Should we now forget about managing information and knowledge and just focus on connecting people?

Books, documents, manuscripts, newspapers and even web pages were created in the past partly because there was no other way for someone with knowledge to share it with someone else in a different time or place who might need it.

Throughout my Information and Knowledge Management career I have sought to manage all of these forms of information in one way or another, but now I realise that in some senses they are all redundant (or one day probably will be).

Even though I like to present myself as a social computing evangelist and general wannabe-geek, I will admit that this most elementary understanding of what is happening to information and knowledge completely passed me by until very recently..

The final wake-up call came recently via Twitter: I had a friend who was standing for election to the local council in Edinburgh and was curious to find out how he had got on. Could I find it in a newspaper, on the BBC website, on Wikipedia? No. So, I simply searched twitter until I found a hashtag that led me to tweeters in the count itself. I proceeded to follow their tweets for a couple of hours to gain what turned out to be a very accurate and comprehensive picture of what had happened in the elections.

This ability to connect directly with the people with the knowledge, as they were acquiring it, blew me away (especially compared with the results of much of my own work which delivers information to people long after things have moved on). What if this were the case for all information? Clearly you can’t connect with people who are no longer here, so there might be a case for ‘managing’ historic information, but the ability to tap into source knowledge and even interact with it, turns much traditional IM ad KM on its head.

Clearly if you are going straight to source, you need to exercise a greater degree of intelligent analysis, given that you now lack traditional filters, but this has always been the case for primary sources of information. In reality, not every tweet in my above example was helpful or accurate, but by reading them as a whole I was able to gain a remarkably accurate picture of events (later confirmed by formal announcements and media reports).

So what does this mean for IM/KM work? Although we’re not quite there yet (and Twitter, for example, has  functionality that is too limited to take this idea much further), much collaborative technology is moving towards facilitating this connection between enquirer and source, gradually reducing the steps in between.

Tools like Twitter (or Yammer or Socialcast), enterprise wikis, social networking, file sharing and gps-based people locaters are pushing further and further in this direction. The telephone, of course, did it first and it’s therefore not surprising that it is the modern telephone (or at least the device that now holds it) that is carrying much of these modern tools.

This means that to some degree all these other information technologies will be usurped once people can connect effectively. What happens to traditional Information & Knowledge Managers then?

Hopefully, they too will be put to better use. For me, perhaps that means managing content much less, and training, motivating and leading people much more. Will businesses and other organisations recognise the value of that kind of role? I suspect not many will, or at least not for a long time. But given the inevitability of this movement, I think those of us who work in Knowledge Management especially should step away from our content management comfort zone and push for it much more than we currently are.

 

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Moving from static data to intelligent working

To listen to many knowledge management/online collaboration experts, you would think that creating an effective knowledge-sharing environment was as simple as flicking a switch and issuing the instructions.

Unfortunately, the reality is a little more complex. For many organisations, the existence of multiple legacy systems and processes will make moving to a new, more open, better connected culture a more drawn-out process.

The solution to this (sometimes) is to consume the elephant one bite at a time. The timeline/process chart below demonstrates how this journey can progress. The problem with timelines is that they are never quite as sequential as they appear. In this one for example, someone can make the transition from phase 1 to 5 almost instantly if they are motivated and capable, whereas others can be at various stages simultaneously (i.e. depending on which bits of information they are using).

However, broadly speaking, this is a good yardstick for measuring where you are on your journey to having your information and knowledge integrated with your working processes – or why you’re not moving towards this goal more quickly.

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It’s very difficult (if not impossible) to get to any of the phases without first establishing the previous phase. It’s difficult to share knowledge without well-managed information and it’s difficult to integrate collective knowledge into your working processes without an effective way of sharing that knowledge in the first place.

This applies if you are moving data/information from legacy systems, or even starting from scratch – the principles are the same – and it might help you measure how near or far you are from arriving at your intelligent collaboration goal.

Simple stuff really, but worth seeing it mapped out.

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Integration and collaboration – which way round?

One of the most difficult stumbling blocks to any new approach to working is how to integrate your new system with old/legacy systems. By “systems” I mean both technology and working practices/culture and will deal with both.

The obvious first response is “don’t”. It might be possible to leave old systems behind completely, but in reality there will generally be some need to interact with current processes and technology.

The traditional approach is for your IT department to engineer the new system in such a way that it is effectively built into, or grafted onto, legacy platforms. I would argue that this is the most expensive, time-consuming and ultimately frustrating approach. The reluctance to let go of old systems will probably be your main obstacle to progress, so you should be prepared to ignore calls to make it fit “the way we do things here”.

Is this how we integrate old and new systems?

You will also find people attempting to perform old processes and new ones side-by-side (and often then complaining that your new system has increased their workload). Overcoming this mentality will require a substantial change management programme and determined leadership by those managing the new process.

So, is there an easier way?

Two great things about both collaborative technologies and the processes they encourage are:

  1. They don’t always require formal integration into current technologies. Using RSS, folksonomic tags, iframes, smartphone apps and a range of other connectivity tools, you are often able to integrate the information on different systems without them having to be formally connected.
  2. Because they are primarily user-led, they can lead integration and change, forcing legacy systems to catch up with them (rather than trying to augment/improve legacy systems).
For both of these reasons, collaboration potentially offers a new way to overcome traditional integration challenges.
  • Go around the mountain, not over it. Don’t integrate formally – By-pass the legacy system if you can, or if that’s not possible find ways to talk to it, but do not try to become part of it.
  • Run with the wolves. Let your users who do collaborate, lead the change. Throw energy and resources at them (the solution), not at those wedded to legacy processes (the problem). If they are successful, others will follow and will abandon old ways voluntarily. If some won’t follow, leave them – they will move when the old ways become redundant.
Ultimately, where collaboration is concerned, succesful integration will be about co-ordinating with legacy systems, not  connecting to them. You will probably be advised to do the latter, but appreciate that social software is a revolution in information technology, not an evolution, and as such you need to be prepared to let it work separately to the old systems. Otherwise, you might find yourself spending more time and effort on the old systems that on the new. Collaborate first, in any way you can, and worry about the integration later. Old systems will find a way to integrate, co-ordinate or communicate with you, or they will simply fade away (with any luck!)
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Offshoring and knowledge workers – threat or opportunity?

Another recent announcement about the downsizing and offshoring of information management workers suggests that online collaboration is leading directly to the transfer of jobs from the UK (and other developed countries) to India and other emerging economies.

The ability not just to share documents and information, but interact in a more dynamic and creative way, is convincing many organisations that they no longer need their workers to be sitting right next to them in the office. This has allowed much cheaper workers in other parts of the world to compete directly with knowledge workers in the UK, and has led to the loss of certain jobs.

Is this a cause for concern? Should we be worried about this development or even oppose it outright?

The answer to all of these questions is ‘No’. Any transition can be a painful and difficult process for those involved, but the goal can be a marked improvement overall. And so it is with this situation. Many jobs previously performed by Information and Knowledge Managers are moving abroad (or to outsourcing organisations in general), but the result should be more efficient businesses and an improved economic environment where more expensive workers – i.e. those in the UK – are employed to do the more valuable, and more valued, work.

The challenge of this for those more valuable workers, however, is to rise to the challenge. Don’t be satisfied with doing the same tasks for years on end. Be prepared to innovate and move your skills into other non-traditional areas such as business development, IT management (or at least the management of the user experience), change management and areas of business co-ordination that many organisations have yet to establish (but will!).

There will be opportunities for knowledge workers in the future, but they won’t involve performing mundane, repetitive tasks (no matter how skilled these are initially); they will be about helping organisations shape and manage their information and knowledge processes.

But then, they probably should have been about that all along…

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Tesco Criteria for Innovation are really the reasons for innovation

In an excellent article from the Harvard Business Review Michael Schrage sets out the successful criteria that Tesco established to test whether innovative solutions were worth pursuing

  1. The outcome should be better for customers
  2. It should provide cost savings for the business
  3. It should make life simpler for staff

In order to enforce this, there is a culture of making people accountable for simplicity. Schrage asks the question that should be asked in all organisations “who is responsible for simplicity?”

While I think this is a very important question to ask, I also think it misses one important point: increasing simplicity, reducing cost and making life better for customers should be the responsibility of everyone in an organisation (and indeed the organisation as a whole). It should be ingrained within the culture of everything each employee does. And how do they achieve these things? By embracing the idea of innovation.

In too many organisations, the main incentives are around supporting current processes and if you wander outside the boundaries these processes set, you are likely to pushed back into your pre-assigned place.

Using these 3 criteria as an ultimate goal (rather than just accountability criteria) would help change that culture and encourage people to innovate.

Great article though – I will definitely be stealing those criteria when arguing my case in future!

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How does your information and knowledge flow?

I have seen this diagram many times in various forms seeking to explain how information is managed and how it is used.

Diagram showing how data, information, knowledge and intelligence interact

I’ve always found it useful in understanding what is required to get the right information to people. Users tend to focus purely on the output (unsurprisingly), which is effectively ‘Intelligence’, or the arrow between knowledge and intelligence (or sharing and utilising).

For people whose job it is to manage this content, however, there are more complex considerations. Firstly, in order to have knowledge, people must first be able to access information. And in order to create information people need to retrieve the relevant data. In organisations that lack an effective Knowledge Management infrastructure people often try to jump from the Data stage directly to the Intelligence stage, but find that the output is much less useful than they would have liked. As a result, KM professionals find themselves spending much of their time at the Information/Organising stage (in an attempt to make the data more useable). This is a necessary stage and often involves a lot of manual effort – data is more easily automated, knowledge more suited to informal processes, but information requires constant maintenance. Intelligence is generally the contribution made by the user although it can be assisted by effective KM and the right technological tools (more about that another time).

The mistake many people make is to think that all these different forms of information are interchangeable (or even the same thing). As a result many organisations will try to use a database to share intelligence, or social networking to manage information, or communications tools to manage data. And they all discover that it doesn’t work; or at least not as well as they would like.

The key to effective information/knowledge management is to understand which point along this path you are at, and to select the relevant process and tool for that point.

It is important to establish that the division between these stages of the process are not quite as clear-cut as the diagram makes out. There are regular overlaps between the different areas, and many of the tools available will straddle more than one process (i.e. wikis are both content management for information, and social software for sharing knowledge).

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Why senior executives will often oppose social media

After reading an interesting post on why executives hate social media (and what its true value is) it reminded me of one of the reasons why many people instinctively oppose the use of social media in the work place, despite using it freely in their personal life.

It’s not just that they don’t see the business advantages of such approaches, or that they are overwhelmed by the technology, although both of these are often true. It is also because many of us are paid, rewarded and promoted on the basis that we alone in our organisations have the knowledge/skills to perform a task and the last thing we want to do is give that knowledge away free to everyone else. If we did, why would our company need to keep us on?

In a world of increasing outsourcing, commoditisation and automation, revealing the answers to the problems that you are paid to resolve might seem like the quickest way to redundancy.

And in a way it is, but not in a way that we should be worried about. If you do share your knowledge and perhaps go further and develop processes that allow your colleagues to live without your input, then you have potentially saved your company significant costs, and most likely speeded up the process for everyone else. This will probably make you seem even more valuable to your colleagues that you were before (even if you managed the same process effectively prior to your collaborative efforts). Any company worth its salt will throw more work your way, not get rid of you. If they do get rid of you, I’m sure one of their competitors will be very interested in your skills!

The danger for people in management positions is more that these collaboration efficiencies can be achieved without the normal command and control hierarchies (and therefore without the usual management oversight) and that serves as a threat to their empires and their reason for collecting a large salary. However, if they are viewed as the ones facilitating that collaboration, they surely have nothing to fear.

We should never lose sight of the fact that many people are paid well to service the command and control business and they are generally much less happy to move to more collaborative approaches.

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