October 24, 2008

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.]


Samuel Driessen said...

I think men don't have a problem reading about pantyhose... Great post(s). 'One size fits all' was a big problem in KM. New KM tools help us understand this isn't true. But still in companies usually still organized in the 'old' way, the approach to these tools is still: one size fits all, or, very IT driven. Using new KM tools should trigger and support a fundamental change in organization. Or, it should tap into the way the organization works anyway (communities, not: top-down organization structures, etc).
By the way, for men I think 'socks' fit well on the pantyhose metaphore.

David Hobbie said...

I also enjoyed this post. I completely agree that we need to move beyond tools where structure is imposed from the top down, and tagging is a great example of that.

I've seen a search tool (Velocity 6.1), for instance, that lets you organize the search results for yourself, by tagging, commenting, and rating. I've also seen an outstanding research tool, KnowledgePlaza, that breaks down the barrier between research down inside and outside the firewall, just as you describe. That's where KM should look for high returns.

Mary Abraham said...

Samuel and David -

Thanks very much for your comments. It's clear that the tools now exist to facilitate bottom-up knowledge management. (The ones David mentioned sound terrific.) The question is whether the right knowledge managers exist where needed to implement this approach. And, of course, the other big issue is whether firms will be allowed to invest in these new tools given the current economic constraints.

- Mary