October 31, 2008

Scary Times for IT

In honor of Halloween, I thought we might take this opportunity to scare our information technology colleagues, as well as those knowledge management folks who have been unable to rise above and beyond technology. Let's start with an interesting piece by Susan Cramm entitled IT Project Funding: Less is More. In it she confronts the reality that IT budgets are likely to be slashed during the downturn, and proposes a new way of working in face of this reality. She suggests that the old "boil the ocean" approach of grand projects based on years of painful analysis is not going to cut it any more -- especially in light of her assertion that while "only 1/3 of IT-enabled business initiatives deliver as planned, project success declines dramatically as project size increases."

Continuing with her theme that bigger is not necessarily better, she recommends the following alternative approach:
Given that only about 20% of applications functionality is typically used (and which 20% is unpredictable), it's impossible to figure it all out in advance. The key to bringing the future forward is getting tools in the hands of the users as quickly as possible. If they use them, you are on the right track. If they don't, find out why and give it another go.

This stumbling and bumbling, learn-by-doing approach may seem a little chaotic, but it's reflective of how organizations, and people, change and grow. Mistakes will be made, but it's better to make a series of small mistakes and mid-course corrections, than it is to make one huge, multi-million dollar mistake from which there is no way to recover.
Without a doubt, this approach will be infinitely more successful if you have the kind of corporate culture I described yesterday in my post When Failure is Fine. However, even if you don't yet have that culture, take advantage of the constraints imposed by the economy to manage and change the expectations of your users. Since your law firm is unlikely to set aside unlimited funds for a large technology or knowledge management project, dial down expectations and ask your users to join you in a journey through the land of perpetual beta. They trade the possibility of perfection (which rarely is realized) for the actuality of functional and timely technology. Even the most demanding users will come to realize that having the technology in use is better than having unfulfilled paper plans.

Being a kind and generous person, let me offer a treat to offset the trickiness of the fast-delivery approach advocated by Cramm. She recommends that you have the following in place if you wish to maximize your chances of delivering the right technology quickly:
  • Executive leadership: Don't confuse sponsorship with leadership. Sponsors show up at steering committee meetings when invited, leaders demonstrate passion and commitment by showing up in cubicles and conference rooms uninvited
  • Clear definition of success: Use process measurements that impact financial performance and baseline them at the start of the project
  • Predefined kill switch: Take the emotion out of the decision making process by defining what defines failure, so that the project can fail fast and be restarted when conditions are more favorable
  • Small, experienced team: Wait to start your project until you have a seasoned project manager supported by a small team (less than 12) of full time, subject matter experts
  • Laser sharp focus on critical requirements: Avoid defining requirements by committee by using the success measurements to manage scope
  • Respect for the future and the past: Factor in the implications of existing business and technology plans while accelerating progress by leveraging legacy systems and existing infrastructure
  • There you have it -- a cautionary tale for Halloween. Scary times are ahead, but a willingness to adapt (together with some nimble footwork) should allow you to make useful advances with respect to your firm's technology despite the economy. In the process, you'll shed the tendency for bloated IT and knowledge management projects, and adopt a sleeker, streamlined approach that is more in keeping with the times.

    October 30, 2008

    When Failure is Fine

    Every so often, we're fortunate enough to hear about an organization that has mastered the art of innovation. In the arena of social media, Best Buy is getting a reputation for innovation and success. This week I learned about an extraordinary feature of Best Buy's corporate culture when I read Cam Gross' blog post regarding their implementation of Mix, which he described as "a start-up offering a mashup of email, SMS and Twitter-like functionality. " When I wrote about Mix in an earlier post, I was impressed by their repeated attempts to broaden the conversation among Best Buy's employees. Given their success with Blue Shirt Nation, I assumed that they ultimately would be successful with Mix. (Blame the lawyer in me for relying excessively on precedent.) What I didn't fully understand was that, apart from their prior achievements, they had one of the most critical ingredients necessary for success. Here's how Cam Gross describes it:
    We have had almost zero conversation about Mix outside of the development group. When the article by Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) came out ... word traveled inside Best Buy Corporate. A couple of departments have already raised their hands anxious to test/sample Mix. You just can't beat having an environment where people want to try and are OK with "fail" as long as something is learned. [emphasis added]
    Now, be honest. When was the last time you heard someone say that about your company?

    We talked earlier about the value of mistakes when pursuing growth and innovation, and Dave Snowden has included in his Seven KM Principles the truth that we learn more from failure than from success. But have we ever gone so far as to say in our workplaces that it's okay to fail as long as something is learned? Rather, don't we circumscribe our actions and ambitions in order to avoid failure at all cost? Admittedly, if we do find ourselves staring failure in the eye, we're usually willing to attempt to redeem that failure by looking for a nugget of learning. But I'd suggest that the Best Buy attitude goes further than that. It sounds like they don't circumscribe actions and ambitions for fear of failure, but rather choose to risk doing something new -- knowing that they can learn from it. With that orientation to innovation, they are bound to succeed.

    October 29, 2008

    Trust But Verify

    In one of the articles that accompanied the AmLaw Tech Survey 2008, Alan Cohen reports on a conversation he had with Bob Craig, chief information officer at Baker & Hostetler. According to Craig, the next big challenge is to change the way the IT department relates to the lawyers of his firm. He likened the current relationship between the two groups to the relationship between "a teenage driver ready to hit the road and a nervous parent wary about forking over the keys." Under the current model, "all new technology gets controlled, vetted, and often limited by the technology department." In Craig's view, that approach is untenable with the advent of the new web 2.0 tools. Instead, he wants to change the way IT departments work with lawyers, by implementing a "trust but verify" system that allows users to install the tools they need without permission, provided that IT can check to make sure "no harm is done."

    Bob Craig's vision of the IT/Lawyer relationship is laudable:
    We want IT to inspire lawyers to unleash their creativity - not lock them down. ... The fundamental concept of Web 2.0 is to empower users to contribute and collaborate. If we're going to take advantage of Web 2.0, there's a whole mind-set shift that has to take place in IT. "Trust but verify" is the precursor.
    I couldn't have said it better myself.

    October 28, 2008

    The Firm of the Future

    Whether you agree with its conclusions or not, you owe it to yourself to read Ronald J. Baker's article in the November 2008 issue of the Journal of Accountancy. That article, The Firm of the Future, makes an interesting case for moving beyond leveraging people hours to leveraging intellectual capital. According to Baker, the formula for success of the Firm of the Past is:

    Revenue = People Power x Efficiency x Hourly Rate

    Baker argues that we should move away from this tired approach to the formula for success of the Firm of the Future:

    Profitability = Intellectual Capital x Effectiveness x Price

    In highlighting the contrasts between the two systems, Baker notes:
    Micromanagement of knowledge workers is the culture of most firms. Tracking time in six-minute increments, measuring productivity, measuring efficiency, and measuring relative worth all are driven by time sheets. The management attitude that anything that is not billable is not worthwhile has destroyed the intellectual pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement that is critical to the long-term success of every professional knowledge firm.
    The examples cited in this article are drawn from the world of accounting, but the parallels to the law firm world are close enough to allow them to be a reasonable proxy. Both professions have come to value headcount and efficiency as the most reliable means to success. In the process, they attempt to sell clients "time," despite the fact that clients are looking to buy solutions not time. From that mismatch comes a persistent disagreement as to the true value of the solutions clients want. By contrast, Baker argues that the real source of wealth in the Firm of the Future is intellectual capital. When the firm is in the business of selling its unique intellectual capital coupled with practical applications of that knowledge, then it is finally offering something clients value.

    In his scheme, intellectual capital is not just the knowledge of the firm's workers. Rather, intellectual capital has three components, all of which need to be nurtured in order for the Firm of the Future to realize its potential and be successful:

    - human capital (i.e., the knowledge of its people)
    - structural capital (i.e., its systems, software, tools and resources that allow it to perform work)
    - social capital (e.g., clients, firm reputation, vendor relationships, referral sources, alumni, alliances, networks, etc.)

    The implications of this new approach are marvelous for both knowledge workers and knowledge management. With respect to knowledge workers, focusing on intellectual capital and effectiveness encourages managers and knowledge workers alike to value learning and the sensible application of that learning to client problems. This in turn sets the stage for personal growth, creativity and innovation.

    The focus on intellectual capital and effectiveness also puts a premium on the tools and methods of knowledge management that facilitate the growth and sharing of knowledge, and assist knowledge workers to improve their personal effectiveness. In one fell swoop, that pesky question of knowledge management ROI becomes a little less elusive.

    Ron Friedmann and others have long argued that it would be healthier for firms and clients alike to move to fixed fee or value billing rather than hourly billing. And, advocates of this approach have looked to clients to insist on it. Thus far, few clients have exercised the necessary muscle to bring about this change. However, given the current economic climate, the stars may be aligning in such a way as to make this new approach more plausible and thus more possible.

    [Thanks to Dennis Kennedy's dkennedyblog posts on Twitter for pointing out this article.]

    October 27, 2008

    KM and Ad Hoc Communities

    National Public Radio is experimenting with new ways of using social media tools to involve their audience in the creation of live radio shows. One of the most recent examples is their effort to form ad hoc communities, as demonstrated by the new wikis related to the Brian Lehrer Show's 30 Issues in 30 Days series. This is how these wikis are described:
    Each Friday throughout the series, we're doing a "30 Issues Wiki." For these six segments, we've created an easily edited page where you can collaborate with others to help produce the segment. On this page you'll be able to suggest angles; do research; write copy and questions; suggest guests; and suggest audio to be included in the on-air segment. In other words, you'll do everything a normal Brian Lehrer Show producer does every day.
    Through social media, listeners of this popular talk radio show were invited to collaborate in the creation of specific broadcasts. For example, a group of listeners spontaneously came together in an ad hoc community to consider how best to frame the issues for a broadcast entitled "Drill Baby Drill?: Oil vs Alternative Energy." In the days leading to the broadcast, they edited a wiki page that reflected their concerns and points of view. Then the collaborative work of this group was transformed into a radio show that was broadcast on October 10 and is available for you to hear now. These folks may never meet and may never collaborate again. But for a brief moment in time, they came together to create something useful.

    An ad hoc community can also be triggered by breaking news, such as catastrophes. This is another instance in which the news media can use its natural strengths to initiate greater participation by its audience, thereby turning that audience into a group of citizen journalists. In the post The Power of Portals: Ad-Hoc Communities we learn,
    Ad hoc communities primarily emerge for the purpose of information dissemination; thus, news portals are the perfect environment to foster such communities.
    Ad hoc networks need to be low involvement and facilitate information exchange. As they are short lived and focus on time sensitive events, ad hoc communities could be a great way to extend the reach and increase the value of content.
    Now let's take the concept of ad hoc community and translate it into the environment of law firm knowledge management. During the economic upheavals of the last few weeks, how has your law firm's KM group or IT department responded? The press has reported that lawyers in various firms have formed ad hoc communities to act as economic crisis response teams. Have the KM departments in those firms provided adequate tools to support those response teams? Are there RSS feeds to supply the latest news and commentary? Are there wiki pages to collect each team's analysis and learning? Are there blogs to record their Q&A and market updates? Or are these teams struggling to get by on e-mail and static HTML pages on their firm intranets?

    The beauty of social media tools is that they are wonderfully flexible and easy to use. Once the platform is in place, the users can dive right in to create and organize the content in a manner that is useful and appropriate to their needs without much (if any) administrative support. For knowledge managers looking for an opportunity to demonstrate the power and utility of social media tools, you may not need to look any further than the current economic crisis.

    October 24, 2008

    The Pantyhose Fallacy and the Reality of Pants

    In my earlier post today, KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy, I begged the indulgence of my male readers with the following words: "Stick with me, gentlemen. I'm sure there's a male equivalent to this that I haven't thought of yet." Well there is an equivalent (or near equivalent) that is instructive: pants.

    Traditionally, better quality men's trousers have been sold in the following manner: they are ready to wear except for the fact that the hem is unfinished so that each wearer can tailor their pant legs to suit their individual preferences. This is a great example of the new operating principle I proposed in my prior post with respect to how we should deploy knowledge management tools in the 21st century:
    Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs.
    This will require a new kind of discipline from knowledge managers and their IT colleagues. Rather than looking for an application that merely meets the expectations of the lowest common denominator of users, we'll need to look for intelligently-engineered apps that do the basics well but that can be tweaked by users to meet their (reasonable) needs. The trick here is to find software that permits this kind of tailoring, yet does not require a great deal of money, training, time or IT intervention to accomplish the modifications. In other words, wiki-like simplicity and Facebook-like flexibility.

    Here endeth my disquisition on knowledge management and clothing -- at least for now!

    KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy

    The Pantyhose* Fallacy may not yet be a term of art in knowledge management and information technology, but I can guarantee that you already understand its underlying principle. [Stick with me, gentlemen. I'm sure there's a male equivalent to this that I haven't thought of yet.] Here's the Pantyhose Fallacy: for years retailers have sold us a bill of goods -- that it is possible for people of varying sizes and shapes to wear an article of clothing sold in a single size. They call it "one size fits all." The sad truth is that the one size fits badly and doesn't remotely fit all.

    In the world of knowledge management, vendors have led us to bland, standardized implementations of tools that barely meet the needs of users. Perhaps we were unduly influenced by the big legal publishers who insisted we do it their way or not at all, but far too many KM efforts have forced square pegs into round holes. The imagined benefits of standardization caused us to overlook the real benefits of judicious customization to meet the needs of individual users. And now, those users are rebelling. Forget the rigid top-down taxonomy. They want to tag and organize content on the fly. Forget about limiting them to a small collection of recommended content. They want easy ways of identifying, segregating and then sharing their own "favorites." Forget about hermetically sealing employees behind the firewall. They want to be able to mix and match the best of internal and external content as the spirit moves or the circumstances dictate.

    The challenge for KM is to give up the imagined security of rigid standardization and adopt more flexible means of meeting user needs. This challenge moves KM personnel out of the role of prison warden and into the role of companion and facilitator. Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs. Although we've been told that few users actually take the time to customize or edit, I wonder if this will change as more users begin to use flexible internet apps in their leisure time, and thereby learn the value of customizing tools to meet personal preferences and maximize personal expression.

    But, even if you're not entirely sure about the 21st century trends for technology, remember that 20th century example of pantyhose: One size almost never fits all.

    [*A note to readers outside North America: pantyhose is also known as tights in many parts of the English-speaking world.]

    October 23, 2008

    The Futility of Bottling Knowledge

    Are you trying to bottle knowledge? If you view knowledge as a "thing" to be captured, packaged and delivered, you're trying to bottle knowledge. How's that working for you?

    Knowledge management gurus will tell you that bottling knowledge is a very KM 1.0 approach and ill-advised. Experts from the school of hard knocks will tell you that trying to bottle knowledge is an exercise in futility. You'll never ever bottle enough to really make a difference; even if you bottle some good stuff, your customers will always want more; and when you're in the bottling business you run the risk of creating bottlenecks.

    Not convinced? Consider this:

    Fish : Water ~ Humans : Information/Knowledge

    In other words, fish swim in water and we swim in information. Trying to bottle information/knowledge is as difficult as trying to contain our environment.

    So what should you do instead? Switch metaphors.

    Instead of viewing knowledge/information as a "thing," think of it as water. Rather than trying to bottle all that water, think about channeling it. Think about creating small reservoirs as necessary. Think about distilling it. Think about broadening access to it. If you're not convinced, consider how very difficult it is to contain water over the long term. It goes where it will. Why fight its natural tendency to flow?

    Viewing knowledge/information as water will lead you to some fresh new ways of handling law firm knowledge management. Less about command and control, more about channeling and collaboration. It will also inexorably lead you to social media tools. They are far better equipped to help broaden access to knowledge than the KM 1.0 tools we've been working with.

    And, if you really want to broaden your perspective, switch metaphors again. How about this metaphor: try thinking about knowledge as "love." If you're curious about this, read Is Knowledge Stuff or Love?

    October 22, 2008

    Do You Have What It Takes?

    Knowledge management folks have to interact with technology daily. In fact, all knowledge workers have to interact with technology daily. There's no other way to do your job well in the 21st century. The problem is that those of us who are 40 years old or more learned to be knowledge workers at a time when there was much less technology, and the technology we had didn't work terribly well. In the nearly 20 years I've been in the workforce, we've seen enormous changes: from the IBM Selectric to desktop computers to fully mobile computing; from telephones to e-mail to microblogging; from internal memos to enterprise blogs and wikis. And there's more change coming down the pike.

    Are you ready?

    Are you sure you're ready?

    Being ready is not just about knowing about the tool or knowing how to use the technology. It's about changing your attitude and approach to the technology so that you really know how to use it well. For example, if you were trained to find information in a time when information appeared to be scarce, you developed some great sleuthing skills. (Remember having to go to a library, and then to the card catalog, and then to the place on the shelf where the book should have been, only to find it missing? That's one form of info scarcity -- when finding it is hard.) Now contrast that with our current situation, where you can Google "knowledge management blogs" and get 6,760,000 results in 0.15 seconds. That's not just information abundance, that's information overload. And that overload calls for different skills; it calls for filtering skills.

    In a helpful post, New Work and New Work Skills, Tony Karrer sets out some benchmarks against which we can measure our readiness for 21st century work in an age of information abundance. Here are some of the ways of working he believes we should learn:
    And here's his quick test to see how well we've adopted the change in attitude and approach necessary to master the new technology:
    • I effectively use the Google filetype operator
    • I know what the Google "~" operator does
    • I'm effective at reaching out to get help from people I don't already know
    • I'm good at keeping, organizing my documents, web pages that I've encountered in ways that allow me to find it again when I need it and remind me that it exists when I'm not sure what I'm looking for
    • I'm good at filtering information
    • I'm good at collaboratively working with virtual work teams and use Google Docs or a Wiki as appropriate in these situations
    So, take the test and tell me. Do you have what it takes to be an effective knowledge worker in the 21st century?

    [Thanks to Bill Brantley for pointing out Tony Karrer's post.]

    October 21, 2008

    Age is a State of Mind

    It was so common, that it was a joke -- celebrating one's 39th birthday for the 10th time. However, now we're seeing Baby Boomers who have worked and worked out in order to beat Old Man Time. Their birth certificates may say one thing, but their energy levels, flexibility, physical strength, mental agility and willingness to innovate say another. Finally, the stars are aligned so that your age need not entirely be defined chronologically. Now, it really is plausible to say that age is more a state of mind.

    These changes in society have important implications for knowledge management. While some may say we are doomed by our chronology, the reality is that more and more enterprises are finding that the facile assumptions they had at the beginning of a social media implementation are being disproved by their users. Take, for example, Intellipedia, the online wiki for federal intelligence information sharing. According to KM Experts Dispute Age Gap, Intellipedia's actual usage patterns "do not always fit standard expectations."

    Chris Rasmussen
    , social software knowledge manager at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (and a top contributor to Intellipedia), recently reported on how the users of Intellipedia have defied the generational assumptions lots of experts make:
    For example, people assume Intellipedia users in their 20s would be the most prolific, but that is not necessarily the case, he said. One of the most active editors is in his 60s. Of the two-dozen most active editors, most are in their 30s and 40s....
    (Just for the record, Rasmussen is 33.)

    While GenY/Millenials may come to work with greater ease with social computing and more hard computing skills, they don't always have the substantive knowledge or inclination necessary to make valuable contributions at the office. By contrast, Gen X and Baby Boomer employees have the edge on substantive knowledge, but may not have the skills or confidence to try social media tools. Thankfully, most of these tools are intuitive and easy to use. If we can just get them into the hands of these information and experience rich older workers, we should see huge gains in knowledge management programs.

    Don't write off your Gen X and Baby Boomer users. Instead, get to know them. You may discover that they are much better candidates for your social media tools that some of their Gen Y/Millenial counterparts. In either case, ditch the generational stereotypes and focus on the individuals. They are only as old as they act and feel -- age is a state of mind.

    October 20, 2008

    Social Media Undercover

    Since social media tools became impossible to ignore on the internet, knowledge management folks have been worried about how to introduce something "social" behind the firewall. Most are beginning to realize that it takes an unusual senior manager to understand the value of creating strong communities within the enterprise. To be fair, many managers do get the value of strong teams within specific units or departments, but try asking them to transplant that success to a more macro level and they get lost.

    So what should a conscientious knowledge manager do when they realize that social media tools are exactly what their enterprise needs?

    Jack Vinson suggested recently that the best approach was simply to stop calling these tools "social" and focus on specific real world uses such as "inferred" expertise, real-time status indicators, easy-to-use file sharing, etc. And then, in a response to comments to his post, he wrote: "Our friend Mary would jump... It's NOT the tools."

    Our friend Mary. That would be me.

    And, Jack was right. I'm jumping.

    We should just give up on finding a label for these tools. The decision-makers within our organizations don't care what these tools are called as long as they work. If you want to avoid a losing argument, removing "social" from "networking" doesn't help as much as you might hope. From a decision-maker's perspective, networking (social or not) is something you do to land your next job. Now tell me, why would a manager who is not in lay-off mode want to spend corporate resources assisting you with that? As for building social or business networks within the enterprise, many managers view that as a "nice to have" rather than a "need to have."

    So what's the better strategy? Jack pointed to it in his response. Here's the fuller quotation:
    Our friend Mary would jump... It's NOT the tools. Maybe this is one of the other problems with calling it social networking - that sounds like a tool looking for an application.

    In my ideas above, I was attempting to suggest problems or issues that business people might actually be interesting in solving, rather than specific tools.

    Jack is right -- focus on the problems or issues that decision-makers are interested in solving rather than specific tools. As I wrote in an earlier post, don't fall into the trap of finding business problems to justify purchasing the tool -- look for established business processes that people know should be improved. And then deploy the tool knowing that it will have a much greater impact because of its secret "social" weapon: by building community, these tools facilitate and expedite information sharing.

    Yet, there is a caveat here that needs to be raised: We know there are lots of processes that could be improved by social media tools. However, most business managers don't care. Unless they are charged with squeezing every last of ounce of productivity out of each process, they tend to focus on the squeaky wheel. Therefore, you should too. Find a good way to fix that squeak and the manager will provide the grease (i.e., cash) -- even if it's for purchasing a web 2.0 tool. And, you won't even have to beg.

    Again, the key here is to focus on processes that, from a business perspective, must or should be improved. Not could be improved. When your solution lines up neatly with the decision-maker's problem, you've reached the sweet spot. And, in that sweet spot, even social media tools are welcome.

    So listen to your users. They don't have the time or energy to listen to you tell them all the ways you think you can help them via social networking. All they want is a simple solution to their pressing problem. And, if that solution happens to be fun and easy to use, that's all the better.

    As Mary would say: It's NOT the tools!

    October 17, 2008

    Using the Right Map

    In these days of Google Maps and Mapquest, it can be hard to remember that you actually do need to use different kinds of maps for different kinds of journeys. Members of my family have on more than one occasion rescued sailor wannabees who made the mistake of renting a boat for the day and then tried to navigate with the assistance of only a road map. (It's true. You can't make this stuff up.)

    A similar situation has sprung up around the conversation Venkatesh Rao started regarding what he viewed as the Social Media vs Knowledge Management battle for the soul of users. He used a specific map (generalizations about generational differences) to navigate the discussion. This map led him to his desired destination: KM is doomed to fail because it is championed by the rapidly aging and completely misguided Baby Boomer generation. By contrast, he believes that SM will prevail because it is championed by Millenials, who are as we speak defining the new dominant ways of interacting online.

    Venkat has posted a response to the reactions of this blog and others. I suspect this discussion isn't over yet, but I would make the following observation: generalizations about generational differences are just that -- generalizations. It's like using the map the car rental company provides when you really need a detailed road atlas. The generalizations can help orient you (maybe), but you're unlikely to reach your destination without the necessary detailed analysis.

    In the case of law firm knowledge management, it's probably fine to start your analysis regarding your chances of launching social media tools with the generational map provided by Venkat. However, generalizations set in abstract situations are no better than that car rental company map. You need to know the topography of your particular firm. How exactly do the employees in your firm fit within the generational boundaries -- as determined by date of birth AND by preferences? Despite the chronological facts, do you have a firm culture that is adventurous when it comes to technology? Despite the generational distribution, does your firm have a tightwad culture, making any investment in new social media tools difficult? Has your firm taken on so many financial obligations that it doesn't have the necessary economic cushion to weather the current market turmoil, much less launch a new way of working online?

    As you can see, most of these questions have very little to do with the age of the employees of your law firm, but the answers can have a profound influence on the discussion and ultimate decision regarding social media in your firm. As you head down this path, be sure you are equipped with more than generalizations. Otherwise, I can virtually guarantee that you will get lost.

    October 16, 2008

    Virtual Water Coolers

    In times of high anxiety, people seek ways to get information, commiserate with fellow sufferers, test rumors and gain perspective. Traditionally, this happened in the office around the proverbial water cooler. However, in this new age of BYOBW (i.e., bring your own bottled water), there are fewer water coolers in offices. And, with the recent uptick in telecommuting, there are fewer hours in a shared physical space.

    So where do you go during regular business hours for companionship, comfort and anxiety-busting info when there's no water cooler? E-mail is a possibility, but it's a poor way to build community. Google is another option. It provides access to lots of information, but no personal interaction and little context.

    While law firm knowledge management programs tend to focus on projects that directly affect client services, you might consider creating an effective virtual water cooler as a more general means of improving the business of your firm. The obvious way to do this is to deploy social media tools behind the firewall to strengthen a sense of community, enhance employee morale and provide an easily accessible forum for the exchange of information. While this information may not always relate directly to any specific client matter, it can go a long way to containing and diminishing anxiety levels. This, in turn, allows employees to focus better on client services.

    Imagine a blog that allows practice group leaders to broadcast information on the new client work they are doing despite the economic slowdown, thereby signaling the economic viability of the firm? Or a wiki that enables community members to post links to resources for coping with a collapsing client or a collapsing 401(k) account? A microblog that distributes one of the best antidotes to anxiety: humor. Or RSS set up to provide a client team with the most recent news about the client and its industry so that the team is well-prepared to identify business opportunities and respond to client overtures?

    Social media tools behind the firewall can help bolster employee morale and strengthen the fabric of your firm. This in turn helps the employees of your firm deliver better client services. Better client services lead to greater revenues.... You get the picture.

    Go ahead and prepare that business case for wiki pages to manage client matters. But while you're at it, include a proposal to build an employee facing site as well. It may well turn out to be the better investment.

    See also, Coping with Anxiety: Change What You Can, Accept the Rest

    Laughter: Geek & Poke and the perennial favorite for office humor, Dilbert

    October 15, 2008

    Minimal Impact KM

    Dr. David Vaine has done it again! In his video address to the actKM Conference, he gave an illuminating overview of the scope and benefits of Minimal Impact KM. In the process, he recognized the seminal work of "Dennis Snowden" in giving knowledge managers the excuse of complexity to explain inaction and "David Greenteen" for encouraging people with clear ideas to talk themselves into a tangle of confusion and inactivity.

    For those of you who may not be up on the latest trends in knowledge management theory, minimal impact KM touts the benefits of doing a great deal without in any way affecting the work lives of your colleagues or the results of your enterprise. (This reminds me of a brillant Dilbert observation: We have achieved unprecedented levels of unverifiable productivity.)

    Dr. Vaine identifies several proven methods of achieving minimal impact KM:

    - depreciative inquiry
    - social network paralysis
    - corporate flogging
    - six stigma

    As you come up to budget season and are preparing proposals for your law firm knowledge management programs for the upcoming year, give some thought to whether you qualify as a leader in the area of minimal impact KM. If you do, what are you going to do about it?

    [Thanks to Dave Snowden for pointing out this masterpiece by Dr. Vaine. And, thanks especially to Patrick Lambe for keeping us honest.]

    October 14, 2008

    The Customer is ALWAYS Right

    At a recent gathering of law firm knowledge managers, I was told that I could make their lives easier by enabling subscription by e-mail to Above and Beyond KM. To be honest, until that point I had mistakenly assumed that nearly everyone in this social media savvy crowd had migrated to RSS readers. Therefore, I hadn't bothered to set up e-mail subscriptions when I first launched this blog. I should have known better.

    Lawyers live in Outlook. And, despite expert advice discouraging the practice, many treat their Outlook Inbox as their To Do list. If you don't make it onto that list, you get ignored. While acknowledging the shortcomings of e-mail, some have made impressive strides in finding more inventive and efficient ways to use (and misuse) the tool. Clearly, if I was going to reach readers who either loved their e-mail or couldn't overcome inertia sufficiently to deal with RSS, this Mohammed was going to have to go to the mountain. So as of last weekend, you'll find in the right-hand column a quick and easy way of subscribing to this blog by e-mail.

    Ask and you shall receive -- because you're the customer, and the customer is always right.

    October 13, 2008

    Web 2.0 Resistance in Law Firms?

    Penny Edwards at Headshift characterizes the 2008 AmLaw Tech Survey as a "disappointing read from a social software/organizational change perspective." Alan Cohen, who reported on the survey in Law.com's Legal Technology section, admits that while there's lots of talk within law firms about social media tools, relatively few of those firms have deployed many of these tools given the ubiquity of these tools on the internet. And, those that have attempted to take a walk on the wild web 2.0 side have limited themselves to "ho-hum stuff by internet standards." The survey reports that 43% of the firms have at least one blog and 24% have internal wikis, but I suspect that much of this has happened because these tools were bundled (albeit imperfectly) with the SharePoint platforms these firms have deployed. With a few notable exceptions (see Penny Edwards' post), we haven't heard about many truly transformative deployments of social media tools within law firms.


    According to Alan Cohen, law firm CIOs and IT directors are definitely thinking about web 2.0, but in the following terms: "What emerging technologies are worth investing in -- and which aren't ready for prime time? " Prime time? When folks all over the world are diving into social computing with remarkable enthusiasm, can you really treat these technologies as experimental? Perhaps the real issue is that law firms have not yet identified uses for these technologies that feel like incremental rather than revolutionary changes to current business processes. So, to the extent you can use a blog or wiki to do something that is already done by e-mail, it's a safe option to propose to your firm -- provided you can convince folks to leave their Outlook cocoons. For law firm knowledge management programs, the usual approach is to identify and implement these incremental uses of social media tools and then coax your colleagues a little further out of their comfort zone with more ambitious implementations of these tools. Unfortunately, this "substitution innovation" does not take advantage of what Penny Edwards considers the greatest asset of "new technologies like RSS, micro-blogging, social tagging and networking tools, [which] offer possibilities for radical change in the way in which things are done."

    The other significant challenge that results in what appears to be law firm resistance to web 2.0 is that for quite some time now the big IT issue for these firms has been electronic discovery. And, eDiscovery has led to a whole host of new tech problems that law firm IT departments are forced to tackle. Therefore, while web 2.0 tools may be the latest wave to sweep the technosphere, law firm CIOs and IT directors believe that they have more pressing issues to handle, such as ... data storage.

    Add the inevitable slowdown in IT spending that is emerging in the current economic environment, and you have yet another reason to decide that web 2.0 is not yet ready for law firm "prime time." To be honest, however, is the real issue that law firm knowledge managers and their IT counterparts are not themselves ready for web 2.0?

    [For other helpful analysis of the IT Survey, see Ron Friedmann's Strategic Legal Technology blog, which reports, among other things, that the survey provides "good confirmation for those struggling with these issues daily."]

    October 11, 2008

    7 Principles of Law Firm KM

    Dave Snowden's 3 Rules of knowledge management have expanded to 7 Principles, now that he is focusing on law firm knowledge management. (Perhaps there is just something about lawyers that invites the creation of more rules). Here are the 7 Principles:

    1. Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted.
    2. We only know what we know when we need to know it.
    3. In the context of real need few people will withhold their knowledge.
    4. Everything is fragmented.
    5. Tolerated failure imprints learning better than success.
    6. The way we know things is not the way we report we know things.
    7. We always know more than we can say, and we always say more than we can write down.

    This is a list worth chewing over. I expect I'll come back to it several times. In the meantime, I'd urge everyone involved in law firm knowledge management to take a hard look at their KM programs and measure them against these 7 principles. A large number of firms are engaged in classic KM 1.0 efforts: trying to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, creating precedent collections and brief banks, writing practice guides to convey best practices, etc. These methods seem to violate one or more of the 7 Principles. It would be worth spending a little time to determine if you are achieving the levels of success you and your firm anticipated from this efforts. If not, how much of that is due to the fact that your projects do not conform to these principles? If you are truly successful in your KM 1.0 approach, we should talk. You may have identified an interesting exception to the 7 principles.

    [Hat tip to Dennis Kennedy's microblogging on Twitter.]

    October 10, 2008

    War Between Social Media and KM?

    Connie Crosby pointed me to Ralph Poole's post, Social Media vs. Knowledge Management. In it he discusses Venkatesh Rao's assertion in the Enterprise 2.0 blog that there exists a generational war between the proponents of knowledge management and the proponents of social media. In Ralph's experience, this rings true:
    I have seen it in the way Microsoft SharePoint, with minimum Web 2.0 capabilities, is embraced by IT departments while open source web 2.0 are shunned.
    For Venkat, the combatants in this battle are the Boomers (born 1946-62) and the Millenials/Gen Y (born 1980 -). Here is how Venkat draws the battle lines:
    Inside organizations and at industry fora today, every other conversation around social media (SM) and Enterprise 2.0 seems to turn into a thinly-veiled skirmish within an industry-wide KM-SM shadow war. ...KM and SM look very similar on the surface, but are actually radically different at multiple levels, both cultural and technical, and are locked in an undeclared cultural war for the soul of Enterprise 2.0.
    Venkat sees top-down knowledge management as the product of the Boomer generation, while bottom-up social media is more reflective of Millenial values and aspirations. Caught in between are the Gen X folks (born 1963-79) who are not numerous enough to open a new front of their own, but may prove to be the perfect intermediaries between the opposing factions. According to Venkat, each of these generational groups approaches social media in different ways, which leads to the battles we're seeing in some workplaces regarding whether and how to adopt social media behind the firewall.

    Venkat goes on to identify the 5 social dimensions of the war, and then the following 5 technological dimensions of the war:

    1. Expertise locators are not social networks. For Venkat, expert idolatry is the fixation of Boomers who just love authority. By contrast, he finds that Gen Xers and Millenials believe in "situational" experts, a more transitional phenomenon.

    2. Online communities are not USENET v3.0. Venkat draws the distinction between, for example, the Millenials' fondness for wide-open Facebook groups that nearly anyone can join vs GEn X LinkedIn groups that have gatekeepers.

    3. RSS and Mash-ups are Gen X ideas. According to Venkat, they derive from the Gen X need "to reuse code and content to conquer overwhelming complexity."

    4. SemWeb isn't Next Gen, it's Last Gen. In other words, SemWeb is the Boomers' revenge. For Venkat, "both KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture." No more unconstrained folksonomies, thank you very much.

    5. SOA and SaaS are Gen X; Clouds are Millenial. Venkat bases this assertion on his interpretation of the words used to explain these related concepts. For him Service-Oriented Architecture and Software as a Service are typically pragmatic (and, in his view, unimaginative and ugly) Gen X approaches to what Millenials describe more metaphorically (and imprecisely) as "clouds."

    Venkat ends with the following prediction:
    It takes no great genius to predict how the war will end. The Boomers will retire and the Millenials will win by default, in a bloodless end with no great drama. KM will quietly die, and SM will win the soul of Enterprise 2.0, with the Gen X leadership quietly slipping the best of the KM ideas into SM as they guide the bottom-up revolution.
    The problem with this approach is that it under-rates KM and, perhaps, overestimates SM. In the conversations I've heard lately regarding social media, the KM folks have been working hard to find points of intersection and common interest with social media. They are treating this as an evolution rather than a revolution. Some have even gone so far as to say that social media is just the new marketing spin for KM. That assertion is likely to send Millenials running for the Maalox, but it appears that KM isn't ready to be declared dead quite yet. Rather, it's trying to transform itself from a purely archival discipline to a more dynamic and informal approach that puts people in direct touch with each other, without the obvious intermediation of a knowledge manager.

    [Full disclosure: I'm a Gen Xer as far as Venkat is concerned. The previous paragraph could be read to confirm his contention that Gen Xers tend to pragmatism and compromise.]

    Nonetheless, it's useful to be reminded from time to time that our preferences are shaped by more than our intellect or experience. Sometimes an accident of birth can dictate how you respond to complexity and innovation. For Venkat the Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials have distinct and different approaches to technology, information and community. Think hard about how you fit into this generational view before you make your next decision about social media.

    Update (12 Oct 08): Take a look at Mark Gould's thoughtful related post -- Oh good grief. He tackles the "generational" straw man relied on from time to time by advocates of the next new thing.

    October 9, 2008

    Microblogging: Private Conversations at a Live Mike

    In ReadWriteWeb's report on microblogging at BestBuy, Laura Fitton (of Pistachio Consulting) writes about her conversation with Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt regarding their implementation of Mix. Mix (built on HeadMix) is described as an "enterprise microsharing application," which is intended to faciliate networking, problem solving and idea sharing among Best Buy's 160,000 employees. According to this report, Best Buy's deployment is the first of its kind at a large company.

    In reading through the report, a couple of things struck me. First, Koelling and Bendt acknowledge the weird dynamic that gets going with microblogging: you're having quasi-personal conversations in a forum where you can be overheard by the world. While it's easy to forget that fact when you're in the middle of some witty Twitter repartee, none of this is private. Interestingly, a quick check on Twitter indicates that there seems to be a wide range of responses to this fact of microblogging life. Some users are extremely circumspect or even cryptic. Others appear to damn the torpedoes and blab full speed ahead, with little regard for the consequences.

    When you transplant this issue to the work environment, you find the problem compounded. Here's how it's described in the Best Buy context:
    There are what, 160,000 employees at Best Buy? It’s like a few of you are thrown into a dark room together. You don’t really know who anyone is or who to trust. You’re told it’s okay, they’re all employees, go ahead, talk. But trust is an issue. Who are these people? How do we know them? What can we say?
    This is a challenging context in which to try to foster the open exchange of information. Unfortunately, the report doesn't explain how the system's designers plan to increase the levels of trust. As I've noted earlier, trust is a critical element without which collaboration is virtually impossible. And, in our KM 2.0 world, collaboration is key. It will be interesting to see what the adoption rate is at Best Buy and whether the quality of the information exchanges meets expectations.

    The other striking thing for me was the basis on which the designers chose HeadMix. Besides liking the developer team and the flexibility of the application, the other positive attribute in their estimation was the application's ease of use:
    We liked that it’s simple, but had the extra features when you wanted them. It sounds goofy, but we really liked the Outlook plugin — that’s where our employees live. That will make it easier to use.
    Here, they clearly were trying to reduce the barriers to entry -- to the point that they allowed easy access from Outlook. These folks are not microblogging purists who insist that if you want to use the tool you too must be a true believer who is willing to leave the Outlook cocoon in order to microblog. Instead, they made the boundary between the two applications permeable. There's an important lesson here as we consider how best to integrate new knowledge management technology into existing work flow, calibrate it to user comfort levels, and thereby increase user adoption.

    Koelling and Bendt established themselves with their implementation of Blue Shirt Nation, a social networking tool for Best Buy employees. It will be interesting to see how they overcome the trust issues to achieve a productive company-wide conversation via Mix.

    October 8, 2008

    When is a Wiki Worth the Effort?

    Mark Gould has an interesting post on Enlightened Tradition entitled, Social software in law firms. In it he cites the rule of thumb regarding participation inequality in social networks:

    - 90% read, but do not contribute (i.e., "lurkers")
    - 9% contribute occasionally (i.e., "dabblers")
    - 1% contribute regularly (i.e., "true believers")

    Unfortunately, it does get worse:

    - the participation inequality demonstrated in blogs is 95 - 5 - 0.1
    - the participation inequality demonstrated on Wikipedia is 99.8 - 0.2 - 0.003

    This level of participation may be tolerable for Wikipedia, but it won't make for a convincing argument when you're trying to persuade your firm managers that a wiki is essential for your law firm knowledge management program. Nonetheless, should you take the 90-9-1 rule as gospel? We're told it applies to voluntary social networks on the internet, but does it apply equally to social media tools deployed behind the firewall? Some have argued that it need not apply within the enterprise if you take a few strategic measures:

    - make it easier to contribute
    - encourage editing over creating
    - reward contributions
    - promote quality contributions

    Above all, the measure most likely to increase wiki participation is to embed the wiki in your work flow. For example, if the partner in charge of a matter decides that all team updates must be posted in the wiki and may not be circulated via e-mail, you will see a significant increase in the rate of participation. This suggests that when introducing social media tools behind the firewall, you can't adopt a strictly laissez-faire attitude. While an "if you build it they will come" approach may work on the internet, it's a different thing within the enterprise where inertia and heavy workloads tend to keep busy lawyers from discovering your new tools. By inserting the tools intelligently in lawyer work flow, you give them a good reason to break out of established routines and try something new. If you've deployed the social media tools correctly, this should be all the incentive lawyers need to move from lurker status to dabbler or (better still) true believer status. Then I'd suggest you quit while you're ahead.

    October 7, 2008

    Collaboration -- All or Nothing?

    In my prior post on Culture and Technology, I talked about the need to match carefully the social media tools you are offering in your law firm knowledge management program with the organizational culture of your firm. Now we need to go a little deeper. Many discussions on this topic treat collaboration in a binary fashion -- either you've got collaboration or you don't. And, if you don't, you get a free pass on deploying social media tools. In reality, your choices are not just wide open collaboration or nothing. As Andrew Gent points out in his post, The Alternatives to Collaboration, there are several ways of working that result in productivity. We need to be sure we take account of all of these and provide the appropriate tools.

    Here's how he identifies two different modes of working that are alternatives to open collaboration:
    Conspiring is very common among senior contributors within a team. Conspiring is simply a form of collaboration where the"community" is limited, usually to select members who the contributor trusts. Rather than speak out or agree during meetings, this individual will seek out others who they feel will understand and appreciate their contribution and work with those people to flesh out their ideas. They may even strategize privately about how to bring the rest of the team "around" to their way of thinking. (This is the conspiratorial part of the equation.)


    Competing, on the other hand, happens out in the open. Competing is founded on two basic assumptions:
    • Ideas reached by consensus are not necessarily the best ideas. Rather, they are ideas that sound most agreeable or that provide the least resistance to current conditions (in other words, ruffle as few feathers as possible).
    • By openly pursuing multiple approaches in parallel, you can test more possibilities and (the key to competing) inspire each group to reach farther and develop a more complete and creative solution.
    If you have wide open, top to bottom collaboration, then you're closest to the internet model of social networks and should be able deploy the standard tools (e.g., blogs, wikis, forums, distribution lists) with minimal adjustment for the realities of corporate life. If you have a significant number of productive "conspirators" then you need tools that allow wide open collaboration within this very small group of trusted colleagues (e.g., IM, limited access wikis and blogs). For competitors, you need to provide a forum where they can battle their way to victory (e.g., open access wikis, microblogging).

    By acknowledging that collaboration may not be possible for all, you give yourself permission to identify other productive ways of working within your law firm. Once you understand how these other methods work, you're better placed to introduce effective social media tools that fit neatly with established modes of working. This requires moving from a monolithic view of organizational culture to a much more nuanced one. Done correctly, this should result in higher adoption rates within the various sub-groups that exist and thrive within your law firm. Do this with enough sub-groups and you'll have reached enterprise 2.0 nirvana.

    October 6, 2008

    Culture and Technology

    Knowledge management without cultural awareness rarely is successful. You can be on the verge of deploying the best technology tools in the world, but if those tools aren't in synch with your organizational culture, you might as well distribute quill pens and parchment. Carl Frappaolo (VP Market Intelligence a AIIM International) and Dan Keldsen (Director, Market Intelligence at AIIM International) made this point very clearly in a terrific presentation they gave on October 3. (For helpful summaries of their presentation, see Ron Friedmann's blog and Jack Vinson's blog.)

    Carl has posted their slides on his blog, Taking AIIM. When you get over to that blog, pay particular attention to slide 16, which shows the stages of cultural evolution, overlaid with the stages of technology. This slide demonstrates that you need an organizational culture that reflects a specific level of collaboration before you can implement particular tools successfully. If you've got folks working in splendid isolation with no desire to change their modus operandi (i.e., "islands of me"), they won't be receptive to your brilliant web 2.0 technological advances. You can coax, you can beg, you can embarrass yourself anyway you choose, but they just won't get it. And they most certainly won't adopt your new tool.

    Besides the degree of collaboration prevalent in your organizational culture, you also have to be aware of the limits your culture puts on information. So, you want a wiki? Make sure you've got an organizational culture that permits the free and open exchange of information. If you're in an organization that discloses information on a need to know basis only, don't be surprised if your wikis are under-utilized. Equally, if you're in an organization that is excessively hierarchical, don't expect junior folks to contribute to your new blog or wiki without explicit permission from senior managers. In each case, the organizational culture will severely curtail the open information exchange that blogs and wikis promote.

    The trick here is to get better at anthropology and then pitch the tools to meet the culture. If you've got your heart set on yanking your law firm knowledge management program into the 21st century by introducing social media tools, wait until you see specific forms of collaboration or conversation emerging among your lawyers. Let them enjoy that for a while and then watch for stresses or pain points to emerge. If they do, offer a tool that can alleviate the pain. If there's no pain, it's unlikely there will be much user interest in changing how they work. Busy lawyers rarely push for new technology if what they've got basically functions -- even if there is something that would objectively work much better. They sensibly weigh any inconvenience of their current methods against the perceived gross inconvenience of learning something new. As with most things, overcoming inertia is tough. However, it's a much easier battle if you harness the natural forces of your organizational culture.

    October 3, 2008

    The Art of Creating Possibilities

    The whole point of KM is Innovation. We aren't putting people in conversation with each other, soliciting their stories or helping them exchange their learning just because it makes for a nicer workplace. We're also doing this because it's precisely that cross-pollination of ideas and experience that helps birth new ideas and new ways of doing things. Knowledge management done right helps create an environment that fosters healthy change.

    The "science" of knowledge management pushes us to find better, less intrusive, more effective and efficient ways to ensure that the essential information is exchanged, and exchanged in a manner that permits easy and accurate understanding. This isn't about knowledge extraction and capture or centralized control. It's about KM getting out of the way so that just in time exchanges of information can occur in context. Unless you've been living off the grid for the last few years, you probably have already realized that this approach to KM undercuts the old KM 1.0 drive towards creating and maintaining repositories and databases. KM 1.0 is based on an outdated notion of knowledge manager as archivist.

    The "art" of knowledge management is by its nature a little harder to get your hands around. It's about an orientation, an approach to work and life. Good KM is closely attuned to and respectful of organizational culture. Good and effective KM ultimately helps shift that organizational culture toward more openness, more collaboration, more innovation. This view of KM is based on a notion of knowledge manager as facilitator.

    If we are true to the demands of the "art" of knowledge management, we knowledge managers have to embody and demonstrate that orientation toward collaboration and innovation. This means finding new ways to engage in productive conversations that expand understanding and don't reduce every interaction to a zero-sum game. This isn't necessarily how we've been taught to behave in the corporate world, so it can be a significant challenge for a lot of us. Further, it's an approach that assumes a certain level of personal maturity and goodwill.

    Innovation rarely results from the occasional brainstorming sessions. It comes from applying what you're learning to what you know, taking information from one domain and mixing it with experience in another domain to see what results. It's life as a lab. It's indulging your sense of curiosity, tempered only by the constant question: how does this make things better?

    Since far too many of us push through life with our heads down, shoulders forward -- simply trying to get things done -- we often don't remember to take the time required to be open to possibility. A bent to innovation requires some under-used muscles. Chandni Kapur at Anecdote, provides a humorous reminder of one way to find and exercise those muscles in her post Practising the art of creating possibilities:

    People respond so differently to new ideas. While some people jump with excitement at the thought of new possibilities and irrational ideas, unfamiliarity can [make] others uncomfortable, give up, or find it safe to be a skeptic. This is so well illustrated in this conversation between Alice and the queen in Through the Looking Glass.

    "I can't believe that!" said Alice.

    "Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

    Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

    "I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

    Being able to rise above the restrictions of what is, to imagine what might be, and then to create the map that moves your organization to that potential requires vision and leadership, a marriage of both the art and science of knowledge management. A little bit more queen and a little less of Alice.

    October 2, 2008

    How Wikis Mess With Your Mind

    This seems to be my week for web 2.0 experiments: first Twitter and now Wikis. You can read about my first forays into Twitter elsewhere, but here I'd like to talk about one of the most interesting things I'm learning about wikis: namely, how they work with (or mess with) your mind.

    Until now, most Wiki converts/addicts have talked up the collaboration benefits of wikis. It's a beautiful thing -- everyone sharing and caring towards building a common resource. However, there seems to me to be a slightly less rosy view of wikis that might potentially be more powerful in terms of productivity. What I'm talking about is the awful weight of transparency and the impact that has on human accountability.

    If the wiki is used to collect the musings and contributions of a community of practice, you expect that folks will participate only to the extent the spirit moves them. Because of wiki transparency, you know who is contributing and who isn't, but that transparency doesn't in and of itself compel participation. Delays in editing can always be ascribed to work/home/bailout pressures and distractions. This kind of wiki will grow in the hands of enthusiasts, but probably won't reflect the views of all of the community since so many of them will form a "silent majority," lurking on the sidelines.

    There's another way in which the transparency of a wiki becomes a powerful tool for productivity. But this works best for a project that isn't purely voluntary and where the participants are aware of the real consequences of failing to deliver the project on time. Here's an example: what if you and your boss set up a wiki to draft a report and then agreed on milestones for moving sections of the report along towards completion. Sure you could leave it until the last minute, but every time the boss came to edit her section of the report, she'd know that you hadn't done your share. Knowing that, how long would you be willing to procrastinate? Knowing that she could see exactly what value you were adding every day, how long would you be willing to make only superficial changes?

    Now imagine using a wiki to write a book? Or a legal brief. Or a strategic plan? Or a merger agreement. Or a Bailout plan?

    Granted, in a document management system you can check the history of a document to see who edited it and when. However, you won't know exactly what they've done and won't be able to begin to assess their contribution until you've compared the latest version of the document with the prior version. Now how often do we do that with respect to the work of colleagues?

    By contrast, the wiki provides a running commentary on who did what when. It also allows collaborators to pick up seamlessly where their colleagues left off. All without a complicated e-mail explaining the status of things. From a knowledge management perspective, this is all good.

    For those of you who are self-starters, a wiki simply brings into the spotlight all your good work habits. And, you will shine. For those tending more towards distraction, multi-tasking and procrastination, this kind of transparency is either going to make or break you. Regardless, it will change you. Knowing that, you can begin to understand how wikis can mess with your mind.

    [For lots of great information on using wikis productively, see Stewart Mader's terrific Grow Your Wiki.]

    October 1, 2008

    Getting Serious About Collaboration

    A large number of professionals in knowledge management appear to have drunk the kool-aid regarding the value of collaboration. And now, collaboration is the latest buzzword tripping off the tongues of academics, activists, reformers, consultants and web 2.0 vendors. That many people can't be wrong, can they?

    Perhaps it's time each collaboration advocate put their money where their mouth is. Now is the time to collaborate on a project worth doing. And what is currently the most critical BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) we could address? How about finding a viable way to achieve a sensible bailout of the US economy? (Is that big enough for you?)

    There has been a complete failure of leadership in Washington. Given where we are in the US political calendar, it will take a great deal of leadership and goodwill for politicians of both parties to abandon any perceived election year advantages to help each other (and the world) to a sensible solution. Unfortunately, it's hard to be optimistic about this after the empty theatrics of the last week.

    So how could the rest of us model good collaborative behavior to address the economic crisis? We could, for example, create an "open source" solution for a Better Bailout. How about a wiki to collect and refine the best proposals for reforming and restoring the US economy? What if anyone with a positive contribution to make were able to participate? Could we harness the energies and intellect of a world-wide community to solve this problem?

    Clearly, not all of us have the training to conceive effective solutions to the complicated problems presented by the current economic crisis. However, I've got to believe that somewhere in our respective social networks, we have friends or acquaintances who could add value to such an effort. Perhaps those of us who did not get past Economics 101 could make our contribution to the solution by recruiting to the effort capable people with the requisite integrity, training and freedom from partisan rancor to make a meaningful contribution.

    If you're happy with the job your representatives are doing in Washington, feel free to sit this out. If, however, you'd like to see a solution that deals honestly and fairly with the US taxpayer who has to foot the bill, now is the time to get involved. And, if you really believe in the power of collaboration, now is the time to prove its value.

    [If you'd like to participate in A Better Bailout, e-mail BetterBailout@gmail.com.]