecca, which hotels to stay in, etc. Kinda like a devotional Lonely Planet.
  • Mughal & Ottoman sultans demonstrated a money/sense imbalance to put a Hollywood starlet to shame.
  • To what extent did the shift in trade to the Atlantic from the 15th century onwards and the discovery of trade routes via the Cape of Good Hope undermine the economic power & technological openness of Islamic Empires? What would have happened if a muslim had discovered America?
  • Christian, Jews & Muslims are "People of the Book" (a designation tailor-made for a wbookworm like me). Are we still peoples of the book?

I do not believe that art makes us better people but after being immersed in spreadsheets & the mundane, there is something cleansing (& worrying) in being presented with other people's tangible labours from a culture that is alien*.

You learn something new every day: Cenotaph literally means "empty tomb".

*Though seeing anything in a glass case, floating free of its original context, is going to make it seem alien.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Brands as Attractors

So all this talk of brands and identities makes me wonder if we shouldn't view brands as attractors. Now I'm going to have to be careful here because when I say attractor, I don't mean "magnet". I mean attractor more like this explanation from wikipedia.

An attractor is a set to which a dynamical system evolves after a long enough time. That is, points that get close enough to the attractor remain close even if slightly disturbed. Geometrically, an attractor can be a point, a curve, a manifold, or even a complicated set with a fractal structure known as a "strange attractor".
Note that an attractor is where a system tends to end up. Move the elements of the system away from that and they return to it. The attractor does not exist independently but as an aspect of the system. In particular, the patterns formed by the strange attractors of chaotic systems are in constant motion, indicating a system that never reaches repose but is both describable & beautiful.

In a similar way, organisations do not have complete control over their brands - but they are actors within the system. The brand is where their behaviour ends up. Other participants within the system may also end up there - and may also change the nature of the system. Just as strange attractors may whirl in motion around multiple points so the identity of an organisation & its outputs may oscillate around multiple identities (caring, ruthless, efficient, etc).

I realise I am probably bastardising precise science with unwarranted speculation but what the hell, it's Saturday night.

I'd like to lock some mathematicians and marketers in a room to nut this one out but it may end with mutual sniping around partial differential equations and personal hygiene. Still it could be worth a shot - any volunteers?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Social Media Redux

Trevor Cook & Lee Hopkins publish a second version of their Social Media White Paper.

Steven Lewis links to this dead interesting report from Melcrum on How to use social media to engage employees.

Ross Dawson offers hot video action of Web 2.0 in Australia.

Podcamp Australia is an unconference in the unoffing. You get to choose where it's held. I reckon given the close alignment between V8 Supercars & AJAX, Bathurst is a no-brainer.

Meanwhile back at the intranet ranch, Step Two go wild & crazy with papers on Personalisation vs Segmentation, Start user research by talking with staff, & Do staff make use of personalisation features?

Brand & Choice

Gav Heaton on brands & the spectacle.

I have a block with brands. People talk about "the brand" with the same hushed tone that aged retainers tell young damsels that they must not shame "the family name" in Victorian melodramas. We must be guardians of the brand & protect it - it must remain unsullied by human contact.

Brands are identities (& as we all know, identities are strange attractors). Or more precisely, organisations create brands because they can't have identities of their own. Because organisations cannot be human. But if organisations were human, brands would be character.

As Robert McKee says: characters are what they do. Every writer knows that drama comes from characters making decisions - the tougher the better. Which of the following choices is the more dramatic? 1. "Hmmm - dairy or soy this morning?" or 2. "Do I put myself at risk to save these people from certain death or protect my own skin?"

If you voted for 1. then you will be thrilled to know that Lactose Intolerance III is available from all good DVD stores now.

So it goes with brands. The brand isn't the swanky logo you paid 60 grand for. And it's definitely not the new "customer service promise" on your website. It's what your people do day in, day out. And especially when the proverbial hits the fan.

The promise of "engagement" is really an offer - "the gift of life". Many brands have only had indirect contact with their consumers. Now, if you want, you can connect with the people who eat the soup or sit on the chairs you make. But doing so will present you with choices - and may reveal your character. For better or worse.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Powerpoint & Visual Literacy (A History of Content Part 1)

Ralph Kerle has a go at the Death by Powerpoint brigade. I don't think that Ralph & the anti-ppt mob are that far apart actually. The issue is less around powerpoint itself than the absence of visual design skills in the population at large (myself included).

The unholy triumvirate of Word, Excel & Powerpoint are to be found on every office desktop. Of the three, powerpoint is the least understood even if excel is the most feared.

Word has a lengthy prehistory. The first word processing programs in the 70s controlled actual electric typewriters. Physical spreadsheets have been used by accountants for centuries but the creation of VisiCalc was a major driver in the adoption of personal computers by business people (more on both of these in future posts).

Powerpoint is much younger than either of these. Presenter was developed by Forethought Inc for the Mac back in the late 80s, originally as a design tool for 35 mm slides. These would have been put together by professional designers as printing was still expensive. Powerpoint didn't come into its own until the spread of the Windows GUI interface & the the spread of LCD projectors.

Marshall McLuhan noted that we view new technologies thru the lens of older ones. For non-designers (i.e. most of us), powerpoint is just a snazzier version of Word in landscape not portrait. This is partly because our computers have been writing machines (hell, they even look like typewriters) rather than drawing machines. If we were able to make that mental shift (whether using tablet PCs, handhelds, whatever) then I suspect our use of powerpoint would be very different.

Beyond those ontological observations, here are some more practical comments on powerpoint:

  • Many use powerpoint as a word processing tool for the creation of reports. This is a really dumb idea (it was endemic at IBM during my time there). You have a word processor on your desktop - use it.

  • Few users have a clue about the basics of visual design (Exhibit 1: Slides filled to the brim with 6 pt text).
  • Even fewer have a clue about visual communication as an adjunct to a spoken presentation.
  • Many people hate public speaking. Writing your speaker notes on your powerpoint slides provides a nice, warm safety blanket, no matter how much it sucks from a design perspective.
  • Most speakers are too lazy to prepare a separate presentation & handout and most audiences are too lazy to request them.

    To dam this endless stream of bad presentations, I would suggest that most business users of powerpoint need to understand "presentation" in the round:
  • Presenting with impact (words, images, voice & body)
  • Basic visual design
  • The techie bits with powerpoint (such as animation)

    And fatwa on powerpoint as a report-writing tool wouldn't be a bad idea either.

  • (Is it just me or does the powerpoint logo look like pacman with 40-a-day ciggie habit?)

    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    School of blog

    Anne Bartlett-Bragg discusses adult learners' experiences blogging. Anne's article is written for an academic audience but the description of the path for different user/learner experiences rings true - from worrying about the technology to finding an identity to talking to other people to finally embedding it in the way you work.

    Meanwhile, Jack Vinson introduced blogging to his KM class with equally mixed results...

    Squeezing out a few more?

    Lauchlan Mackinnon writes about idea management systems and also provides a handy presentation.

    As Lauchlan notes, an IMS is predicated on senior execs within an organisation taking the ideas of employees seriously and putting place opportunities to develop some of those ideas into reality.

    The approach Lauchlan outlines is process-based - which I think is necessary but not sufficient. The thing that concerns me is that you have to have the right people at the stage gates - people who can spot ideas that will work and ones that won't.

    An alternative approach would be an idea market - where "sellers" & "buyers" would identify each other. IBM didn't just do InnovationJam but also ThinkPlace - where IBMers could work on ideas collaboratively.

    Depending on the nature of the organisation, a pipeline approach vs. a market approach could be more effective. For many organisations, a combination of both might be preferable. And presumably you could also incorporate things like prediction markets into the idea evaluation process.

    Presumably pipelines/process & markets are only two models. What are some of the others?

    Somewhere over the rainbow

    Brad Hinton asks the question: "is there a learning organisation out there?"

    I haven't done an exhaustive study of every organisation in the universe but my guess is that no organisation fits the ideal model of a learning organisation. Some are better at collective learning than others. Some offer better personal learning opportunities than others. But most people in organisations struggle to balance the long-term & short-term as well as the individual & the collective.

    I like the post by Ton Zijlstra that Brad identifies. Owning your own learning path is something I concur with - and something I have tried to put into practice after my own fashion. I may well steal Ton's model in the near future (with attribution).

    There has been a lot of talk around "user-centred" learning - but this has tended towards the personalisation of elearning content delivery - "Hey, you are about to be fired, please take Course E2435 Why suing your ex-employer for wrongful dismissal is bad". Ton's model is about user-centred learning in the broader sense - which implies the user has enough self-knowledge to undertake their own personal curriculum development. Are your employees skillful enough to do that? And do you trust them enough to let them try?

    So Brad, my short answer to your question is: "No, probably not, we're just going to have to make our own learning organisation gosh darnit"

    Saturday, June 16, 2007

    Peers & superiors

    The title of this post by Tammy Erickson in my feedreader led me to expect a standard guide to ass-kissing. Instead she talks about something much more interesting - a shift from impressing your boss to working with your peers and building P2P networks. I am not sure whether this is the case yet (or ever will be). I still hear about lots of ass-kissing going on (and even engage in it myself from time to time). And 360-degree feedback programs (an existing form of peer review) have had a mixed history.

    Being an egalitarian sort of bloke (I only despise you if you are black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, gay, straight or like roller skating), I hope Tammy is right. However I don't necessarily agree that P2P networks are always hierarchy-free or optimal. Like all crowd-based activities, they can be subject to gaming & politics unless certain safe-guards are in place (diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, aggregation).

    A fish school in the car pool

    Perhaps tired of baiting the religious, atheists, liberals, conservatives and anyone else that takes his fancy, Scott Adams writes something brain-stretching but sensible on his blog. In fact I wonder if this blog entry was ghost-written by Howard Rheingold.

    Presumably this approach needn't apply only to cars but anywhere there is excess capacity in the environment due to poor coordination. I like cooking but often cook too much. If I could find some way of alerting those who might like my cooking that there's food going spare and it's theirs for the taking how good would that be?

    Big ideas & the people who love them

    Fast Company labelled Tom Davenport "the most influential business guru you've never heard of". And rightly so. Davenport is one of my favourite business writers because his style is clear & his approach balanced - the antithesis of hype. He isn't here to preach the gospel - just tell you useful stuff.

    Just finished What's the Big Idea?, a book written by Davenport with Larry Prusak and (in slightly smaller type*) H. James Wilson. This book looks at the uptake of business ideas such as re-engineering & KM. Rather than focus on the gurus, it highlights "idea practitioners", the people in organisations who take these ideas and make them work - thus giving the gurus case studies to talk about at conferences. This shift in focus is very good and I recommend to book to those of you who work for The Man yet want to do cool new stuff. The only comment I would make is that the authors treat idea practitioners as lone guns (albeit ones who must persuade & influence others). What would be interesting to know is the extent to which practicing ideas is a social effort - i.e. do groups of idea practitioners work together within organisations? If so, how? Do you they play different roles? Are those roles stable & identifiable? I guess my question wants to take the book's view of the idea ecosystem in organisations and explore it in more detail.

    Any suggestions?

    *Davenport & Prusak are the "name" authors but I wonder how much of the actual work was done by Wilson. Is there an inverse relationship between size of your name on the cover and the amount of donkey work you have to do?

    Thursday, June 14, 2007

    Stumbling on Good Writing

    Dan Gilbert not only has the temerity to be a Harvard psychology professor but he is also a fantastic science writer. Stumbling on Happiness is a fantastic book by a complete smartass.

    Gilbert's point is that we suck at predicting what will make us happy in the future. And there are very good evolutionary reasons why we might suck at that. Our memories betray us and our forecasting abilities are fickle.

    Check out his TED talk for a taste.

    Feeling Competitive?

    Ex-colleague Dan McHugh has started a blog on competitive intelligence. Dan is doing his level best to convince the uninitiated that CI is not about breaking into offices at night and stealing corporate secrets (and any used underwear left lying around) but using your brain and legally obtained info.

    Whether Dan has stolen underwear as part of his job or not (and, hey, haven't we all been in that situation at one time or another?), I do like his suggestion for an application that is a mix of social networking and business analytics. For me this ties in with Brad Hinton's post on KM & Research. In smaller organisations (and some bigger ones too), the research function gets landed with competitive intelligence. Typically, researchers are well-trained in information sources such as company reports, market information, statistics, etc but lack a means to manage expert networks that might have critical, non-documented insights. The last 10 years has seen great strides in the organisational & technical approaches to leverage these but how many are currently in play?

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007

    Check out the Big Brain on Brad

    This article on The Neuroscience of Leadership came out last year. The authors state:
  • Change is pain
  • Behaviorism doesn’t work
  • Humanism is overrated
  • Focus is power
  • Expectation shapes reality
  • Attention density shapes identity

    Plenty of good stuff in the article, although the application of neuroscience to business is still in its infancy. The thing I always worry about with the application of any technique is that some people are always looking for a shortcut to make people do what they want.

  • Most Important KM Presentation Ever!!!

    Not so much a mere presentation as a full-on, interactive, life-changing experience.

    It's Not What I Expected

    Guaranteed to make change management efforts simple, easy & 100% effective. And if you believe that then please send me your bank details as I have $100 million that recently came into my possession after the death of a Nigerian government minister. Come share my good fortune today!

    Tuesday, June 05, 2007


    Whilst sheltering from the rain, I dug deep into Wikinomics by Don Pascott & Anthony Williams. So the book is pretty good introduction to collaborative innovation and makes the bold claim that pretty much everything will become collaborative (if it isn't already). A! trifle! breathless! at times (just imagine William Shatner reading that sentence), I am loathe to criticise this book because I want its predictions to be true even if they're not.

    The stories of the modular Chinese motorcycle manufacturers and Boeing's collaborative design process were particularly interesting (partly because it was about real stuff being made rather than people fiddling about with wikis).

    Even better, they have used a Social Text wiki to provide a platform for a peer-produced Wikinomics Playbook, putting their mouths where their money is, so to speak.

    Monday, June 04, 2007

    Why settle for RSS or sangria?

    When Ross Dawson is organising a session involving both as an adjunct to the Web 2.0 in Australia this Wednesday.

    Saturday, June 02, 2007

    Staff Deduction

    Shawn with a great post on staff inductions here. The issue as I see it is that staff inductions often get left to HR and/or the training department. And they want to put on a one-shot classroom event (with some canned eLearning courses) and then wash their hands of it as quickly as possible. I remember asking someone putting together a 3-day induction course: "What happens after the 3 days?". The answer was along the lines of: "They go off & do their jobs". Feel the love! Induction should be seen as a process rather than an event (much as Shawn lays out here). The other point to make is that clever organisations treat the induction process as a chance to learn from new employees as well as the other way round both with experienced hires ("Hey what's the big wide world like out there") and inexperienced ones ("Lend us your fresh eyes before they become stale)>

    One interesting tech tip (courtesy of Glenn Maramara) is to offer collaborative bookmarking software (along the lines of to new joiners. That way, you & they can see the parts of the intranet they use - allowing you some insight into what they need & can find, what they look for & fail to and also some sense of their relative information finding abilities. Obviously not appropriate for all organisations but an interesting idea.

    The flipside of people joining your organisation is people leaving. Many organisations manage this process very badly. It is important to note that the care-factor burden subtly shifts here. On joining, the newbie has more to gain if the process goes well and more to lose if it goes badly. This is not the case on leaving. Obviously a sudden resignation is hard to deal with but if you know a staff member is retiring, do you have a reverse version of Shawn's year, month, week list or will you try to cram it in on the last day (just as you ran around on Christmas Eve trying to get that Bruce Lee box set your mum had always wanted)?

    (Picture: CNN)