Thursday, June 28, 2007

What is Knowledge Management?

Just like Information Architecture, Knowledge Management can be a divisive term. I have had a surprisingly large number of KM practitioners tell me they avoid the term "KM", making up any number of variants or trendy euphemisms to replace it, because of its bad connotation within the business world.

Granted, there have been some spectacular KM failures in the past. In the 80's and 90's KM was often associated with large, clunky programs that were expensive, took forever to implement, and showed very little benefit.

However, as a term, I have yet to find anything as succinct and to the point as "knowledge management". What does it mean? KM is, quite simply, the conscious management and nurturing of the information a corporation knows or needs to know to achieve its business goals.

The reason the definition of KM gets into trouble is because people then try to nail down what a corporation needs to know or specific approaches for how that knowledge is to be managed. So conversations about KM waver between abstract catch phrases -- like the right information to the right people at the right time or from data to information to knowledge -- to strictures about exactly what information should be captured and how.

The fact is that what information a corporation needs to know varies from corporation to corporation and from moment to moment. Influences on what information is needed include what information they already have, how they do business, who does what, how much they trust each other, etc...

Another very strong influence is what information is already being managed within the corporation. Many companies already have an employee directory (usually managed by HR or IT). So this may not be information that needs any additional attention. But the larger the corporation gets, the more they focus on organizational structure as a classification system -- both on the intranet and in the employee directory (where manager is more important than current role, say). The larger and more diverse the corporation, the harder it is to find out what is actually being done within the company. What projects exist, what was done in the past, who is working on them and what is their status? These are questions that can be vitally important but equally difficult to answer.

So, from a pragmatic standpoint, KM within any specific company often ends up being responsible for filling in the gaps between other existing programs, such as HR, the Program Management Office, IT Management, Quality & Standards, etc.

One last comment about defining KM: note that I bounded the scope of the definition to what a corporation needs to know to achieve its business goals. The boundaries of what can be known are limitless. But the resources to manage that knowledge are not. Even the knowledge within a small company is fall beyond the capacity of any reasonable program to control or influence. Does everyone really need to know where Doreen keeps her stapler? No. But it may be critically important that everyone in the group she manages knows where she posts the task schedule for the week. Whether information is knowledge or noise is contextual. Determining the relative value of information in different situations is a key starting point for -- and determining factor in the success of -- any KM initiative.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

What is Information Architecture?

This question comes up a lot in IA discussions. Among information architects (especially those who belong to the IAI) it is referred to as "defining the damned thing" and always ends in a stalemate.

The fact is, there are at least two key definitions, usually referred to as "little IA" and "Big IA". Little IA focuses on the design of "findability" -- the taxonomy, classification, and search of an information pool. Big IA embraces a larger sphere -- including navigation, sometimes page layout and functionality, and other aspects of the information access. Interaction designers claim "big IA" is just user interaction design. Others accuse big IA of being "the design of everything" and therefore nothing at all.

I confess to being a big IA. My focus is larger than just findability and often covers a wide variety of topics that cross the boundaries to other professions (such as interaction design, database design, solution architecture, etc). What makes it "IA" is the core focus on the information and how it is used to serve and influence the audience.

So when people ask me what I do and what that means, I say I am an information architect and that information architecture is, quite simply, the structural design of an information space. This definition consists of two components: structural design and information spaces.
  • Information architecture, like real architecture, focuses on the high-level design of the structure, understanding its purpose, its use, its layout, and its evolution. But instead of buildings we design information spaces. Information architects are no more web designers than architects are interior decorators. That is not to say an web designer can't be an IA or an interior decorator can't be an architect. But the roles are different and operate on a different scale.
  • The thing being designed is an information space. By this we mean all of the content related to and used to achieve the business goal. People tend to think of the information space in terms of recognized boundaries: web sites*, catalogs, a book... However, the physical representation is only one aspect of the design, not a bounding factor. So for a physical product, the information space covers a broad spectrum of media, including user's manuals, packaging, online support, advertising, and even word-of-mouth that can affect people's opinion of the product. In practice, an IA usually has control over only a limited portion of the total space. But it is useful to consider the larger global space to understand what alternatives are available and what falls outside the boundary of controlled content that might influence the results. Going back to the physical architecture analogy, does an architect design a building, or the building and the environment (landscaping, gardens, roadways) that it exists within? At its best, I believe architecture must consider both the physical structure and the environment it operates in.

* Footnote: Some claim that IA only applies to the web, but there is no reason to believe the processes for designing the structure of web information differs significantly from the design of print or other media, although the resulting structures are different.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Am I Fickle?

I recently read John Hodgen's latest book of poetry, Grace. I read it because I had discovered an earlier book of his by accident and was very surprised -- and pleased -- at how good it was.

So it was with eagerness that I picked up Grace, only to be brought up short. I didn't like it. Whereas his earlier book, Bread Without Sorrow, was fresh & sincere, without the calculated artifice of overwrought workshop poems, Grace seemed full of store-bought, over the counter poetry-isms -- depth through obscurity, overly meaningful tableaux with no action, the poet's childhood as fodder for self-reflection...

But the real problem was not the book, but my reaction. Was it really that bad? Or had I built up an inflated view of Hodgen from his first book? And was my reaction to the first book equally unjust in the opposite direction? Did I inflate the success of his first book simply because my expectations were low or nonexistent? In other words, was it the poetry or was it me?

In the end, it must be a little of both. I know enough to be able to tear the poems in his new book to shreds from a critical perspective. The opening poem ("Clay County") with its self-conscious realism in the first line ("Just past Kellie Mae's Klip 'n' Dip Beauty Salon"), the didactic symbolism to objects in the scene, the poetic but obscure lines like "the buckwheat field opens like grace", the lack of conclusion... This is the sort of writing that makes me cringe inside when I read it. And, yes, it is a disappointment coming after the frankness and striking beauty of Bread Without Sorrow.

One of the trademarks of the earlier book is that you can't pull out a line here or there and hold it up as "poetic". The poems are holistic and operate like self-enclosed universes that must be taken on their own terms. The new book feels more like a poetry we are used to, that revels in its own style as much as its message.

But this is not the first time I've been disappointed by over-anticipation. It happens to me in music all the time. What happened to John Doe on his last two albums? And I've had 10-15 years to acclimatize myself to David Bowie's new sound -- and still don't like it. But I've also had those opinions turn the other way. I was not a fan of Roxy Music when I first heard them, but discovered that I enjoyed the overt imitative nature of their music which had at first put me off. Ditto Bob Marley and the Wailers, and others. Part of this is growing up, possibly smartening up, and just learning/getting used to new things.

So, is it me or the artist? In reality, I suspect it to be an interaction between the art work and my varying conglomeration of biases. The fact is I have biases, strong ones. And they often spill over in a form of guilt by association. I don't like "I Shot the Sheriff". Never did, doubt if I ever will. But the problem is that that first experience poisoned me to reggae (and Eric Clapton) for quite awhile. The same applies to poetry. I've been to a university poetry program, I've been in workshops and I despise the bad habits and cheap tricks they teach writers. And I am very quick (perhaps overly quick) to identity these tricks & bad habits in other writers.

Which brings us back to Grace. John Hodgen is a good poet, no doubt about that. He has, in my eyes, fallen for a few of the common traps of the professional poet in his latest book. But in truth it is still a very good book, with a number of strong poems. And it might just be that he is trying out something new that I am just not used to and am misinterpreting as practiced artifice.

I'm not sure. Only time will tell. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one.

Say What?

So, what's it about? What do I expect to be writing about? There are any number of topics that I could discuss, but I expect to focus exclusively on five within this blog:
  • Poetry
  • Technology
  • Information Architecture
  • Video Games
  • Knowledge Management
Why those five? Well, I have spent the last 25 years in large computer companies, writing about technology, studying its uses and adoption. 10 years as a technical writer, 5 as an information architect and strategist, and most recently 10 more years as an information architect focused on Knowledge Management. In all cases, I came at my profession aslant -- like a stranger in a foreign country. There are many traditions and assumptions in the technology industry and KM that are neither obvious or even logical from my perspective. So I have a backlog of theories and practices worked out and tested over the last 25 years that I hope to discuss. These fall into the three main topics: technology, information architecture and knowledge management.

So, why the other two? I have been an avid fan of video games for 20-some years. Both as a player and as an observer and student of how video games are constructed. They combine two of my favorite topics: technology and persuasive communication.

Finally, I have been reading modern poetry for more than 30 years. It is where I first experienced the persuasive and intoxicating power of language. It gave me a deep respect for words -- their meaning and their implications -- and it gave me a lifelong desire to master them myself. I am still working at it. And I still marvel at those who do achieve it, even if only momentarily. Poetry remains for me the quintessential expression of that mystery.


A new blog? Why?

Well, for all the usual reasons. I've asked myself that question a number of times, while debating whether to start a blog at all. And the answers do not sound any better in my head than they do when I hear others state them:
  • A place to express myself on subjects of personal interest
  • A testing ground for ideas that have been fermenting, half-baked, in my mind over a long period
  • An opportunity to interact with others interested in the same subjects as myself...
Nothing really substantial enough to explain adding another small voice to the cacophony of 75million + blogs. But in the end, the answer is, why not?

I don't expect many people to read these postings. If you do: welcome, and I hope you find them interesting enough to justify the time spent. If not, that's OK. because I think I have come to the conclusion that -- if for no other reason -- this blog will be useful as a prompt, spurring me on to get my thoughts down in writing, formally, in an organized fashion. They may never go any further than that. But with luck I will then be able to discuss them a little more clearly when called upon.

It's just a thought. And there's no way to tell until I try.