Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pocket Review: Madden 08 for DS

For a lark, we bought the original Madden 05 (the first DS version of Madden) to play between my sons and I. We have Madden on the consoles and play that when we have it out. But for some quick pick up and play, Madden 05 fit the bill. It is certainly not "next gen"; more like playing with crudely drawn robots who can only move in four directions (up, down, left, right). But it can still be a lot of fun.

Anyway, the game has been through several iterations since that original release and one of my sons mentioned not having certain new players available in the roster, so I suggested trying the latest version, Madden 08 for DS. After an hour of play, his assessment was that the newest game "tries to do too much."

He explained that in an effort to make the game playable, they put up controls indicators, messages, and touch screen options all over the place before the play. It is not that these markers interfere with the play but, in my son's words, "it doesn't feel like football."

So, I expect they will play it to use the latest players. But I also expect they will switch off with Madden 05 when they want some basic robot head-smashing fun.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Threat of Social Software, Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

So, if web 2.0 is not going to transform how business is done and it’s not going to infiltrate the corporate intranet without being modified, permuted, tamed, and subdued… what, if any, is the threat of social software? The real threat is that it makes the corporate intranet irrelevant.

The threat is not what it might potentially do inside the firewall but what it is doing, as we speak, outside the castle walls. Of those millions and millions of people flocking to MySpace, Flickr, Digg, Twitter, and other sites, a significant number are members of the white and blue collar classes in the United States and elsewhere.

Granted, much of the time spent on these sites is personal. But some amount – a growing percentage I suspect – is professional. Because, unlike corporations that make a clear distinction between work and personal life (inside vs. outside the firewall, work time vs. personal time) individual employees tend to move fluidly between one and the other, often combining them. We have personal conversations in the office; we discuss work at home; we tend to mingle with people with similar interests…

In the past this intermingling of personal and business life had been restricted by the limits of one’s own community: the town you live in, the people you talk to, the clubs you frequent. There were opportunities to exchange mail or phone calls and possibly meet once or twice a year at professional conferences, but not much else.

Now there is a generation that was raised in a virtual world and has lived much of their personal life online. When they reach the workplace, they expect that the easy exchange of communication and emotion extends into the corporation. In most cases it does not. And those corporations that are adopting web 2.0 technologies, are doing so specifically with the intent of maintaining the security, privacy, and control that corporate intranets are designed for. In other words, a mini web 2.0 inside the firewall.

But if I wanted to talk to people in my profession, would I contact the 3-5 information architects I have found (largely by accident) in my own company, or the hundreds or possibly thousands who are members of IAI or the SIGIA-L email list? Or I might search the blogs of the many talented and highly-visible IA’s that are readily available on the web.

Even following web 1.0 logic, if I have a technical issue with programming or managing an application (as ubiquitous as Microsoft Word or as specific as MySQL database maintenance), will I find the answer faster searching the corporate intranet or the vast knowledge accessible through Google and Yahoo? Experience teaches me the latter.

The fact is that there is far more professional and technical information publicly available and willingly shared outside the corporation than inside. This is the transformative power of web 2.0. And it is all accessible within approximately the same framework I use for my social life. This fact is emphasized by the recent developments in applications like FaceBook and LinkedIn that are helping people manage their social and business lives within a single environment outside the firewall.

So, for what we can call the MySpace Generation*, corporate efforts to restrict access and interoperability between inside and outside the firewall is purely a provincial attitude that is easily ignored in favor the better solution. Why not keep your bookmarks in Corporate security types can cry foul that internal URLs are exposed externally, but there is little they can do to stop it and it makes no sense to the individual to have to maintain two separate sets of bookmarks inside and outside. If I am on LinkedIn, what benefit is there to me maintaining a second profile on a weak copy of the technology inside the firewall? Which will gain me more exposure and contacts?

By trying to maintain the old policies of secrecy and separation, corporations are forcing modern workers to make a decision between managing their professional lives inside or outside the firewall, and in most cases the clearly more effective choice -- and the one they are familiar with -- is outside. They will do what they see as necessary to meet corporate requirements, but they see no reason not to (and many, many reasons for) sharing their personal/professional knowledge outside the firewall with their preferred community of virtual friends and professional peers.

After 15 years of downsizing, outsourcing, buyouts, booms, and busts, employees are indebted to their employers for their current situation. But no one with any intelligence or sense of history is going to assume the company is acting in their own personal best interest. Employees who effectively utilize external knowledge and contacts will prove far more successful both within their current company and with any future employer.

What we are seeing is a democratization of knowledge management as web 2.0 technologies evolve from purely social to social and professional. The communities that individuals belong to (and gain strength from) are far more extensive, less restrictive, easier to use, and in many cases far more personally productive outside the firewall than in.

The individuals themselves are recognizing that the knowledge they possess -- or have access to -- is a key source of power, prestige, and employability. (As demonstrated by the proliferation of blogs on business topics by individuals.) As lifetime employment vanishes as a concept, employees see knowledge and experience as part of their own professional personalities and one of the key leveraging points they possess.

This shift away from knowledge as the sole property of the corporation to knowledge as a professional tool owned by the individual will force corporations to rethink how they "manage" the combined intellectual capital of the company, its employees, partners, customers, former employees, and even competitors.

This is not a conflict. It is a realignment of responsibility that complements both sides. It is an old saw, but still true that knowledge increases when it is shared. And those companies that realize this and effectively support and utilize this cooperative knowledge environment are the companies that will "win".

(continued in Part 4)

* I am not fond of the term the Naked Generation that Caroline McCarthy coined, because it tends to focus on the more extreme edges of the current generation. However, it does have the advantage of capturing one of the key attributes of the times – transparency. Living your life, both private and public,out in the open on the internet is one of the identifying characteristics of the generation and one of the distinguishing marks of web 2.0 technology as well (not surprisingly).

Friday, October 19, 2007

More About Casual Gaming

Shortly after posting my thoughts about casual gaming, I came across two essays on the topic at Gamasutra (thanks to a reference from Kotaku). However, where I discussed the casual gamer, these essays discuss the games themselves -- Ian Bogost discussing the meaning of casual games and Juan Gril the role of innovation in casual games. Both essays make great reading, especially Ian's comments about time commitment.

The question that comes to mind, though, is whether we are actually talking about one or two distinct audiences here. Ian classifies casual games (and consequently, casual gamers) as follows:

Casual games typically offer short gameplay sessions, come at a lower cost than hardcore games, and allow play on more ordinary devices like personal computers and mobile phones.

So, is there a difference between the "internet" casual gamer as identified by people who play Solitaire and Bejeweled, and the "console" casual gamer that Nintendo is pursuing?

Let's, for discussion's sake, assume they are different markets and see what is the same and what distinguishes them. I believe the overall impulse is the same for both audiences. Ian quotes a white paper from IDGA that characterizes casual gamers as "gamers who play games for enjoyment and relaxation." (What I had described as recreational gamers.)

He also presents a very useful matrix for understanding the motivation behind casual games; examining time, money and control and the casual gamers assumptions (or limits) for each in terms of complexity and investment. He argues that "casual" is a misleading term because it implies a limit on the investment the player will make; but the common business model (try then buy) is based on users willing to invest time beyond a simple demo or mini game.

He suggests that "informal" is a better adjective than "casual" and that informal allows for variants, such as indifferent, spontaneous, or fleeting. But that they can be repetitive (allowing for more investment of time, and therefore a viable market).

Bogost explains this much better than I can so I encourage anyone interested to read his essay. He also goes into more detail concerning "fleeting" games and their application to the news game genre (an area of particular focus for him). What I want to explore here is the implications for the console market.

Ian explains why "respecting" a casual gamer's time commitment should not necessarily mean short. (And, by extension, why providing only minigames is an unnecessarily limited strategy for game developers.) It may be better to say that the time commitment is variable rather than short. I may choose to play for five minutes today, but for an hour tomorrow. Again, this applies to informal gaming on both the internet and consoles.

The two areas of Bogost's matrix that do cause trouble for the nouveau console gamer are money and control. According to the matrix, informal gamers want games that are easily accessible, low cost, and/or run on existing equipment (such as a PC). This is definitely not true of the market Nintendo is pursuing.

Although the Wii is the cheapest of the current generation consoles, $249 + $50 per game is not cheap by any measure. It is a considerable investment for informal gaming. The innovative controller might explain part of the allure (claims that it is a "fad"). But certainly not to the level of sales the Wii has experienced for practically a full year since its release.

The difference in commitment (and in audiences) might be compared to the difference between someone at a dinner party suggesting a game of cards versus someone bringing a board game with them. Most people have playing cards, you can decide on the spur of the moment. But owning and bringing a board game shows serious intent to have fun.

Another difference, which I mentioned previously, is scope. Internet informal gamers tend to play games to pass the time: Solitaire, Bejeweled, puzzles... individual games. Informal console gamers would prefer to play as a group. Even if the game itself is single player, they will play together -- encouraging, advising, kibitzing, and even playfully joshing whoever has the controller.

This expectation that they will be able to enjoy the gaming together may be part of what helps the console informal gamer overcome any resistance to the initial steep investment. And it is certainly an aspect Nintendo emphasizes in almost all of it's marketing. One aspect of this theory -- if it is correct -- is that there needs to be steady flow of innovative games if this market is to be kept flourishing. Hardcore gamers can sate themselves on multiple releases of similar shoot and kill games, but there are only so many versions of Monopoly or Clue you can play before your friends will get tired.

Ultimately, I think we are talking about two separate audiences. Or at least two ends of a single spectrum: the informal internet gamer and the expanded audience of informal console gamers Nintendo is pursuing. The industry wants to treat them as one at the moment; possibly because they don't understand either! But it will be interesting to see if by sheer volume alone, the two audiences differentiate and force a rethinking of the simplistic hardcore/casual two-way split many companies in the video game industry are pursuing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Three Types of Knowledge Workers

I have come to believe that there are essentially three types of knowledge workers. They are:

  • Knowledge Generators -- these are your primary sources of new knowledge: the people who know, the experts, practitioners, talkers, explorers... They answer questions, proffer theories, discuss ideas, and find solutions for others.
  • Knowledge Consumers -- these are the people who use the system to find information but have little to offer themselves. They ask questions, they search the repositories, and listen intently.
  • Knowledge Brokers -- these are the people who do not generate significant knowledge themselves, but are well-versed in finding information. The classic example of a knowledge broker is the secretary; a good secretary is a storehouse of knowledge about how to get things done. Brokers are the ones who know where to look.

Of course, there are many more distinctions you can make if you delve deeper. There are the classic nicknames for users of bulletin boards and distribution lists: lurkers, newbies, trolls, sock puppets, etc. You can also distinguish users by their profession or job. But in general, there are only three types that matter.

The reason the type of user is significant is because in knowledge management programs, we tend to treat all users alike. They are treated as if their knowledge management needs are the same.

Part of this is just the basic constraints of running a corporate program; the old 80/20 rule -- where you provide 20% of the functionality to meet the needs of 80% of the audience. But part of it is an assumption about the continuity of people's knowledge needs and tactics. However, experience teaches us the exact opposite (as in the case of the bulletin board members mentioned above). Based on personality, expectations, needs, and experience, people participate (or not) in unique ways, but we tend to provide a single set of tools for them to use. In most cases this works because the technology is just a shell and the majority of the users find a way to manipulate the tools to their needs.

But recently I've run into several cases where the basic goals of the KM infrastructure have been called into question, based on differing views of the primary users' goals. This conflict has never become explicit, but runs as an underlying discontinuity impacting discussions of KM future directions with management.

Why is the happening? It happens because management and those running the KM program have differing views of the role of the users. It is not the role of the individual that matters (since we all tend to play differing roles at different times), but the overall mixture that can influence a company's KM strategy.

If you assume your employees are generating knowledge (and so have a mix of all three types), then KM will focus on making sure that knowledge is shared. Forums, communities, mentoring, making the tacit explicit, are all key activities within the KM environment.

If, on the other hand, you assume your employees are purely consumers with very little innovative or creative production, there is little need for peer-to-peer sharing and KM strategies will focus on documenting and distributing best practices, standard procedures, policies, etc.

Product development is an example of the former, where there is often a clear focus on sharing knowledge among peers and fostering innovation. The outsourcing of support is an example of the latter, where the assumption is that the knowledge pre-exists and anyone -- even someone for whom English is a second language -- can be taught to give the right answers. Here documenting the "right" answers is the primary focus.

Which brings me to my point. Similar to the outsourcing craze of the late 90's, managers today are focusing more an more on "operational efficiency" and quarter by quarter metrics. Since you can only squeeze so much efficiency out of an existing process, there is a lot of interest in "commoditizing" what have traditionally been seen as skilled or experience-based processes. In the consulting field, this manifests itself in the effort to focus on a limited set of core services that can be defined, documented, sold, and delivered by consultants both experienced and new. The idea is that you dramatically speed up the evolution from custom solutions to standardized offerings before the market commoditizes the price.

You can't blame management. And there may well be opportunities for commoditization here. However, problems occur when the managerial will outstrips the organizational capacity. In their enthusiasm to achieve their goals, they expect KM to follow suit and switch from supporting an organization of creative professionals to pumping "approved" content to delivery engineers. They also insist KM focus solely on those strategic services, to the exclusion of all other knowledge.

But strategy does not equal reality. What happens in the field often does not match the suppositions of headquarters. And unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your point of view -- knowledge management has to deal both with goals and realities if it is to succeed.

The outcome is a schism between what managers believe and what KM needs to do to support the organization as a whole. If it is a large corporation, you will also see it in conflicting requirements placed on KM from different portions of management. (Where management closest to the field demands support for what is and those at a global level demand support for what is desired.)

It sounds presumptuous, but I believe it is just a point of fact that knowledge develops much slower and perseveres much longer than almost any corporate strategy. The fact that a particular service is dropped from the catalog doesn't mean the knowledge garnered from it is not applicable to other services or that there are not customers still being supported who require it. (Or employees who can gain from discussing it.)

Also, even when supporting a "commodity" model, there is a significant gap between what can be documented and what happens "on the street". The classic example of a community of practice, described by Wenger and more recently by John Seely Brown in The Social Life of Information, is the case of Xerox technicians who were bombarded with printed information (i.e. "answers") but struggled to solve customers' problems until they were connected through a community so they could exchange tricks of the trade learned through experience. Almost an exact replica of today's managers pushing "best practices" to the exclusion of other KM activities.

This difference between the ideal and day-to-day reality gets expressed in thousands of assumptions about what is important in KM. Insistence that "best practices" get prominence over peer-submitted materials in the interface; requests that contributions be reviewed and "qualified" before being shared; demands that communities and forums be aligned to the organizational structure and other communities be dropped.

In the worst cases, as in the last example above, the difference of opinion results in demands that KM "support the business" and focus solely on efforts to support the strategy of the day to the exclusion of the needs of the employees. (This suppression of "non-strategic" knowledge also will have a critically negative impact on people's desire to contribute, damaging any knowledge sharing culture you are trying to establish.)

What can be done about this? Initially (a number of years ago), I was adamant that the interests of KM be given autonomy and that the knowledge architecture should support the actual topics that employees require or affiliate around. Communities should be aligned around "hot spots" within the corporation or where there was a clear strategic need to bring people together. It is also important that the communities be persistent, so they should be named using industry standard terminology -- not the corporate organizational name du jour.

Later, I despaired of any resolution. It was hard to see how conflicts could be avoided and the synergy between business operations and KM was almost totally dependent on the character of the manager -- the more open and visionary they were, the more synergy was possible; the more strictly operational their focus, the more conflicts would occur.

Now, I believe the tension between KM and corporate operations cannot be resolved -- it is a natural consequence of differing goals and points of view. However, I have learned (thanks largely to the opportunity of watching a few very smart and dedicated individuals working these issues) that it is possible to use this tension to your advantage.

KM must stick to KM -- actually managing knowledge -- not falling for the lure of "strategic alignment". By laying the proper foundation of technical support for collaboration, goals and incentives for individuals, and KM policies and procedures that align with business processes rather than specific, short-term business targets, you establish a demonstrable, long-term KM infrastructure. Then, when managers tell you to align with the business plans, rather than changing the infrastructure, you can challenge them to have their organizations use the infrastructure properly.

For example, rather than creating a new community around a specific version of a product, challenge them to set and meet a goal for participation in the existing community appropriate to that technology area. Or set and meet goals for contributing to existing communities and repositories. When they say push "approved" materials, challenge them to increase usage (downloads?) of that material in their organization or of awareness (training?). By pushing goals and metrics rather than brute force control of the source materials, you can not only get the managers to help push the goals of KM but also give them a view of reality -- see what is really being used and how much or little participation their organization is contributing.

There is no panacea. The broader goals of KM will always be hard to measure against short-term operational targets. However, by providing a stable set of core KM strategies and support, you can help management measure its own success within that environment, without distorting the overall flow of knowledge within the corporation.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Fallacy of Casual Gaming

The latest fad in video games is “casual gaming”. Nintendo is to blame – the resounding success of the Nintendo Wii has demolished the gaming industry's preconceptions about who their audience is. Unfortunately, this comeuppance has not given them an equal insight into the real truth about gaming.

Instead, they have replaced one misconception with another. Now, rather than believing their only audience is males between the ages of 16 and 25 interested in brutal, complex, and immersive games, they think they need to cater to an additional audience of “casual” gamers. This translates for many people in the industry into a series of short, light-weight “mini-games” connected by the slimmest ghost of a story.

Sorry. They got it wrong once again. “Casual gamer” does not mean brain-dead. The problem with this line of thinking is that it confuses the audience's initial response to the video game console with their gaming interests.

The fact is that a significant portion – the significant portion – of society is afraid of video games. Watching someone play a game on a traditional video game console (xBox, Playstation, or even Nintendo's own N64 or Gamecube) is like watching someone possessed by an alien spirit. They clutch the controller with both hands, twitching and swerving as if in another dimension, while brightly colored (and often heavily armed) objects hurtle towards them on the screen, just missing by inches. How do they do that?

I know how they do it. I've do it myself. But for the uninitiated, it is both disconcerting and off-putting. The standard PlayStation controller has 10 face buttons, two thumb sticks, and four shoulder buttons. Given that the thumb sticks are overloaded with two additional button actions (if you push down on them) that gives a total of 18 distinct controls. Not for the uninitiated.

The Wii remote, on the other hand – despite having 12 buttons on it – is essentially a stick you wave around with one large button (A) you push. Can't get much simpler – and more approachable – than that!

The true genius of the Wii is in its design: you can ignore the other 11 buttons until you need them... And then there is that connector on the bottom. The connector lets you add functionality as needed, such as the nunchuck. The Wii remote with nunchuck attached is at least as complex as the PlayStation or xBox controller, because although it only has a total of 17 distinct buttons or dials, it has two separate components whose position, rotation, and/or speed can be used as controls.

So what the Wii has done (and the DS to some extent) is overcome the initial aversion to the game console as a device. But once you get people to pick it up, what do they want to play? My experience – with friends and relatives, which is hardly scientific – is that once they are willing to play, they play pretty much anything as long as they are not being chased and you do not offend them.

Once you get them on the machine, they will stay on it and enjoy themselves, as long as they are not put into a threatening position early on. This tends to mean no FPS (first person shooters). After they become adept at the controls, they might try it. But nothing will drive your audience away faster than making them feel helpless while they are still learning.

It is significant that Nintendo shipped Wii Sports with the console in the US. These are not mini-games; these are fully-fledged and recognizable games – again making the new audience feel comfortable and reinforcing the physical nature of the game play.

And the other top quality games on the console are not mini-games: Super Paper Mario, Zelda (which involves chasing but brings the user along slowly, which is the genius of all the Zelda games), and a series of lesser but equally enjoyable games: Wing Island, Mario Strikers, Excite Truck...

So, there is plenty of room for innovation. Plenty of room to wow, welcome, and enthrall new users of any age. The opportunity exists, but the industry can't seem to be able to see past the initial simplicity. They have read "casual gamer" as fickle, feeble, and with a short-attention span. Nothing is going to disappoint and turn off these new users faster -- once they have got past the initial resistance to the console itself -- than finding nothing but a bunch of simplistic, unchallenging titles like Boogie, Carnival Games, etc.

So, if a "casual gamer" is not a twitchy 16 year-old and its not a frumpy housewife with ADD, who are they? Generalizing about an audience is a dangerous thing and I have absolutely no scientific or statistical knowledge to go on. But since it is clear something has changed in the marketplace, it is probably worthwhile to figure out what it is. And we can start by determining what it isn't.

Let's go out on a limb and say casual gamers are not hardcore gamers. That means gaming is not their primary passion -- it is a pastime. Gaming is for them a recreational activity. They may play video games for two or three hours at a time, but once or twice a week at most -- not every day. They may only play once or twice a month.

Which means that games that require you to memorize a dizzying array of button combos are probably out. (Sorry, Madden NFL.) Games with simple controls, where control reminders are shown on the screen (ala Zelda), or where the player can easily practice and freshen up before getting embroiled in a new battle will be favored. It sounds silly, but the ability to save easily is also essential if any storyline episode lasts more than 30 minutes. (Save locations like the blocks in Paper Mario or Marvel Ultimate Alliance may well be too far apart for gamers who don't have the time. Or the player gives up simply not knowing how much further they need to go.)

Next, they are not all 16-25 year old boys. Which means that the subject material of games needs to expand to include more than just those of interest to teenage boys. Lots of shooting, crashing, and punching will upset a significant portion of the audience under 12 and over 35. That doesn't mean competition, conflict, racing, and fighting are out; but the violent edge that infects the majority of "hardcore" games is a problem for the expanded audience. So less "intense" variations are likely to appeal more -- that is, less intense in presentation (no death, blood, screaming, etc.), not necessarily in game play.

We can also assume, since video gaming is a recreational activity, that they have other hobbies. Given a free half hour, they may be more likely to pick up a book, do a crossword, or work on a model airplane than play a video game. These are your competitors, not other video games.

Finally, you will find that as with many recreational activities (sports, board games, even crafts) casual gamers have more fun when they to play together rather than separately. Online play has its benefits, but playing with strangers can be off-putting and it is much easier (more comfortable, less stressful) to get your friends together and play, just as you would to watch a movie or play touch football.

Local multiplayer is key to supporting the expanded audience of casual gamers. Wii Sports is fun, but it is ten times better playing with a friend or family member. Even single player games significantly expand their playability for casual gamers if they include a local multiplayer mode. (Not some weak minigame. Something that can be played for at least 30 minutes without getting bored.)

Of course, because of the unprecedented sales of the Wii console, many many games are being released for it, as publishers try to cash in. Such as the ubiquitous Madden NFL, a title that is anything but user friendly for the casual gamer.* Even with the Wii remote, you have to memorize a dizzying array of button presses, waves and shoves. The same goes for flashy but weak games based on movie franchises (usually with little or no Wii-specific functionality beyond their comparable Playstation or xBox releases).

Nintendo's success is ultimately the cause of the confusion -- and disappointment -- these "filler" games create as everyone and their brother tries to sell to this new audience. On the up side, Nintendo continues its push to develop high-quality games for the real "casual gamer" and selected other publishers are beginning to catch on. Zack & Wiki is one upcoming game that appears to understand its audience and looks terrific to boot.

So let's hear it for diversity and hope the other publishers eventually catch on.

*Footnote: I read somewhere that the latest Madden NFL includes two control schemes, regular and simplified. I haven't tried this new edition, but alternate play modes and control schemes may be one way for multiplatform games to retain their essence while meeting the needs of new players on the Wii.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Measuring KM

Just one day after posting about the dangers of ROI, someone suggested that we should look at KM as a set of services with deliverables, service levels, etc.

My initial reaction was similar to my reaction to requests for ROI. It is easy to see where this is leading: decomposing KM into its constituent "service" parts so the business groups can pick and choose the ones they want -- the ones that they see as directly contributing to their own bottom line and leave the fuzzier and more complex goals of KM behind.

KM is not just a menu of services. If it were, there would be very little purpose in separating it from the rest of business operations. On the other hand, I understand the desire to get a handle on exactly what is the business benefit of a program such as KM.

The analogy that came to mind at the time was to the difficulties involved in funding public education. Individual citizens do not get to choose whether they fund one service over another. There is a need to educate our young (reinforced by federal laws) that cannot be broken down into individual services.

At the same time, my own analogy betrays me because I don't believe the US educational system is well run or evenly remotely efficient in achieving its goals.

So how do you retain the proper perspective on KM's long-term goals and still make the program accountable? I don't claim to have the answer, but I know several things you shouldn't do:
  • Don't "put KM in business terms" and measure it against short-term business objectives such as increased sales, shorter time to market, etc. In other words, ROI. Although KM practices influence many of these objectives, KM's contribution is only part of the story and cannot be accurately measured or, more importantly, can't be "adjusted" as management likes to do to increase the return.
  • Don't measure KM value as "savings" against the potential cost if KM was not involved. This is extremely appealing (along the lines of "now it only takes five minutes to find a sample proposal to copy versus the day and a half it would take to write it from scratch"). However, the result is often a return so astronomical (200%, 300%, 400%) that no rational manager would believe it. And in fact they shouldn't. Because although the benefits are real, the alternative is false: without a viable KM environment, employees will find a workaround -- such as stealing from an inappropriate sample or leaving out sections (usually those needed to mitigate risk) to save time.

The fact is that there is a natural tension between business operations and complementary initiatives such as KM. (Others that come to mind are R&D, usability, sustainability, etc.) The larger goals of KM cannot be measured in standard operational terms, whether that be ROI, chargeability, time-to-market, etc. But that doesn't mean they can't be measured. It just means you have to be careful to measure them on their own terms.

For example, from a business perspective the role of communities of practice (CoPs) is to increase the flow of "deep" knowledge among practitioners in fields important to the business. Two ways to measure the impact of a community initiative would be to measure the level of participation in the CoPs or the level of interaction between members.

But you do have to be careful. CoPs are communities of practitioners -- a mutually beneficial network of peers. As soon as you talk about CoPs and convince management of their benefit, someone will try to strictly "align" the communities with the business objectives, either by changing the community's objective or by controlling (and only measuring) the individuals they believe belong in the community due to job role or organization.

You can encourage people to participate in communities, even measure and reward that participation. but you cannot require or control it. If you require participation, it is no longer mutually beneficial. It is then performed out of compunction and the culture and attitude will no longer be one of sharing to mutual benefit but complying (and consequently doing as little as possible to meet the requirement).

Achieving balance between maintaining the autonomy of KM initiatives and retaining enough connection with the business organization to garner support is a tricky business. One way to make the connection real is to measure based on KM objectives but report along organizational lines. For example, what percentage of the people in organization X are participating in communities vs. organization Y. This, plus the participation rates on specific communities allows you to turn the tables: it gives managers a clear metric (especially if you set a target goal) that they can work towards. But rather than "turning the dial" of KM funding or services, they can work to encourage the employees in their organizations to participate to raise the metrics for their organization or the communities they consider critical to their mission.