Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Dilemma of Art and Innovation

Years ago, while reading Robert Motherwell's history of Dada I came across a quotation by Salvadore Dali. I haven't seen it since and I didn't write it down (I gave the book away, unfortunately). But to paraphrase, with all the flaws of memory, what I remember of Dali's statement is:

The first person to compare their love to a rose was a genius. The second was a plagiarist. The rest were liars.

It isn't quite that bad, but there is an assumption that a work of art -- a true work of art -- is unique and inimitable. Lesser works in any field are often dismissed as reductive, copied, or borrowed. Pale imitations of a loftier predecessor. This rush for newness is particularly notable in the recent history of 20th century visual arts as described in Robert Hughes's book The Shock of the New.


The constant urge for newness is not as pervasive in other art forms: poetry, music, filmography. There are schools, trends, styles of the moment. But they tend to cycle over time. But these represent the arts as a whole. The question is: what happens to the individual artist? Once you have reached a certain level of success (artistically or in terms of fame), do you just repeat what you have already done or do you try something new?

The choice is not a simple one. If you are even moderately successful, those who appreciate your work want more of the same. But doing the same thing over and over can have two consequences:

  • People start to complain that you are repetitive, boring
  • You are so skilled at it and it comes so easily, what was once innovative becomes flippant, clich├ęd, and you become a caricature of yourself (think Rolling Stones, think Andy Wharhol towards the end)

What's worse, the choice is not necessarily yours. Not to make it sound too mystical, but part of the source of power of true art is the struggle the artist goes through to achieve it. I'm not talking physical pain: starving in a garret, paying your dues, type pain. I am talking about the mental struggle and revelation the artist goes through and embodies in the final work. There are only so many times you can have the same revelation before someone is going to call you on it. Only so many I-finally-understand poems or life-as-existential-metaphor short stories you can write. Eventually you are going to have to struggle and learn something new.

A few artists escape this risk. Joseph Cornell in the visual arts and Diane Wakoski in poetry are two who come to mind who have/had extended careers on a single theme or style. But Cornell operated almost entirely in a separate dimension from the contemporary art world, separating himself from outside influence. Wakoski is somewhat the same in poetry, but in a rougher, earthier sense.

But it is not easy. Even poets who try to hold to one ideal evolve over time; like Robert Creeley, who honed his elliptic style to a fine edge, as if sharpening the same pencil over and over again. Creeley's poems reflect this repetition, this refinement, as the line grows shorter and the sentences more terse and cryptic over time, until it seems like all that is required for any poem is a single word.

The examples of failure are more prevalent than those of success. You just have to consider the recent spate of "reunion" tours by 1970-80's rock bands to witness the dangers of standing still in its full fury: Blondie, the Who, X, the Police... no matter how well intentioned (or monetarily rewarding), they cannot help appearing like bad karaoke versions of their former glory.

The alternative is to give up what you as an artist have worked so hard to develop and go in search of something new. This is frightening because there is no guarantee you will find something new. Or, when you do, that it will be as rewarding as what you have learned to achieve. And, just as your detractors will berate you for repeating yourself, many of your fans will bemoan any change to what they have grown to love.

Despite the western ideal of life as the progression towards achieving some ideal, in reality art is more often a cycle of learning, creating, unlearning, and learning anew from scratch. As a novelist once said when asked at what point he feels confident in his ability as a writer, he replied “just before I write the last sentence of the book.”

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Charles Wright: "Beauty has been my misfortune"

I've been reading Charles Wright's poems for a long time. Ever since his first book, The Grave of the Right Hand and up through his latest work.

Wright has always been slightly out of step with other poets of his generation: unimaginably precise while others reveled in imagistic stream of consciousness; and now becoming colloquial and abstract while around him others try to resurrect the narrative. He is his own poet and a master of his craft.

It is his meticulous use of language that makes Wright stand out. It has characterized his poetry from the beginning, reaching its pinnacle for me in the poems collected in the books China Trace and Bloodlines. One of my favorite poems of all times comes from the former volume:
January

In some other life
I'll stand where I'm standing now, and will look down, and will see
My own face, and not know what I am looking at.

These are the nights
When the oyster begins her pearl, when the spider slips
Through his wired rooms, and the barns cough, and the grass quails.
The poem forces you to linger and take it in, feeling each line and each image reverberate somewhere in your consciousness. But all is not abstraction. These reflections are tied to the real world, real events, as shown in the opening to "Hardin County" from Bloodlines:
There are birds that are parts of speech, bones
That are suns in the quick earth.
There are ice floes that die of cold.
There are rivers with many doors, and names
That pull their thread from their own skins.
Your grief was something like this.

Or self-pity, I might add, as you did
When you were afraid to sleep
...
Which brings me to the quotation I started with. Over time Wright's writing has changed. It has evolved from the early raw talent, to the epigrammatic beauty of China Trace, and then over the last twenty years his poems have become more explicitly religious/philosophical and tightly bound to specific natural surroundings. They have also become much longer, more rambling and reflexive.

The poems are still beautiful, still honed to a fine shiny edge. But something is missing.

I've read almost all of his books. But recently, I haven't finished most of them. This weekend I picked up the recent A Short History of the Shadow and was rereading it when I came across the line in the poem "Looking Around":
Beauty has been my misfortune
What's wrong? The line is beautiful, it is lyrical, but I don't believe it. Why is it a misfortune? What has he suffered for it? If the narrator is Wright himself (which the body of his work teaches us to believe) then this cannot be true.

As I say, his poems have changed, as they must. You cannot expect the same thing from a poet 20 years on. Because the poems are longer, the answer to these questions of justification may not show immediately like they do in his earlier, intricately packaged poems. Now, the threads stretch and intertwine throughout the poem and even across poems throughout the book.

However, ultimately, the question must be answered and the taunt of that line must be backed up. And that is what I am not finding in Wright's recent books. Is it there? I fear that it is not and Wright is expecting us to trust him that these discontinuities have meaning without proof. It is a dangerous trick and I am leery of it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Process for Defining Processes / Understanding the Layers of KM

Someone recently asked me how I would go about defining a repeatable process for identifying, designing and implementing Knowledge Management processes. As I mentioned in my definition of KM, I am averse to defining a one-size-fits-all KM process, because although there are some commonalities and reoccurring themes, the needs differ from company to company and even between organizations within a single company.

However, the best methods for identifying and addressing those needs are probably quite consistent.

A standard approach for developing KM processes follows the same general outline as the methodologies for information architecture or solution architecture. The first step would be requirements analysis, including audience definition, task and gap analysis, etc. The difference would be that you are not looking at only a single business process you are trying to optimize. You need to look at and prioritize several "layers" of knowledge flow around the business. Which ones are important depend upon the organizational culture and the nature of the business processes. However, the layers that come to mind right away are:

  • Knowledge within the business process. How to optimize knowledge sharing within the business process. The example from my current work in the systems integration (SI) business -- where the business is customer/project-based -- is the use of SharePoint spaces (WSS) for team collaboration. This is usually the easiest layer to identify.
  • Knowledge about the business processes. How to optimize knowledge sharing about what business is being done. This is where businesses often have a gap. They know their processes, but what is actually being done within the process? This is either not known or scattered in multiple locations. Again using SI as an example, what projects are we doing or have we done? From a management perspective, there are management databases like SAP that are supposed to take care of this. But they tend to be high on numbers and short on context -- which makes them a poor source of usable knowledge about the projects themselves. (Besides which, they are usually inaccessible to most employees). So a more open alternative often needs to be developed, as well as ways for practitioners to share reusable content from one project to another.
  • Knowledge among practitioners. Optimize the ability for sharing among those with common interests, across the business. This is traditionally where Communities of Practice reside. However, it can take time for CoPs to develop, so there are a number of interim steps that can be taken to encourage knowledge sharing (such as forums, PDLs, informal gatherings, and more recently blogs and wikis).
  • Finally, knowledge about the business itself. Business structure, who's who, what they sell, etc. This usually doesn't fall within the KM domain, since it gets covered by the corporate intranet or other organizational functions. But I include it for completeness, because if it isn't covered already, it will then be a need within the KM domain.
There are probably other layers as well, but I think these are the big four.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Poetry Book of the Week: Tom Clark's Light & Shade

I am reading Tom Clark's selected poems, Light & Shade. Tom is the epitome of the minor poet; the journeyman, the friend of better known writers.

There's nothing wrong with his poems. Well, actually there is. His poems are good, not great. You can pick up his book and find several poems that grab your attention. A phrase here or an image there that holds true and shines. But then you'll read for pages inwardly shrugging your shoulders.

The fact is, Clark's poems are better than most of what's out there. They aren't obscure (intentionally), they aren't pretentious, they don't pretend to be something they are not. His poems are, as a whole, a fairly complete record of a man's life, his thoughts, and his milieu. Clark writes out of his experience and the settings of his poems read like the travelogue of a life: New York, San Francisco, Europe, Santa Barbara, etc.

Unfortunately, Clark's thoughts and expressions are just not very deep. It is a damning assessment of a person's life and artistic work to say so, but I am afraid it is both true and far too often the case with modern poets. Clark isn't alone. And of the horde of minor poets, he's actually quite good. But it doesn't get better than that.

So I am reading his book and I am finding things to enjoy. But I am thinking more about why it was written than what was written. And although I'll probably read it to the end, I don't expect I'll be going back to it any time soon. If ever. I'd like to like the book more, but I don't think that will happen.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The "Other" Wiki

Since I proposed the question, I probably should take a crack at answering it as well. (It wasn't as rhetorical as it may have seemed.)

The question was: what is the second example of a successful wiki after Wikipedia? I think I now have an answer -- BarCamp.

BarCamp is both a process and a philosophy about gatherings. You could argue its long-term relevance and whether it will survive the fad stage, but what I am interested in just now, is their use of technology.

The BarCamp web site is an excellent example of the use of a wiki. It is active, it is well structured, it is a perfect fit for its purpose, and it is making use of a wiki's unique capabilities.

I used to use SeattleWireless as an example of a successful wiki. SeattleWireless is a good example of a website run on a wiki. But it is not necessarily a successful wiki, per se. There is almost nothing about the site that is unique to wiki and could not as easily be run on almost any other website creation software with a bulletin board.

BarCamp on the other hand is completely dependent on the wiki capability (and philosophy) to achieve its goals. The point of the site is to make it as easy as possible for anyone to declare, organize, and announce a BarCamp. All three are achieved using the wiki structure, linking, and open authoring. Want to start a BarCamp? Create a reference to it and edit the resulting page. This automatically advertises its existence and encourages others to participate through the wiki just as they will at the event itself. (The guiding philosophy of BarCamp, like wikis themselves, is that everyone is welcome and the only rule is that everyone participate.)

So I have my answer. Are there others? Possibly. What interests me now is: if these are two examples of success, what is it that makes them successful and how would that translate in the use of wikis within corporations?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Threat of Social Software, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

The debate rages on concerning web 2.0 technologies within the enterprise. Most recently, Tom Davenport and Andrew MacAfee debated the inevitability of “enterprise 2.0” at an industry conference. The debate appears to be on whether Web 2.0 is a fad or something genuinely different and how rapidly it will be adopted by business. Will it be evolution or revolution?

Evolution is most likely, but the evolutionary process will change the technology as much as it will change the corporate users (and managers). We can already see this in Microsoft’s implementation of “wikis” (deliberately in quotes) in MOSS 2007. I even had someone ask me why we would need FaceBook or other social networking sites when we have MOSS 2007 MySite. The misunderstanding of the technology and the culture it imbues is astounding and indicates that corporate adoption will tend to be more of a sublimation than evolutionary growth.

One of the major problems facing web 2.0 technologies within the corporation is the matter of scale. Even if you can overcome the misconceptions about the technology, wend a path through the multitudinous issues of security, privacy, legacy applications, etc… Even if you manage to balance all that, much of what drives web 2.0 – crowds – are missing or anemic within the corporate firewall. Instead of millions of users, you have thousands, instead of thousands of advocates, you have tens or (in an ideal world) hundreds. Is that enough?

For some web 2.0 technologies it is. Wikis work well with both large and small “crowds”. So for wikis, the issue is not scale, but purpose and visibility. There is not much purpose or certainly not enough manpower, to reproduce Wikipedia inside the firewall (although that is often a popular first step corporations attempt). Usually, the next step is to try using wikis to run projects. Say what?

But many of the other web 2.0 technologies require numbers to succeed. Social Networking sites are a prime example. Bookmarking and other folksonomic tagging efforts share the same failing. A tagsonomy like Flickr or del.icio.us works because of the sheer volume of tags. If I use Flickr to look up pictures of circus clowns, I get plenty of results – often better than doing an equivalent Google or Yahoo image search. If someone misspells a tag or chooses a different word, such as “Clowm” or “fool”, I will not find it. But I don’t miss anything because of the volume of material I do find. However, if there are only a few hundred people tagging, synonyms, misspellings, and different terminology becomes problematic because the number of total tags is so small.

The magnification of deviation due to small samples is very problematic in corporations, to which there is no easy answer. If you take the prototype/laissez-faire/build-it-and-they-will-come approach, you further diminish the sample size, but at least you have interested users. If you try to enforce use to increase the sample size, you don’t have people using the system out of self-interest and you introduce a certain level of pathological behavior (mistagging, overtagging, intentional abuse, etc.) from those who do not understand or are resistant to the system*. You increase the deviation at the same time you increase the volume, defeating your own purpose.

(continued in Part 3)


*Footnote: note that misuse of enforced systems is not unique to web 2.0 technologies – it occurs with any enforced processes or technologies. It is just that other technologies are usually designed with defenses against it – like enforced vocabularies – whereas web 2.0 tends to assume a receptive audience.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Is There Only One Wiki in the World?

Everyone knows the answer if you ask for an example of a successful wiki: Wikipedia. The obvious next question is: what's another example?

Perhaps its just me, but I don't remember hearing an answer to that question yet. In fact, as obvious as the question is, it didn't really occur to me until today. (Not in so many words, at least.)

I can give plenty of examples of wikis and some still active. But successful? Not really.

I know plenty of corporations which are trying to build a Wikipedia inside the firewall. Again, success is elusive.

So, is there really only one Wiki in the entire world?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Poem of the Day: "No Return" by William Matthews

I have been rereading William Matthews' last book, After All. I am a big fan of Matthews' work and this book is no exception; there are some great poems here. One of my favorites has always been the poem "The Bar at the Andover Inn" situated just after his son's wedding, and his response to the wedding in light of his own three marriages having failed. The poem is beautiful, touching, and both harsh and hopeful at the same time.

After All is not Matthew's best book. It suffers a bit from appearing to be thrown together from whatever he was working on towards the end. Some poems -- although on completely different topics -- seem like versions of the same poem, aiming for the same goal. Many are short, small poems... But the fact is that Matthews is so good, so precise, the book is still ten times better than 99% of the poetry printed today.

If anything, the book has the same problem all of his books have: it is too good. Matthews writing is so beautiful and seems so effortless, it is easy to dismiss his poems as "light" or off-hand, the feelings as put on for the occasion. No one could describe their feelings this clearly. That is both his talent and his curse.

The fact is that he is one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century and because of the perfection, clarity, and off-handedness of the poems, he is often overlooked. But back to my point...

So I am rereading the book and come across a poem I must have read before, but not noticed. Another gem, like many of his poems, but different. "No Return" is short (3 stanzas) and precise as always. Here's the opening stanza:

I like divorce. I love to compose
letters of resignation, now and then
I send one on and leave in a lemon-
hued Huff or a Snit with four on the floor.
Do you like the scent of hollyhock?
To each his own. I love a burning bridge.

What makes this poem stand out is its lack of motive, its abstraction. Many if not all of Matthews' poems tend to focus on a moment, an event, as a launching pad for reverie. "No Return" has no such catalyst, no story behind. It is Matthews vs. Matthews duking it out over his soul.

The poem is both the epitome of his writing and completely different. It is light-hearted, but in all probability truthful. And exquisitely crafted. Besides, he uses the word "doomily" and makes it work. Don't worry, its a real word (it's in Webster's, I looked). Yet it is so utterly a fabrication, it fits perfectly into the over-drawn metaphor he applies it to. It should be included in every dictionary, even if just as an homage to Matthews' use of it in this poem.

I could go through the day singing this poem for weeks (muttering "I love a burning bridge" to myself). That is the effect of Matthews' work: the reaffirmation of the uselessness of life in general and the invigorating epiphany of the individual's existence.

If you haven't read any of Matthews' work, I recommend any of his books. A Happy Childhood is my favorite, if you can find it. Or his collected poems Search Party may be a good starting point.

The Threat of Social Software

A year and a half ago there was a seminar on Social Architecture at Harvard where Stowe Boyd asked the question: Is Business Ready For Social Software? The premise of the question was that web 2.0 will so revolutionize how business is done, managers will either learn to use it or become extinct like the dinosaurs of old. It is true; Social software threatens traditional project management, which focuses on control, by eliminating that control and freeing the project team to collaborate more effectively amongst themselves and with others who choose to participate.

I suggested at the time, and believe even more firmly today, that this idealistic view misses one of the key characteristics of modern business practices: self preservation. Yes, business will adopt social software, but only once it has bent and distorted it to resemble the rest of today's portfolio, removing all of the threatening aspects of the new technology (while at the same time crippling any of its real strength as a change agent). In other words, corporate America will adopt the technology but not the paradigm and make the technology subservient to existing management processes and practices.

This negative view is visible in today's most popular software products, such as Microsoft Office 2007, where web 2.0 "features" are integrated into proprietary products. the view is also reinforced by conversations at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. While listening through the recordings, the conversations sounds agreeable enough. However, there is a noticable dissonance between the advocates for web 2.0 technologies and those working with them inside the enterprise.

It may have been discussed in full (I haven't listened to all of the talks), but thus far it has only popped up as a few off-hand comments throughout. But the divide is there. During the discussion of Embracing Enterprise 2.0, Kim Polese of SpikeSource and Joe Schueller from P&G talked about the issues of implementing web 2.0 technologies within corporate intranets and the need to integrate with existing DM technologies, providing "control" within the collaboration environment. But their presentations were punctuated by comments (from Ross Mayfield, I believe) that illustrate the stark contrast between implementers and advocates:
  • "Don't deploy it. It isn't a deployment, it's an adoption... These things are all viral.. deploying doesn't work."

  • "How do you collaborate with control? Isn't that like an oxymoron?"

So the question becomes: how does a "wiki" implemented using SharePoint V3 using Windows authentication differ from any other SharePoint site? Put another way, how is it in any way similar to a real wiki?

(continued in Part 2)