Friday, November 14, 2008

KM Starts at Home

Yesterday, while discussing a project with a friend and colleague, I made the statement "KM starts at home." I didn't mean that literally, but figuratively.

In other words, don't go designing new knowledge management programs without first seeing what people are already doing. The fact is, we all practice KM to a certain extent without any outward influence. We talk to friends, we call people we know, we join groups, follow blogs, read magazines, etc.

There is always an existing knowledge ecosystem within any environment. And the informal ecosystem is often larger and more diverse than the official one. It is important to understand that ecology before introducing new elements for several reasons:

  • If the existing ecosystem is successful, you don't want to accidentally break it.
  • Even if it is not tremendously efficient, people are using it and so if you introduce a competing system you will have a serious uphill battle for adoption.
  • If it is not effective, it is a good first target for your initial KM efforts.

This is particularly true for collaboration and communities of practice. If people within the company have established informal communities either locally or outside the company, they may be a good target for pilot communities since they already know the benefits and have a defined group. But it needs to be done with their cooperation to avoid bad blood. On the other hand, if they are running efficiently, you might simply want to "ordain" them as a CoP and move on to less effective parts of the organization.

One of the most overlooked aspects of the knowledge ecosystem in many companies is the outside connections employees establish. This is even more true in the era of social computing, blogs and wikis, etc. There is tremendous potential for bringing in new ideas through these interpersonal, inter-company networks. You don't want to damage these connections where they are effective, but they are often not sufficient by themselves to fully leverage this knowledge to the company's advantage. (This may seem like a terribly selfish corporate point of view. But the fact is an employee who follows lots of blogs but never shares this information internally is often doing neither themselves nor the company much good.)

Identifying these networks and helping connect like-minded individuals internally is often more effective and far less expensive (in terms of time and energy) than trying to stimulate a CoP from scratch.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Month of Poems (Part 3)

[This is part 3 of a month of poems as described in the preface]

"There's no Place to Sleep in this Bed, Tanguy" by Charles Henri Ford
from Out of the Labyrinth, City Lights 1991
[Saturday, Nov. 1st]

Ford is one of the few (only two?) American surrealists in the true French tradition. (It is odd to speak of Surrealism and tradition in the same breath. There are so many variants, but the French progenitors form a unique aesthetic around which others invent and improvise.)

Anyway, Ford follows the French style of Breton, Peret and others, resulting in the same thrill of inventiveness for the reader. However, his poems also contain a persistent undercurrent of anger and cruelty. It shows through in the language and the images ("lasso of love... wires are cut... menacing... the painted trigger... torture-machines... whose quarry is fear... set new traps..."). And this is one of the less violent poems.

Where at first this sense of anger is part of the excitement of the poems, over time you realize the anger is undirected and unmitigated, poisoning the poems and leaving the reader uncomfortable -- not at the "newness" of the style but at the lack of control or self-awareness of the persona behind them.

"3:59" by Ruth Forman
from We Are the Young Magicians, Beacon Press 1993
[Sunday, Nov. 2nd]

I like this book. I like these poems. I know I shouldn't. I can name the reasons why I shouldn't: the story lines are heavy-handed, over-simplistic, the self-conscious writing in dialect -- a pet peeve of mine -- ("n i could sure use some a them lil white pills"), the unnecessary use of lowercase, the predictable and sometimes trite endings... But despite all that, I still like them. There is a driving beat to the lines that keeps them moving to the end and as predictable and hammy as they are, Forman carries them off with style and you kind of like her for the audacity of it all.

"Promesse" by André Fenaud
from Poètes d'Aujourd'hui 37 André Fenaud, Pierre Seghers [year unknown]
[Monday, Nov. 3rd]

"When you give me your hand it is your entire being" (translated). Only a French poet can get away with a line like that. In the hands of an American writer, it would seem like pretension. We know it's not true, as much as we may wish it were. And because of that knowledge, we refrain from saying it. We work towards the truth, we dance around it in elaborate and -- in their own right -- moving ways. (See John Ashbury's "Some Trees", W.C.Williams' "Dance Russe", or Roethke's "I Knew a Woman")

But the French defy all logic and, despite all proof to the contrary, make such grand statements with pure, unadulterated conviction. And get away with it besides.

"Some Comfort" by Martha Fritz
from If the River's This High All Summer, Pym-Randall 1974
[Tuesday, Nov. 4th]

This is a beautiful book. It is one of only two or three I own where you wonder what happened? Why the poet published one book and disappeared? Because Fritz is an exquisite writer with a gorgeous sense of language. The images suspend you in air as you soak them in ("Blossoms are words in the long-winded streets"). There are few first books as beautiful or as fully formed as this. There are the occasional poems where her images get caught up in themselves and leave the reader stranded. (Thinking, what exactly does that mean?) But in general there is nothing here but the joy of language and intense emotional discovery.

"The Wood-Pile" by Robert Frost
from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Collected Poems), Holt, Rinehart & Winston 1969
[Wednesday, Nov. 5th]

I was never a big fan of Robert Frost. I thought of him as too artfully rustic, too grade school English class. But then my son asked me to read him some of Frost's poems, so I was forced to find poems that I would be willing to read. It was far less difficult than I expected.

Frost is intentionally rustic. He is also overtly philosophical, openly sentimental, while at the same time grumpily misanthropic. But he also has a tremendous sense of native speech (which I may understand better now having lived in New England for a number of years) which makes the rhythm and rhyme of his poems integral to their narrator's sensibility.

I like Robert Frost now. Not everything, but many poems that were ruined by grade school teachers have now been reclaimed and many "lesser" poems (lesser only because they are more complex, less "ta da!" like or easy to stereotype) newly discovered.

"Everyone Knows the World is Ending" by Alice Fulton
from Palladium, University of Illinois Press 1986
[Thursday, Nov. 6th]

Fulton is a master of her craft. She writes finely-honed poems filled with incredible language, an expansive vocabulary of images. ("Each thought a focused mote in the apocalypse's iridescent fizz.") The only danger is that her writing is so inventive, it can overpower the poem itself. The intense focus on the language can distract the reader, making the subject of the poem into more of a pantomime rather the driving force, to the poem's detriment.

"Haunted Importantly" by Jack Gilbert
from The Great Fires, Knopf 1994
[Friday, Nov. 7th]

Jack Gilbert is a serious poet. A very serious poet. Too serious for some... He takes his poems seriously and he takes his subjects seriously.

What's surprising is that his subject comes first. He crafts his poems and his language with precision. And the reward is lines that are close to perfect. For example: "The music that thinking is". For almost any other poet, arriving at this line would be sufficient, it would be an appropriate close to the poem. But Gilbert wasn't done with his subject and so he needed more: "He wanted to know what he heard, not to get closer." It takes the reader by surprise. It isn't as pure or as perfect a line as the previous one. But he needed to say it. It is this private sense of direction that gives his poems a unique kind of atonality you don't find in other American poets.

"America" by Allen Ginsberg
from Howl and Other Poems, City Lights 1969
[Saturday, Nov. 8th]

Rereading "Howl" and "America" I'm reminded of how talented Ginsberg really was. Yes, there's a lot of broggadocio and chest thumping, but there's a lot of talent too. So why don't I read him more often?

It's related to why I don't listen to the Beatles more often as well. It's not that it's old or out-dated, it's not. But it is kind of like driving a car that is stuck in one gear. It's not all the same; you can drive it fast or you can drive it slow. But its still only got one gear. Ginsberg's got his points, and he makes them one way. Loud (like "Howl") or quiet (like "In back of the real"), the point comes out the same.

"Killing My Pen-Pal" by Loren Goodman
from Famous Americans, Yale University Press 2003
[Sunday, Nov 9th]

This is an interesting collection of poems, ranging from single line poems to poems that look like they were copied directly out of TV Guide. More importantly, Goodman plays with what we think poems are about. Many of these poems are like overheard dialogs -- fragmented, partial, still under construction. ("I plan an escape as I would plan / to take off my clothes. / That is, there isn't much planning / I just undress...")

It is exciting to see art being stretched like this, testing the edges of what makes a poem a poem. Of course, the fear is that you are just being conned. (e.g. Is this Andy Warhol the artist, or Andy Warhol the commercial shill?) The fact is it is hard to tell.

Even time can't differentiate in all cases. The artists themselves sometimes get caught in their own inventions. I am thinking here of people like e.e. cummings and Jackson Pollack. Fame and invention are not necessarily friends

"Somewhere a garage door goes down..." by Noah Eli Gordon
from Novel Pictorial Noise, Harper Perennial 2007
[Monday, Nov 10th]

It's not surprising that Gordon's book was picked for the National Poetry Series by John Ashbery, because in many ways it reads like Ashbery's writing in prose. The linguistic gymnastics, the element of surprise, the circling, feints, and verbal shadowboxing. ("Clouds gather, disperse. Let this suffice as a working formula for working a formula...")

I haven't read the whole book, and it is hard to tell whether it is more of a book of individual poems or a single poem that is divided into chunks. But reading it as individual poems demonstrates the flaws in Ashbery's and Gordon's style. For all the amazing verbal play, there is a lack of substance, a resolute avoidance of subject matter.

I could be wrong. Read as a book rather than as a separate poems, a subject may emerge (as in Ashbery's best book, the Double Dream of Spring). As individual poems you can enjoy the playfulness. But it begins to wear thin after a while without something to hold it together. And based on current reading, I don't see a meaningful thread evolving yet.

"If I Could Wear the Pain" by Janet Grey
from Flaming Tail Out of the Ground Near Your Farm, Illuminati 1987
[Tuesday, Nov 11th]

A friend recommended this book to me a number of years ago. I have read it through a couple of times and I pick it up every now and then. It is a strong piece of work. Gray's poems pack a punch and her writing is close, personal, and direct. ("If I could wear the pain / like perfume, for example [...] if the source of it / could become unimportant, / or simply interesting -- the stories I could tell...")

This is a good book to read whenever you've read too much mediocre poetry or when your head gets clouded by the murky stuff you find in literary mags. When you begin to doubt the effectiveness of poetry or its social relevance, her poems will ground you quickly in what poetry is capable of.

"Of" by Deborah Greger
from And, Princeton University Press 1985
[Wednesday, Nov 12th]

Boy, I must spend a lot of time in the "G" section of the local book store because I just noticed a pretty impressive lineup of poets coming up: Debora Greger, Linda Gregerson, Linda Gregg... These three are all excellent poets. Not the same in any way, but all what you might call masters of their craft: finely honed poems of imagery and emotion.

Of the three Greger is perhaps the most overt with her craft, her manipulation of language. She is also my favorite of the three. Which is somewhat strange since she is also the most overtly "poetic". You always feel the hand of the poet in her writing. ("a glossy centerfold dissolves into / modesty -- black, cyan sequestered / under magenta's blush, and yellow / unmixing the muddied glow...")

Normally, this would disturb me. But in Greger's case, she not only shows off her control of language, she uses it deftly and with surprising variety. She writes personal poems, historical poems, dream poems, reimaginings of fairy tales... Each with the same deft touch.

"Ship" by Linda Gregerson
from Fire in the Conservatory, Dragon Gate 1982
[Thursday, Nov 13th]

Gregerson may be the most emotional of the three poets, also the least controlled. Her poems ooze feeling. Unfortunately, sometimes that sensation is hard to nail down and therefore hard for the reader to share. ("Our hope's a kind of geography: each place it lands, a city like ours springs up. Your daughter's dowry hangs by a bolt of silk in the hull. Another bolt shortened to stitch up the corpse.") This sort of hop, skip, and jump of imagery is emblematic of her work. At its best, it's a fascinating and intriguing collage of images and emotions. At lesser moments, it is a murky jumble of pictures as if the poem slipped out of the poet's grasp at a critical moment.

"Singing Enough to Feel the Rain" by Linda Gregg
from The Sacraments of Desire, Graywolf 1991
[Friday, Nov 14th]

Gregg is also emotional. But in her case, the emotion is as finely honed as the poems themselves. She is also perhaps the most personal poet of the three. Her poems slip seamlessly between the eternal and the immediate, the global and the intimate. ("I am alone writing as quickly as I can, dulled by being awake at four in the morning. Between the past and the future, without a life, writing on the line I walk between death and youth, between having and loss.")

The poems here never escape her grasp. They do, at times, cleave so closely to her personal life (or that of her persona) that they are hard to decipher for an outsider. But they are always under control. And even if the details are confusing (e.g. "I am far from there in a hurry not to miss the joining" There where? Joining what?) the poems' momentum usually carries you over these gaps.

"Painkillers" by Thom Gunn
from Collected Poems, Farrar Straus & Giroux 1994
[Saturday, Nov 15th]

For those who don't know, I was born in England. When I was six my family moved to the US, which is where I grew up. As is often the case in situations like this, I had a fascination with my "homeland" and when I got interested in poetry in college, I read both American poets and contemporary English poets. This was unfortunate because I didn't like most of the English writers I encountered, including Thom Gunn. (I won't go into it here, but in general I find modern English poets are -- for all their rebelliousness -- still slaves to their literary past far more than American writers.)

So why do I have this book? I suspect I thought I'd give Gunn another try. But I haven't got very far with it. The fact is, I don't think these poems are written for me. There is too much tell and not enough show. This might be a peculiarly American aesthetic. If so, so be it. Besides, for all the talking, I find the ideas in these poems trite. ("What was the pain / he needed to kill / if not the ultimate pain / of feeling no pain?") Just not my kind of thing.

"Nervous Collapse" by Paul Hannigan
from Holland and the Netherlands, Pym-Randall 1970
[Sunday, Nov 16th]

Hannigan is perhaps the most underrated, unread American poet of the past 50 years. His poems are a perfect mix of reality, absurdity, and wonder. I have been meaning to write about him at more length, but find it hard to be objective -- I am that fond of his work.

I was sorry to hear recently that Hannigan died in 2006. He left a relatively small body of work: a handful of books and a smattering of poems in magazines. I can only hope someone puts the effort into organizing a volume of collected poems. It would be one of the best books you've ever read.

Currently, his books are all out of print. But they are well worth the effort and cost needed to find them. Holland and the Netherlands is my favorite. A small, almost perfect volume. I'll close by quoting the poem of the day, just to give a taste for those who have never encountered Hannigan's work before:

Nervous Collapse

All the nerves collapse
All the body does a little

Nerveless dance. This is not so bad.
This is not bad at all.

In comparison to the Eiffel Tower
This is wonderful

"#20 (The mushrooms helped again...)" by Jim Harrison
from Letters to Yesenin, Sumac Press 1973
[Monday, Nov 18th]

Harrison is a great antidote to too many "literary" poems. Unfortunately, he is well aware of this and sometimes plays it to the hilt. He is not as anti-literary as he puts on. Still, his writing is refreshingly brash and straightforward.

"The star king makes cut after cut..." by Bob Heman
from 12 Prose Poems, Clown War Press 1976
[Tuesday, Nov 17th]

These prose poems are in the late American surrealist mode, in the style of James Tate, Russell Edson, etc. And Heman has studied his form. These poems are well structured and each comes to a tidy conclusion. But ultimately, there is no real meaning here and far too much imagery used simply for the shock value (homosexuality, incest, cutting flesh, etc.) That, plus the fact that the language used is just not interesting, makes this a pretty dismal book.

[Personal business interrupted my reading this month, so I will finish the post here. --Andrew]

Friday, October 31, 2008

I've Been Tagged

John Tropea was kind enough to mention me in his blog, tagging me with the question: what does blogging do for me? (Previously, How do I decide what to blog about?)

The latter is an easy question for me: I write about only five things. Or rather, I tag only five subjects -- knowledge management, information architecture, technology, video games and poetry. That is a fairly strict taxonomy, but until further notice those are the only subjects I feel compelled and knowledgeable enough about to blog. Anything else I discuss either goes untagged or is tangentially related to one of those five topics (like this entry is to KM).

The other question -- what does blogging do for me -- is slightly more complex. When I started, my first blog entry described what I expected to get out of it. I blog -- like many other people, I suspect -- as a way of clarifying my own ideas. The physical activity of writing things down forces me to verify those thoughts. Some ideas that sound good bouncing loosely around in my head can seem perfectly stupid or unsupportable when written down.

There were other incentives as well:

  • Establish a reputation as a reasonably well-informed thinker about the topics in question
  • Connect with fellow professionals (like John) and share ideas
  • Establish a web presence for myself that is more personal and informative than a LinkedIn/MySpace/Facebook profile

However, these are all secondary goals, since there are quicker and more effective methods for achieving each of these. But the question was what does blogging do for me, not what do I think it will do for me. It turns out that my original concept has proven true. The blog has been very beneficial in helping me flesh out ideas and theories that I have had floating around for quite some time. It also spawns new ideas -- and hence new entries -- as I follow a train of thought and compare it to my fellow bloggers.

One consequence is that my blog is somewhat different than others. While others write quickly to jot their ideas down before they escape, my entries take on average a month or more to finish. I would like them to be faster, but I either don't have sufficient time or the ideas themselves take longer to foment.

Another consequence is that I have had the opportunity to "meet" several new people who I would not have met any other way. (Insert a shout out to everyone who has commented on my entries or referenced them in their own blogs. I am very grateful and in several cases they have led me to discover new ideas, theories, methodologies, or products I was not aware of. Thank you, everyone.)

The one thing I had not expected is that the blog helps me see the connectedness of my own ideas. At work, ideas are generated and applied as needed by the situation. Setting up SharePoint? you think about use cases, security policies, information lifecycle, archiving, etc. Participation in a KM program lower than expected? You think about community creation and facilitation, incentives, alignment to business processes, etc. The pragmatic need to address an issue keeps you focused and you inherently apply certain design principles. But you often do not have the time to examine the connection between the decisions. Taking the time to reflect on the ideas and decisions -- abstracted from the specific event -- allows you to understand your own motivations and how they interrelate.

This is reflected rather abstractly in the broad spectrum of subjects I have covered under the guise of KM and IA. But I expect it will become more explicit in the near future, as I outline some of the guiding principles that I have discovered myself pursuing. More on that later.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Intranet is not a Thing

Patrick C. Walsh recently asked for input on a concept he is calling lean intranets, based at least in part on the concept of lean manufacturing. The basic concept he is promoting is very attractive: make the intranet more productive by significantly reducing the content down to only that which actually helps employees "create value".

Certainly many if not all intranets could do with some dramatic reduction in either outdated or superfluous content. However, as attractive as the concept of a "lean intranet" is, it is based on a false assumption: that the intranet is a "thing" that can be managed or controlled as a single entity.

The problem is that the intranet serves more than one purpose and more than one master. Unlike manufacturing, where there is one linear process that can be optimized to reduce "waste", the intranet is more like a city, with hundreds or thousands of diverse members each with their own goals and objectives.

The reason this caught my eye is not because Walsh's theory is fatally flawed -- in fact it is not. His prescription for creating a lean intranet may make a few spurious assumptions, but the goal and many of his suggestions are still valid. (More on than later.) The reason the assumption is important to recognize is because the same assumption is endemic to corporate managers and intranet teams everywhere.

The Intranet as a Thing and its Postulates

For any company larger than, say, 200 or 300 people, you cannot ask "what is the purpose of the intranet" as if it was a singular thing. However, this is exactly how it is treated by many, many companies, resulting in some rather spectacularly dysfunctional behavior.

Most of the time when people -- especially managers -- talk about "the intranet" they are talking about the corporate intranet portal; the internal "home page" for the company. The problem is that the portal is -- quite literally -- just the tip of the iceberg in terms of content and uses of the intranet.

This "intranet as a thing" thinking results in a number of fallacious assumptions:

  • The corporate portal is everyone's home page
  • Only pages linked to by the portal are part of the intranet -- everything else is noise
  • You can control the intranet by dictate

Many companies enforce the first assumption by setting the intranet portal as the browser home page as part of their standard PC configuration. But, is the corporate home page the most useful page for employees? Shouldn't they start at their division or their department's home page? And, let's face it, most experienced users navigate through bookmarks/favorites, significantly diminishing the importance of the home page...

Some companies also enforce the second postulate -- "the intranet is what I say it is" -- by limiting the corporate search engine to crawling only "official" pages. The argument is that by restricting the scope of search, you increase the value of the results that are returned. The actual consequence is that you put up castle walls around a portion of your intranet, leaving many employees (and their content!) outside the walls. This form of electronic feudalism creates significant barriers to sharing information across organizational boundaries within the corporation.

Finally, many companies try to control their intranets by dictate: they define requirements and standards for the appearance, structure, and even content of web pages within the intranet. These rules start out as well intentioned, attempting to define a common look & feel for the intranet browsing experience (usually through a common intranet banner, colors, and fonts). But it soon extends to guidelines for the layout and even the content of pages.

Again, this mandated layout is done under the auspices of standardizing the browsing experience and simplifying maintenance, but the result is that lower level groups are handcuffed into following a structure that may have no relation to the information they need to present. A prime example is intranet guidelines that require each organizational home page start with a mission statement and "news". I cannot tell you how many times I have watched groups struggle to come up with news items simply to fulfill this stylistic requirement.

Creating a Lean Intranet

As I said earlier, Walsh's assumption that it is possible to define a single set of criteria for identifying and eliminating wasteful content on the intranet from the top is flawed because the intranet does not have a single purpose, as a manufacturing process has. However, at each of the lower levels at which intranet content is owned and maintained it ought to be possible to define and apply such criteria. Because that is the level at which the goal of the content is defined and understood.

So although I am quibbling that a process for lean intranets cannot be applied at the top level, there is real opportunities for applying it at lower levels, assuming the corporate style police allow it.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Nintendo DSi

Yesterday Nintendo announced a new version of the dual screen DS, called the DSi.

There are a number of minor enhancements: slightly larger screen area, slimmer case, a (toy) camera, improved audio.... But the change that appears to be the primary reason for the upgrade is replacing the GBA slot with a standard SD memory slot.

By using a flash card, DSi owners will be able to download and store games on their DS. (Currently downloaded games are only available as long as the system is on and the game is in memory.) This allows for downloadable content ala WiiWare for the DS.

The SD card can also be used to transfer pictures taken on the DS to the Wii. But the DSi camera is such low resolution, this is essentially a waste. (My phone takes better pictures.)

The use of flash memory for downloadable games is so obvious it is a wonder it was not built into the original DS or the DS Lite. But thinking back to when the DS was first introduced, the concept of the dual screen itself was so revolutionary, the use of a GBA slot to provide a level of backwards compatibility was clearly more important to help consumers make the transition. But now the GameBoy market is quiescent; to the point where removing the GBA slot will cause little to no concern in the market.

So, is it worth upgrading your DS when the DSi becomes available? I think that depends on two things:

  • How robust the "DSiWare" market is at launch. If Nintendo provides compelling downloadable content, the upgrade will pay for itself. Unfortunately, Nintendo has a checkered history for supporting its own hardware upgrades and add-ons (think: VirtualBoy, Gamecube Bongos, GameBoy Camera...) this is a new system, not an add-on. But it will require games and content to make it useful.
  • What other forms of "flash" downloadable content will be supported.

Clearly the enhanced audio capabilities would suggest downloadable mp3 music files are a target. But the real question, for me personally, is will Nintendo support other user-generated content, in particular home-brew games?

Nintendo has a great opportunity here to open up an entirely new market in the video game industry. Only Xbox, thus far, has embraced the hobbyist game developer with its XNA toolkit. But creating a game and being able to share it are two different things and Microsoft has not created a viable marketplace for small developers yet. Providing the ability to load homebrew games onto standard SD cards could dramatically change the indy game marketplace.

Is this a big market? Compared to the casual market the Wii created, no. But compared to the market for listening to MP3s on a DSi which is three times the size (with a fraction of the memory) of an iPod, this could be a real game changer, similar to the Wii.

Clearly there are issues around licensing and security -- there would need to be distinctions between commercial titles that need to protect themselves against copy piracy and simpler downloadables. But compared to the potential for leapfrogging Microsoft and XNA (and the fact that they need to address the piracy issue with rewritable media anyway) I would think this would be almost too good an opportunity to miss.

The only thing standing in the way is Nintendo's past stance against anything unlicensed, which goes back all the way to the original NES. It is unclear whether they have the vision to set a new path. WiiWare is a beginning, but the qualifications to get signed up for that program excludes all but the biggest indy developers.

One possible alternate route is if Nintendo collaborates with the likes of DigiPen or Carnegie-Mellon to develop simplified game development "systems" (essentially a game-making game). This has been tried in the past. But without a distribution mechanism, the results were little more than private fiddling. Using a combination of a "casual" game development system, writable media, an online community, and friend codes (I know everyone hates them, but they do offer protection), Nintendo could once again revolutionize the game industry by creating the equivalent of Flickr or YouTube for games.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A Month of Poems (Continued)

[This is part 2 of a month of poems as described in the preface]

"Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway" by Gregory Corso
From The Happy Birthday of Death, New Directions 1960
[Wednesday, October 1st]

Corso always strikes me as one of those "friends of the famous" -- famous, but for no identifiable reason. Friend of Kerouac. Friend of Ginsberg. Author of Gasoline. And also The Happy Birthday of Death.

I remember being excited by Gasoline -- what? say, 35 years ago? -- but for quite some time I have been unable to reproduce or to explain that feeling. Happy Birthday always seemed to be the proof that his fame was misplaced. The stilted rhymes, the clumsy archaic speech, antiquated references, nonsense as meaning... The quintessential post flash in the pan.

Corso is perhaps the one Beat poet most bound by time. Outside the era that bore him, he feels alien and outdated. Even Kerouac, even Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti as "contemporary" as their writing was, manage to transcend that moment. But Corso doesn't.

Is that a failing? For modern readers yes. But perhaps they were only meant as momentary expressions. The trouble is it is hard to assess "value" or "beauty" of something that doesn't last.

Which is all the more strange that I found a poem I liked in Happy Birthday. "Poets Hitchhiking" shows Corso's humor, directed at himself as much as anyone else, mocking his own writing and its tenuousness ("we ended by melting away, hating the air!"). Perhaps he did know how fragile it was after all.

"A Form of Woman" by Robert Creeley
From for Love, Charles Scribner's Sons 1962
[Thursday, October 2nd]

Creeley's poems are almost devoid of imagery. What images are there are a form of monologue (or in some cases, like the famous poem "I Know a Man", dialog).

As a consequence, his poems for all their simplicity are very hard to read for a modern reader. Unlike most 20th century verse, his poems are written from the outside in rather than the inside out, in an abrupt documentary style. What emotion is there is only that which might be expressed -- and visible-- outwardly. "I could not touch you. / I wanted very much to / touch you / but could not." Add to this staccato, objective style his idiosyncratic line breaks and you have a tough read ahead of you. But when they work, his poems form a unique experience that comes into focus so slowly, you don't realize it until the poem has you.

"Self-Portrait in a Stainless Steel Mirror" by James Crenner
From My Hat Flies On Again, L'Epervier Press 1981
[Friday, October 3rd]

I don't remember where I first heard of James Crenner. Perhaps I found his work in a magazine. Maybe he was recommended by a friend of a friend. Whichever, the memory of his work stuck with me and I spent several years trying to find more of it, until last year when I finally found a copy of My Hat Flies On Again. Now I see why I was so persistent.

Crenner's poems don't seem special -- the subjects are interesting but not unique, his style of writing is familiar... But each poem has at least one line, an image, or an idea that stays with you for days. In "Application Blank" he describes himself as "curator of the part of my life that is over" -- a killer line. In "Self-Portrait" he turns an objective description of his own face into a landscape "with the trace of a bird, the trace of some weeds" where the entire poem lingers with you long after you put the book down. No particular line, but the poem as a whole.

There are flashy writers who surprise you and there are "serious" poets you try to make you think long and hard on things. Crenner isn't either of these, but he can do both. He is that talented. But it is a quiet, understated talent, which is what makes it all the more unusual and gratifying.

"VII (since feeling is first)" by E.E. Cummings
from is 5, in Complete Poems 1913-1962, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1972
[Saturday. October 4th]

I wonder if anyone reads E.E. Cummings anymore. He is easy to discount as all style and no substance. The uniqueness of his poems and their total reliance on surface -- the use of lower case, the staccato diction of speech and thought -- make the poems seem almost like parodies of themselves. And it's true: Cummings' poems either succeed or fail. And when they fail, they fail spectacularly. But when they succeed, the success is equally exuberant.

Cummings uses words like painters use brushes -- he "paints" his poems. I don't mean in the superficial sense of concrete poems or Apollinaire's poème-objet. Cummings is not interested in constructing sentences, he constructs scenes where dialog runs together and thoughts intersect and bounce off each other. His poems are more like screenplays without scenery or physical players. As he says himself "Since feeling is first / who pays attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you."

The tragedy is that in his later poems Cummings retains the style, but attempts to apply it to physical scenes rather than human interaction, and the result is an exceedingly dull imitation of his earlier work. But until then, his work can be a wild ride.

"Baseball Cards #2" by Jim Daniels
from The Long Ball, Pig in a Poke Press 1988
[Sunday, October 5th]

There have been some great baseball poems. W.C. Williams' paean to baseball "At the Ball Game" in Spring and All, for example. And I recently found a stunning baseball poem by Tom Clark. So I have no objection to the subject itself. Unfortunately, Jim Daniels' poems in The Long Ball have little more than the subject and that is not enough.

These are poems because Daniels says they are, but he doesn't use any of the power of poetry. The language is flat. There is no under current, no secondary meaning. There is only what is described and what is described is, well, dull. Am I being harsh? Probably. But this stuff isn't for me.

"What the Rocks Say" by Robert Desnos
Translated by Anne Waldman, source unknown
[Monday. October 6th]

Robert Desnos was one of the first surrealist poets I read in the original French and, although my French is sketchy at best, I learned enough to be disappointed by most translations. This is unfortunate, because modern translations of Desnos are actually quite good for those unable to read the French. But I also learned that Desnos is very hard to translate because it is almost as if he had no voice of his own. His poems are friendly but stark, as if he were channeling surrealism itself. There is little of the personal style or linguistic quirks you find in his fellow surrealists, such as Eluard, Soupault, or Peret. So it is hard to determine what style or voice to use in English.

I originally intended to read a poem from Michael Benedikt's translation (22 Poems, Kayak Books 1971), but while leafing through it I found a xerox I made many years ago and had slipped in at the point in the book with the matching translation by Benedikt. I obviously put it there because I thought Waldman did a better job of translating the poem (and still do). But it also shows that the differences are subtle. Here are three translations of the first line of the poem (the third being from Selected Poems of Robert Desnos translated by Carolyn Forche and William Kulik, Ecco 1991):

The queen of the azure and the fool of the void go past you in a taxicab (Benedikt)

The Queen of the Blue & the Fool of Space pass by in a taxi (Waldman)

The azure queen and the madman of the void go by in a cab (Forche and Kulik)

"In the Pocket" by James Dickey
from The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy, Doubleday 1970
[Tuesday. October 7th]

I am not a big fan of poems that meander all over the page -- poems with large gaps between words or lines that start in different places. There is plenty of power in language, in the rhythms, the sounds of the words, and the line breaks. These exaggerated placements seem heavy-handed and, in most cases, unrewarding. In bad poems, I find this sort of extravagance annoying and a crude attempt to hide the weakness of the poem itself. In good poems I simply try to ignore the spaces.

Dickey is one writer where I try to ignore the gaps. However, in Dickey's poems, that is difficult. He uses spaces as punctuation: breaking up and intermixing chunks of thought -- different threads of a story -- as a videographer splices together film.

Here we have another sports poem (football this time) and another poem ostensibly about the surface of things. Dickey is trying to reproduce the tension and rush of the football experience from the player's point of view by piling image upon image, piece by fragmented piece. It is a tall order to reproduce it in words. And when he gets to the end of the poem with its rush of all upper case words, like a drill sergeant shouting out orders, my initial impulse is to resist it. Too demanding, unjustified, manipulative. But frankly, the poem works. And as unsettling as it is, Dickey effectively achieves his goal.

"A Row of Identical Cottages" by Mark Doty
from Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, David R. Godine 1991
[Wednesday, October 8th]

Mark Doty is a very talented writer. His poems are mesmerizing in their use of language. The lines stretch out like a lush tropical garden with its heady odors, colors, and cacaphony of images. In a way, the verbiage is so lush it is almost overwhelming. Unfortunately he is also one of several very talented writers who I simply don't "get".

I can admire these poems, but I can't enjoy them. As rich as they are in images and language, the poem never really connects with me as a reader. In a way, it is the richness, the lushness of the writing that stands in the way. "The flag flapped like a towel hung out to dry ... the single breathing undulance that sea and sky made ... the water that was hurrying with the idea of storm ..." The images are so thick and fraught with meaning, they end up being a sort of a blur. The language doesn't allow for enough variation to be realistic. It is like looking at an exhibit of Faberge eggs: beautiful, intricate, well crafted, but ultimately meant for a different time or place.

Now, I am more than happy to admit this as a flaw in myself, not in the poems. I can see why some people would love this work, if they feel connected to it. But unless you feel involved, the rich language and intricate craft ultimately becomes a barrier -- an invisible wall of glass -- that separates you from the emotion of the poem.

Consequently, when he tries to pull the scene and the emotions together with lines like "I saw the shoreline break / above your heart..." it fails. Because by that time I am already on the other side of the glass. And that is disappointing. Disappointing because I would like to like these poems. I can see them, I can admire them, but the rarity of the language gets in the way.

Note: There was a lapse in new entries to this blog entry for two reasons. First, I made a mistake (more on this below) which caused me to rethink. Second, I was busy preparing for a birthday party which consumed all my free time. But now I will catch up...

"529 (I'm sorry for the dead...)" by Emily Dickinson
from Final Harvest, Little Brown & Co. 1961
[Saturday, Oct. 18th]

I made a mistake. I overlooked a book on my shelf on Wednesday. When I discovered the mistake, I had two simultaneous, competing thoughts: "oh, I can just skip that" and "I should take it out of sequence, because the point of the exercise is to get me to read different writers". The trouble is the book I skipped was Emily Dickinson.

I don't like Emily Dickinson's poetry. Never have. Thing is, I am not fond of rhymed poetry. It tends to be too sing-songy, more interested in getting the rhyme that following the reason. Frost may have complained about free verse being like playing tennis without a net, but rhymed verse sometimes feels like playing tennis with your shoes tied together.

This dislike of rhyme is not unequivocable. I am very fond of G.M. Hopkins. Frost also has some great poems. But rhyme can be a barrier. Add to that Dickinson's short lines, arbitrary and incessant use of capitalization and dashes and you have something more resembling a billboard than a poem.

Be that as it may, there is something enjoyable about her poems. It is not just the marching band rhythms (bang! bang! bang!). It is a turn of phrase, the flutter of language underneath the beat. So when she says "When Men -- and Boys -- and Carts -- and June, / Go down the Fields to 'Hay' --" it is like skipping with the entire village -- including time itself (June) -- heading into the fields. I can see the pleasure in that. So maybe I don't dislike everything she does...

"The Elephant" by Carlos Drummond de Andrade
from Travelling in the Family edited and translated by Thomas Colchie and Mark Strand, Ecco 1986
[Sunday, Oct. 19th]

Drummond's poems are what I think of as South American Surrealism. French Surrealism was about language. The entire context of the poem -- the subject, the location, the words describing them -- falls under the surrealist lens. In South America, Surrealism tends to be about objects. The object is surreal, unnatural, or out of place, but it plays within a perfectly normal, real landscape. Neruda perhaps epitomizes this style in poetry while Garcia Marques is a master practitioner in prose.

In Drummond's poem, the elephant itself is the surreal element, not only because it is out of place but it is manfactured ("I made an elephant from the little I have"). Once this surreal element is introduced, everything it does and the reactions of those around it are perfectly normal ("my elephant goes down a crowded street"). The juxtaposition of the fragile man-made elephant and its interaction with our everyday world are what gives the poem its power.

It is interesting that this style is very hard to reproduce elsewhere. US poets who try it tend to come off as posturing. (Perhaps we don't have enough everyday life in our poems to make it come off realistically.) In Eastern Europe, surrealism takes more of a theoretical turn, where everything about the poem, including the landscape, has the feel of some sort of great social experiment. (I am thinking of poets like Vasko Popa here.)

"To a Red-Headed, Do-Good Waitress" by Alan Dugan
from Poems 2, Yale University Press 1963
[Monday, Oct. 20th]

I have a love/hate relationship with Alan Dugan. One day I read his poems and find them energizingly irreverent, witty, and erudite. The next day I find them pretentious, self-important, and petulant.

At first I thought it was me. There certainly are poets where I have to be in the right state of mind to be able to fully appreciate their work. Otherwise I read too fast or too slow and miss the essential ingredient.

But I have come to believe it isn't me this time. Dugan's poems truly are that hit and miss. Because he spends so much time tilting at the gods and demigods of poetry -- ridiculing high-blown language, mocking the favorite topics and attitudes of "classic" verse -- he runs a risk of leaning too much the other direction. I don't object to the four letter words or discussion of taboo subjects (drunkenness, masturbation, etc.). But these aren't the unrestrained outburst of working class minds. They are often strategic and staged more for shock value than for real need of expression. And that is when his poems fail for me. It is the false harshness, the studied realism that tends to let him down as a writer.

But when he escapes this and mixes traditional styles with modern sensibility (as he does in "Waitress") he is well worth reading.

"The Heat" by Cornelius Eady
from Boom Boom Boom, State Street Press 1988
[Tuesday, Oct. 21st]

Eady is one of my favorite young poets. I say "young" although I have no idea how old he is. It's just that his writing is refreshingly individualistic and has the air of youth.

I am currently reading his selected poems (Hardheaded Weather), but today I chose to go back to the first book of his I read. Eady's writing is light -- not subject-wise, but in the language. The rhythms are punchy, almost syncopated, like a good jazz riff. The lines also tend to be short. There is no shortage of words -- his poems are not minimalistic, just well crafted. And each poem is set off by one or two really beautiful turns of phrase, like this poem's closing: " Muggy, the announcer predicts, / Like a man who is / The last one to know."

In fact, the only real danger in Eady's early poems is that the images may be too perfect and remind us that this is, after all, artifice.

"Dr. Nigel Bruce Watson Counting" by Russell Edson
from The Tunnel, Field Editions 1994
[Wednesday, Oct. 22nd]

Russell Edson is a perfect example of why poetry is undefinable. As soon as you define it and try to nail it down, you find a poem that defies that definition. Edson's poems defy almost all definition.

First, if poems are about format, Edson's poems are prose poems, so there are no line breaks or rhyme. If poems are about things, Edson's prose poems -- although narrative in style -- bend and weave keeping their actual subject a secret, sometimes beyond the end of the poem. If poems are about emotion, Edson's prose poems often result in a sense of ambiguity -- ambiguity towards what the poem is about and ambiguity towards one's own feelings about the poem.

When you get to the end of one of his poems, you feel almost as if you are on the deck of a ship in high seas. What do you think of the poem? What is it about? The impact is dizzying. It is as if the poem keeps moving long after you finish reading.

"Mirror of October" by Gunnar Ekelof
from I Do Best Alone at Night translated by Robert Bly, Charioteer Press 1977
[Thursday, Oct. 23rd]

I respect Ekelof as a poet, but I can't say I ever liked any of his work. His poems are deeply philosphical -- everything turns to the universal so quickly, it is almost as if the narrator needn't be there. Even the title poem with its titular first person quickly surrenders to the universal. "Somewhere / chance is sleeping in the cards. Somewhere / a truth has been said once already..." Personally, I can only take so much of this type of ominous foreboding, this mystical visioning before I begin to have my doubts. Where is the everyday in this? Nowhere, perhaps. But the poem has to have some grounding if it expects to reach across the gap in the page and convince me.

As I say, this is a personal bias which might be exacerbated by the distance created by the translation. But Bly is a good translator in most cases. So I think it is just a difference between Mr. Ekelof and myself...

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot
from Collected Poems 1909-1962, Harcourt Brace 1970
[Friday, Oct.24th]

I don't have much to say about Eliot. I liked his early poems (1917) when I was younger. Probably because they were closest to what I was reading of contemporary poems -- somewhat narrative, somewhat imagistic. Now I am beginning to understand his later poems, when he became more interested in the complexities of philosophy and religion. Not organized philosophy and religion (well, not only those) but his personal views and how they and he fit into society. He was still a poet and his goal was to express both thoughts and feelings. Without resorting to imagism, he managed this by layering impressions and descriptions one on top of another to try and build the complex portrait he wanted: "In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms / In this last of meeting places / We grope together..."

"Shirley Temple Surrounded by Lions" by Kenward Elmslie
from Motor Disturbance, Columbia University Press 1971
[Saturday, Oct. 25th]

These poems are enjoyable. Like browsing through the dictionary looking for unusual words is enjoyable. There are surprises at every turn ("scenario: an albino industrialiste, invited to the beach at noon"). But there is very little to hold these twists and turns of speech together. (Except, perhaps, the poems' titles and even they seem relatively random.)

I used to get upset at Elmslie and poets like him. It seemed like they were wasting the reader's time. But I've got to the point where I can enjoy them for what they are. The problem is, any one poem is as good as another; there is no real distinction. So you can enjoy them, but you can just as easily put them down.

"Letter to my Mother" by Sergei Esenin
from Confessions of a Hooligan translated by Geoffrey Thurley, Carcanet Press 1973
[Sunday, Oct. 26th]

I have always been attracted to Esenin. He is the romantic/ tragic figure of the artistic personality in the face of overwhelming indifference (or outright belligerence) from their the social environment. Unfortunately for Esenin, the portrait ends up being more tragi-comic than romantic, as his own conceit and self-destructive tendencies made him the poster child of the narcissistic dissolution the socialist art councils believed was the ultimate outcome of individualistic artistic expression.

These are not particularly good translations. but then again, I have never really found any good translations of Esenin. I suspect it gets the words across, but the music is missing or distorted. It's like trying to read a book of poetry on the subway or while a marching band is going past. You get the gist of it, but the sound is drowned out by the surroundings.

"Junkman's Obbligato" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from A Coney Island of the Mind, New Directions 1958
[Monday, Oct. 27th]

Ferlinghetti was one of the first contemporary poets I read as a youngster. His poems are the right mix of rebelliousness, anger, excitement, and a moderate level of awareness of literary past to appeal to a teenager. It is not so much what he was saying as how he was saying it that struck a chord.

Unfortunately, many years later, one's earlier enthusiasms often seem embarrassingly naive in hindsight. So I was trepidatious to pick up his books again. Yes, he is a sort of second-rate Allen Ginsberg. Yes, the overly serious "Beat"-ness of Pictures of the Gone World has not aged particularly well. No, poems like "Junkman's Obbligato" do not hold together conceptually as we might have come to expect from reading more thoroughly in the genre. But rereading this poem and others, it is surprising how much of Ferlinghetti's voice and concerns do still come across. I have never heard him read in person, but I have a strong sense of how the poem was meant to be read -- impassioned, involved, and enthralled -- and I still can put on that mantle and enjoy these poems much more than I had expected.

"Wave/Rock" by Ian Hamilton Finlay
from Poems to Hear and See, Macmillan. 1971
[Tuesday, Oct. 28th]

Finlay is not a poet. Or rather, he is many more things than just a poet. He is an artist who works in many different media and forms.

In truth, Poems to Hear and See may be one of his least successful works of "poetry". It falls under the general category of concrete poetry and -- like much of the genre -- is intellectually intriguing but emotionally unmoving.

However, several of these "poems" were also sculptures. "Wave/Rock" itself was produced as words etched in glass. Other poems in the book I have seen as sculptures in glass, marble, or neon lights. The real impact of these works simply are not apparent on the page and do not become visible until you see them in their "natural" environment.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Finlay's work is the "garden", Little Sparta, which he created in a small town in Scotland. For anyone who has not been exposed to his work, I strongly encourage you to look up and find his sculptures if you can. At a minimum, visit the Little Sparta web site to get a feel for one unique way in which poetry can be created, and the impact it can have.

"The Tub" by Karen Fish
from What is Beyond Us, Harper Perennial. 1992
[Wednesday, Oct. 29th]

Karen Fish is part of the University of Iowa post neo imagist influence that pervaded the 70's and 80's (and a good part of the 90's). I can say that because that's part of my intellectual heritage as well. Her writing is very precise, with an eye for detail and a well-formed turn of phrase. "The mountains in the distance are pewter -- / like the pitcher, cool and sweating on my grandmother's lace / tablecloth." The focus is not on the object, but on the collection of objects -- the tableau -- and in many cases, their emotional history.

She does this well. She has a very good ear ("the light has only one thing left to do"). My only concern is that her work relies so heavily on the emotional baggage that it can at times seem almost like cliches. The lace, the barn, the old lady washing in a tub in the kitchen. I have seen this before in movies and in paintings and she is relying so heavily on the feeling this evokes that it becomes, well, trite. The danger of relying on the cultural associations of objects and landscapes is that the poem becomes fragile, like ice on a puddle -- trying to hold still something that is moving.

"One evening at the turn of the century..." by Jean Follain
from A World Rich in Anniversaries, Logbridge-Rhodes 1981
[Thursday, Oct. 30th]

Follain is also interested in objects, in the details of a moment in time. However, one would never mistake him for an American poetry school student. It is not just a matter of talent; it is approach and a vision.

I have always been intrigued by this book; it attracts and repels at the same time. I am drawn in by the writing, but left uncertain by the poems as a whole. Looking more carefully now, I think I see the reason for both. Follain's poems follow a pattern. They start with a detailed description of a scene -- a tableau vivant almost. ("One evening at the turn of the century you see a mathematician reach home carrying a birdcage.") The scene expands with more details ("black and yellow hansoms... the dog running down an alleyway... the furious, mustachioed butcher...").

But the poem soon moves beyond the scene into the abstract ("In the future... citizens who have survived the massacres..."). What massacres? What future? Any emotional baggage that you bring to the original scene is forced to vie with the abstraction, creating a new view and response to the entire proceedings. Follain then brings the poem to a close physically linking the abstract to the present ("before their eyes, the ghost of the professor.. the uninhabited cage in his hand.")

It is almost like a magician's sleight of hand with which Follain brings present and future together. But the uncertainty? It is a trick, and it works. And Follain's final twist usually adds another perspective to the scene, which sounds like closure, but is it? The closure brings the pieces together but tends to leave the scene suspended, often with a sense that the future has already been decided. But what that decision is -- even if you know the results -- is not clear.

This sense of suspended animation is very powerful and reading a few of his poems can be a very moving experience. Unfortunately, the more you read, the more you begin to recognize the pattern and start to lose the surprise at the end. They all kind of end the same way. Can that be? Well, can it?

"Departure" by Carolyn Forché
from The Country Between Us, Harper & Row 1981
[Friday, Oct. 31st]

Forché is another member of the Poetry School School. This group is not identified by a specific style as much as a general aesthetic, focused on precision and detailed descriptions of scenes or objects; what I sometimes refer to as the post neo imagist movement. These are the poets who were taught or were teaching in the various writing programs in the 70's and 80's. It was the pervasive form of poetry pretty much until the Language poets showed up.

Forché is both a member of that general caste and a demonstration of how diverse it is. Her writing is precise and sometimes overly "writerly" ("I am the woman whose photograph you will not recognize, whose face emptied your eyes...") But there is no fragility here. Underlying all of her poems is a fierce personal vision that drives the poems forward. You may not always understand or agree with everything said, but you feel the scenes unfolding as much as you see them. In her best poems, you become the persona, the narrator. At worst, you see them in third person; detached but fully aware.

(Go to part 3)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Alternatives to Collaboration

Ever since knowledge management as a discipline began some thirty years ago, there has been a strong focus on collaboration. We always assume everyone knows what we mean when we say that: groups working together and sharing knowledge. Even if we define “collaboration” at a more granular level (distinguishing between team collaboration and communities of practice or communities of interest), our intent is clear.

So why is it so difficult to get users to play along? At times it seems like we have taken something people do naturally and we have turned it into something they don’t want to do. Partially this can be attributed to regimentation: even if 90% of the people would do it naturally, there are 10% who don’t and will resist all efforts to enforce it.

But if we are honest with ourselves, the resistance to KM programs is a much larger ratio than just human disinclination. Frequently, an adoption rate as low as 20% is considered success for a KM initiative.

So where is the gap?

The Problem With Collaboration

We assume that collaboration is the preferred and most effective approach for sharing knowledge and solving problems. However, collaboration can be a surprisingly elusive goal. Reticence, resistance, even outright refusal can strain relationships among team members or employees.

The fact is not everyone is comfortable with the practices used to encourage collaboration. Not everyone likes brainstorming. Some people are simply not comfortable opening up to a group of relative strangers. And no amount of team building or facilitation seems to completely resolve these differences.

So, if collaboration is so fundamental, are the methods themselves insufficient or is there a deeper problem?

The Alternatives to Collaboration

Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that some people simply don’t like to collaborate. I am not talking about the “dead wood” and underachievers. In many cases, some of the most productive workers are also the most resistant to collaborative activities and group meetings. Despite not “playing along” they continue to work effectively. Sometimes more effectively than the rest of the team. How do they do it? What alternative approaches do they utilize to continue their high level of contribution?

In my experience, I have seen at least three behaviors people use to work with others. (This is in no way a scientific study, purely a personal observation.) The first is what is traditionally called "collaboration": working in teams, sharing knowledge and experiences openly, etc. The other two techniques are conspiring and competing.

Conspiring and Competing

At first, these two activities might not seem effective methods for working with others. However, they each provide a measure of collaboration that has -- in each case -- unique advantages in terms of achieving business goals (which, in the long run, is the ultimate goal). Of course, they also have offsetting and equally unique deficits.


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.)

The advantage of conspiring is that ideas gestate rapidly -- far more rapidly than in public discussions -- due to the level of trust and commitment of the participants. They talk almost in a private shorthand, there is so much understanding within the core conspirators. No need to explain fully or argue seemingly irrelevant details as can happen in broader discussions. Ideas and inspiration grow and move forward rapidly.

The disadvantage of conspiring is that the individuals who practice this technique can be seen as not "team players" or as underhanded if their conspiring is found out. When they finally reveal their opinions -- fully-fledged and often in opposition to ideas being openly discussed -- it can result in hard feelings, even though the ideas are well thought out.


, 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.

Competing is one of the key characteristics of open source development, as described in Eric Raymond's book The Cathedral and the Bazaar. The concept is that competition, the same basic principles behind capitalism's supply and demand and Darwin's theory of evolution, will drive innovation faster and result in the solutions with the best fit "surviving".

Rather than pursue a single line of thought resolving differences in the discussion, individuals inclined towards competing will break off in small groups offering to come back with the solution after they have tested and refined their theories. They will also argue the correctness of their ideas even in the face of significant opposition from the majority of the group. This is based on the thinking that only the marketplace can determine the true right or wrong of a concept. Theoretical discussions, although interesting, are not decisive or binding in any way.

The obvious advantage of competing is that less obvious but more creative and possibly, ultimately, stronger ideas have a chance to survive and thrive. Competing can also break the stalemate that sometimes arises when groups or teams try to achieve consensus.

The major disadvantage of competing is that the individuals are often seen as loud, disruptive, and stubborn as they tend to stick to their ideas in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Understanding and Bridging Multiple Styles of Interaction

I have discussed these styles of interaction in terms of group decision making. However, they affect other forms of collaboration as well, which is where they can play havoc with knowledge management initiatives.

Each behavior leads to a preference for particular technologies. Those who conspire tend to adopt 1-to-1 technologies, such as instant messaging and IRC. Those who like to compete tend to favor group technologies where they can carve out their niche and take the lead, such as wikis and Twitter. Whereas, those who are collaborative tend to prefer more "democratic" tools, such as forums and distribution lists.

That is not to say there is a cut and dried separation. Conspirators may use forums, but they will tend to hang back and only respond when prompted or specifically requested. Those who compete will tend to use forums and distribution lists in bursts -- arguing their point of view vehemently (it is a competition after all) -- leading others to fall silent or complaints of aggressiveness or other asocial behavior.

Of course, there are times when people act trollish in forums. But that is not always the case. Sometimes they are simply communicating in their own, competitive, style which is seen as abrasive by others. But the backlash against their approach will tend to drive them underground until the next subject comes up.

Similarly, there has been a recent fad for using Twitter and live blogging during events (presentations, seminars, etc) as a "backchannel", sometimes even presented on a separate screen during the event. These technologies tend to favor those who favor competition -- literally competing with the presenter in terms of attention. They find this format invigorating. While those who tend to collaborate are extremely uncomfortable with the "noise" created by the competing inputs; their tendency would be to let the speaker have their say before opening the floor to discussion and alternatives.

Mix & Match

The good news is that -- like any personality traits -- there are no hard and fast rules about people's tendencies concerning collaboration. Some people are extremely conspiratorial, some are extremely collaborative, and some seem able to perform well in two different modes. Some people can both collaborate and conspire, while others conspire and compete and still others compete and collaborate. However, I don't think I've ever met anyone who does all three well.

The key is there are points of intersection and the individuals able to bridge the gap between different modes are critical to making the systems "work". For example:

  • Cultivate personal relationships with the "quiet" members of your communities. Rather than trying to force senior contributors or other conspirers to participate in forums, contact them directly if there is a question you know they could contribute to. In many cases, individuals who would not speak up in public because they "don't have the time" or "have nothing to offer", are more than generous if asked directly 1-on-1. The output of these discussions can then be fed back into the forums by the intermediary.
  • If someone is making a strident argument (and possibly verging on the abrasive), ask them directly what their suggestion is, making sure they get to explain it in full. You can do this either in public (the forum, meeting, or other venue in which the argument is occurring) or personally 1-to-1. Although this is the opposite of many people's tendency (which runs more towards "you are in the minority, please shut up") it offers a way for competitive members of the community to "have their say" and circumvent further bad feelings. In most instances, they are not trying to block a decision. They simply want to make sure that their point of view is being seriously considered. So once they get to voice it in full, they will allow the decisions be made and the discussion move on.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What I'm Playing: Monster Hunter Freedom 2

This is not my sort of game. That's not to say I don't like, I do. But I would never have picked it up unsolicited.

What happened is my son played it first and then became insistent we all play it, since it has a multiplayer co-op mode.

Monster Hunter is not my kind of game for several reasons:

  • It takes a long time to learn. There are a number of training "quests" as well as a slew of different activities you can be involved in (and need to learn about) in the village before you can effectively play the game. There are even "books" filled with information provided for you within the game to help you understand the game mechanics and environment.
  • There are innumerable little upgrades and tweaks you can (and must) apply to your character and his weapons to make even moderate progress in the game.
  • Individual quests can take up to 50 minutes to complete, never mind the 10-15 minutes needed to prepare for the quest.

Be that as it may, my son insisted. I relented. And I am now well on my way to being completely addicted.

It is easy to see why Monster Hunter is so popular in Japan. It is essentially Pokemon for the older set. (Older as in over 15; not older like me necessarily!) The game is not only replete with options and configurable details, it is also graphically gorgeous. The landscapes are rich and evocative. (This is all the more amazing when you examine them carefully because -- despite the power of the PSP hardware -- the real magic is in what simple graphical tricks such as two overlaid moving images are used to create this visually rich canvas.)

There are even details to the game with no (at least apparent to me now) purpose beyond adding to the ambiance. Cats cook for you (with individual names and coloration), pigs follow you around (why? I don't know), and a bird occasionally perches on your bedpost. The cooking matters, but the name and color of the cats has no bearing on your quests. And the pig and the bird are -- as far as I can tell -- purely decorations.

At its most basic the game is just a quest, with collection, upgrades, and incrementally more powerful "boss" monsters. But oh what a quest! I would never have had the patience to get through the initial learning curve if it hadn't been for my son's prompting (and instruction). But having got through it, the game is entirely absorbing. I am losing two to three hours a week battling my way to a higher ranking, learning the ways of the monsters as if they were real world threats, and reveling in my victories -- much to my wife's dismay.

I can't recommend this game if you are short on time -- you need to dedicate at least several hours to get into it. But if you have the time, it is quite a ride.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Postscript to a Month of Poems

After reading a poem a day for a month, I didn't even get through two shelves out of ten. So it will take at least three more months to read a poem by each of the authors in my collection at this rate.

I'm not daunted by the task. The reading is easy. Writing the entries for each day is what takes the time. But I am interested enough in the results to want to continue.

However, there are other things I am eager to write about and don't have enough time for both. So I intend to take a break and start back up the month(s) of poems again in October.

Not surprisingly, I found myself writing more about how I read poetry than about the poems themselves. It is, after all, my blog and poetry is a very personal experience. What did surprise me is that I ended up, more often than not, thinking and writing about the poet's larger work rather than the specific poem I read.

It probably shouldn't surprise me since I have read all of these books before. And, as I began to realize and discuss towards the end of the month, one's reaction to the poems is heavily influenced by the context it appears in. This is not just the difference between reading a poem in a magazine vs. in a complete book of verse. It is a very personal context of all the work you may have read of that poet, when you read it, how you reacted to it before, what you were thinking at the time, what else you were reading, what you heard about the work, etc. Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" can be heavily influenced by any of these factors.

This intensely personal experience is not unique to poetry; it applies to all of the arts. However, in novels, movies, plays -- even dance and music -- the author has a larger field in which to play and influence the reader's response. We speak of being "engrossed" by books and "enthralled" by dramas. This is where we let the author take control of our responses as we become part of the work of art.

But the poem, in general, is a much smaller physical space where the author may have as few as two or three lines to "set the scene". So we as readers are more likely to provide additional context to "fill in the gaps", so to speak.

The more the poet depends on the reader to bring things "to" the poem (Ferlinghetti for example, or Wakoski), the more possible it is for the poem to be misread or "under-read" as shallow and vacant. Poems that build their own world in miniature (such as the work of Vasko Popa or W. S. Merwin), on the other hand, can appear strange, distant, and almost inhuman to some readers.

This is not a judgmental distinction. Brilliant poems have been written using both methods. The remarkable thing about it is -- given the personal nature of the experience and minimal space the poem allows itself -- how often and how powerfully that experience can be shared. That is the talent of the poet.

(go to A Month of Poems Continued)

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Searchable is a lightweight application I wrote for use in a corporate intranet. It is a good case study in how the simple answer is often the most effective.

The design goal for Searchable was quite simple:

  • The corporate search engine did not cover all of the content employees needed to access
  • Several applications had their own search interfaces
  • Employees couldn't remember where all of the content was
  • Design goal: improve this situation

The design constraints were that we did not control the corporate search engine (we could not change its scope) and we could not replace it or compete with it (both for political and resource reasons -- we did not have a server sufficient to run our own search or produce a federated search).

The team had already tried providing a web site with links to all of the relevant resources. That had -- not surprisingly -- resulted in little significant improvement. It was just too cumbersome for users to jump from site to site, find the search interface, search, fail, then back up to the list and repeat.

What the users wanted was a consolidated or federated search: perform one search and have all the results in one place. This is usually expressed by the exasperated question "why can't we just use Google?"

Since federated search was technically beyond our means, I tried the next best thing. Rather than federate the results, I federated the interface. The result was Searchable.

The key to Searchable is that it provides a single interface. Enter your search terms, select a target, and press Go. The search box remains with the results in a frame underneath, allowing the user to switch targets and search again without losing context or having to jump back and forth. From a design perspective, the entire application operates in the browser (the client) and doesn't require any server resources except hosting the files.

My initial reaction, beyond being proud of the implementation, was that it wouldn't have much impact on the original problem. It doesn't do anything new: the results are the same and the user still has to search each site separately, even if I simplified the process.

But to my surprise, the users were happy, very happy. I could tell because they kept asking for new features and additional targets. (The e-mail link was one such addition, so if they found something they could e-mail the current search results to a friend.)

It seems that simply putting all of the search targets into a single input form was sufficient to alleviate much of their frustration with the fragmented content. They hadn't realized it was possible, so it looked like magic to them.

Searchable Revisited

The other assumption I made about Searchable was that it wasn't much use except on an intranet. I figured the internet is open enough and search engines like Google and Yahoo! are thorough enough that there was no need for a federated interface. (Besides, there have already been federated search engines like Dogpile. What could I provide that they didn't?)

But I actually answered the question myself one day when I was looking for some images online. I found myself trying Google first, then Flickr, then other sites. This was both tedious and not terribly rewarding, since I had to keep entering the same search terms.

So one aspect of Searchable which is not addressed by internet or federated searches is logical scoping by topic. Oh, search engines do segment by content type (images, video, maps, shopping, etc.) But the results are neither complete nor easy to sort and decipher.

Another aspect of searching (which was not originally addressed by Searchable but that I added for this version) is localized preferences. Some search engines allow you to refine your search based on various criteria. For example, if doing job searches you can specify the location to search. In many cases these are attributes that do not change from one search to another. So I added the ability to set and save advanced properties for specific search targets as part of the change options... function.

Try It

This version of Searchable is just a demonstration. I've provided some example targets. There are many more that could be included. The same goes for the advanced properties.

The technology is most powerful when tweaked for specific audiences (by adding and customizing the search targets to match the needs of the audience, such as a corporate intranet). But I have posted it as a sample so people can see it in action.

Pros and Cons

As mentioned above, the advantage of Searchable is that it satisfies a need. The disadvantage of a solution such as Searchable is that it is totally dependent on the REST interfaces of the target sites. If they change their parameters, rename them, or require new parameters, Searchable breaks. In the six months I managed an intranet version of Searchable, I had to update the mappings at least four times. So there is definitely a maintenance cost that needs to be considered before putting a solution like this into production.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Purpose of Wikis

In one of the email distribution lists I participate in, the inevitable discussion of whether we need a wiki came up. As usual, this suggestion was followed by arguments for and against, etc.

I won't even go into the issue of people suggesting technologies without any clear reason for using them. What particularly caught my attention was one message that began something like "As I see it, wikis are meant to be..." Why did that attract my attention? Because wikis are a technology. They aren't meant to be anything. they simply provide a set of functions that may or may not be useful for different purposes.

Of course, like all technology, wikis were dreamed up to solve a problem. So if they were meant to do anything, it was to solve that initial problem. In the case of wikis, it was to let a group of people -- anyone -- easily create and edit a website without worrying about versioning, permissions, ownership, HTML, complex formatting, etc. The goal was simple, collaborative creation.

Now, once the technology existed, people found more and more purposes for the technology. Collaborative encyclopedias (wikipedia), event scheduling (barcamp), team/business collaboration (SocialText) etc. To say wikis were meant for one of these purposes over another would be inaccurate... and limiting.

We don't know yet what innovative uses will be discovered for the technology. It is still too early to tell.

Friday, August 15, 2008

KM ROI Redux

I have written about the problems with calculating ROI for KM programs before. But it is a issue that will not go away. For example, the topic came up again in one of the discussion lists in which I participate.

The proposed argument went something like this:

  • Improving corporate search will reduce the time spent looking for information.
  • An IDC report calculates that on average knowledge workers spend 9.5 hours a week looking for information.
  • If we improve search and reduce that time by just 10% (one hour), and if we assume, conservatively, that we impact 10% of the workforce, the savings in time alone for a moderately large corporation would be the equivalent of $4 million in salaried hours.

You can't argue with the logic or the arithmetic. Unfortunately, the pragmatics of business are neither logical nor straightforward. Getting people to do their work 10% faster, does not result in 10% more work being done; or, more importantly, 10% more product or revenue being generated. So calculating cost savings in terms of improved performance is a faulty argument that most business managers will jump on. Usually, if you raise this argument in a budget discussion, the conversation goes something like this:

  • "We just spent $XXX thousand dollars last year on a new search engine. Where are the savings from that improvement?"
  • "1 hour a week is 2.5% of a 40 hour week. Show me where I am getting a 2.5% increase in production or performance?" (Not theory but actual improvements in the bottom line.)
  • "$4 million return on an investment of what? -- say 4 people for a year, approximately $500K -- that's an ROI of 700% in one year. Who are you kidding? Real ROI for things like SAP are 200-400% over a 6 year period, not breaking even for 2-3 years. I don't believe it."

That said, what I realized from the discussion was that there are two separate situations when conversations like this occur. The justify-your-program discussion with your direct manager and the justify-your-expenditure discussion with upper management.

What I have just described is the latter, which is why justifying KM programs is so difficult. Saved time and unmeasurable performance improvements simply don't go over in budget discussions.

However, for justifying your program to your direct manager, the argument concerning saved time is important, because usually that person is also managing the people whose performance you will impact. So I would suggest three things for that sort of discussion:

  • Keep the argument about saving time. This has meaning to that manager (since they directly manage employees such as yourself)
  • Don't bother getting into the theoretical monetary savings, because it is meaningless. Your manager is not going to see that money, so it is a waste of time.
  • As Stan Garfield has suggested before, use multiple arguments. Argue the saved time. Also provide supporting evidence -- emails, forum postings, performance review input -- whatever testimonials you can garner from people who say your program has helped them save time or be more effective.

It is best to collect this type of information on an ongoing basis so you have it handy when you are asked to justify your program. It is hard (if not impossible) to collect in a hurry at the last minute.