January 31, 2008

Forget "User-Friendly"

How many times has a software vendor promised you that an application is "user-friendly"? And how many times have you been disappointed when you've discovered after launch that the application causes either user indifference or downright hostility?

So what's the problem with "user-friendly"? This standard is too low. It means that the software vendor thinks you'll be able to shove the application down the throats of your users without too much resistance. Is this how you want to spend your professional life?

What should the standard be? User-enticing. User-loved. How different life would be if the knowledge management applications we created and provided were so attuned to the needs and wants of users, so well-designed to fit seamlessly into their business processes and lives, that the users fell in love with the applications. This may seem like a pipe dream, but aren't you tired of spending your time creating sensible systems that people won't use or only use grudgingly? Aren't you disheartened by the damage inflicted on your systems by the Workaround Wars?

It might be worth spending a little time thinking about what elevates an application from "friendly" to "loved." There's plenty of precedent. How many times have you been asked why your new application isn't as "user-friendly" as Google or Amazon.com? Online retailers have had a serious monetary incentive in creating sticky websites that draw the user in and keep the user at their site. What makes them so successful? Are any of those techniques transferable to your KM system? Think about it. The answers might surprise you.

January 26, 2008

Workaround Wars

In hand-to-hand combat between an organization's tech department and the user, I'd put my money on the user. No matter how intelligently designed an application is, it can rarely make the user do what the user does not want to do. So what happens? You enter the Workaround Wars.

Here are some examples from law firms in Canada and the US that illustrate the Workaround Wars:

- The document management system's profile page requires that the user assign a document type to each document created. So the user unhappy with this requirement lodges a protest by choosing "other" or "memo" (or whatever appears first in the alphabetical list) as the DocType for every document rather than scrolling through the long list of permitted DocTypes to find the most appropriate one.
- The e-mail system automatically deletes e-mails from inboxes after a certain number of days, in order to encourage users to file those e-mails appropriately in the firm's central filing (or records) system. However, recalcitrant lawyers simply stuff their e-mails in their personal Outlook folders, thereby saving the messages from deletion and undermining the firm's central filing policy in one fell swoop.

I've heard variations of these stories from colleagues in law firms all over the world. It's as if the official policies and procedures are invitations for lawyers to exercise their creativity in defense of nonconformity. It's enough to send a CTO screaming into the nearest padded cell.

So what does this mean for the knowledge manager? Be very worried when you find you are spending a lot of time and money to create the new cool knowledge management application. If that dream system of yours requires users to change their behavior in any meaningful way, they will fight you tooth and nail. And if you insist, they will compromise your cherished system with careless compliance. (Remember those rogue document types?) Then your KM app will be another casualty of the Workaround Wars.

What's the alternative? KM guerrilla warfare. Don't try a frontal assault on the user. Instead, sneak up on their side and target some small inefficiencies. Sensible incremental changes made over time this way can result in significant improvement to the overall enterprise. You may not win a lot of KM or tech prizes for this approach, but you will notice the difference within your organization.

Of course, every so often a colleague at another firm will pull off an amazing coup: creating the killer KM app that actually enjoys widespread adoption. But if you pay attention, you'll realize those happen very rarely and require an alignment of the stars, not to mention amazing levels of cooperation within a firm. So, until you've mastered astronomy, focus on incremental changes that don't incite user rebellion and avoid the Workaround Wars.

January 24, 2008

By way of Introduction...

Here's a little background on who I am and why I've started this blog.

I started professional life as a lawyer in a terrific New York City law firm. Over the years, my professional focus has shifted from doing deals efficiently to helping my colleagues do deals efficiently. In the process, I've learned a lot about collaboration with and without the benefit of technology. I've also learned how truly valuable our knowledge is and how hard it is to capture and reuse it in meaningful ways.

Big city law firms are known to be challenging places to work. Clients and colleagues expect work product of such high levels that lawyers and support staff often labor far beyond the confines of the normal business day to meet these expectations. In this context, every enhancement of efficiency, every simplification of business process can add meaningfully to the quality of work and the quality of life.

This makes my job pretty straightforward in some respects and incredibly daunting in others. I'm constantly in search of more effective ways to improve the quality of work for our clients and the quality of life for my colleagues. As I tackle these challenges, this blog will function in part as a conversation about the issues I face and the alternatives I see. Over time, I hope this blog will be a record of the evolution of a knowledge worker and of the discipline of knowledge management.

January 21, 2008

Going Above and Beyond

Going above and beyond means pushing past the usual -- doing more. In knowledge management, the usual often entails identifying a problem and then looking for the nearest technology solution. This almost reflexive approach has given technology vendors a wonderful new line of business: "KM solutions." However, it hasn't always resulted in workable solutions for the purchaser.

One reason for the tendency to focus on technology is the view that KM is largely about gathering and organizing things that can be found, such as documents, e-mails, hyperlinks, contact information, etc. This results, for example, in the endless quest for the latest and greatest search engine. However, even the most tech-savvy organization can find stuffed in its closets skeletons from botched implementations, where everything was done by the vendor's book but the users couldn't be convinced to actually use the product. Or if they used it, they did so with gritted teeth.

So what's the Achilles' heel of tech solutions? The users! Taking this one step further, it's not just the users -- it's the fundamentals of human nature and interaction, and it's the organizational culture those users create, destroy and recreate incrementally every day. Until you've mastered this Achilles' heel, your knowledge management efforts won't be entirely successful.

Given the extraordinary technology available today, KM should be a cakewalk. But it isn't. If anything, the availability of cool tech toys has made more apparent the non-tech challenges of effective KM.

So now, the fun begins.