Monday, March 31, 2008

What I'm Reading: Late for Work

I am suspicious of awards books. You know what I mean: the National Poetry Series, the Agnes Starrett award, the Lamont, the Yale Younger Poets Series, etc. It's not that there aren't good books in these series. It's just that they tend to look better than they are (and I don't mean just visually, although that too).

You leaf through them at the bookstore and hit a poem that strikes you as interesting. Unique. Evocative. So you buy the book and take it home only to discover either that you read the one good poem in the bunch or it is all surface: the poems are all interesting/unique/evocative in the same, formulaic way. Again, I don't want to paint all award winners with the same brush, but as a consumer I have been burnt enough times to be wary.

So when I came across David Tucker's Late for Work at the Concord Bookshop (one of the nicest independent bookstores in the country, by the way), I was intrigued but not necessarily optimistic. The working poet. Poems about working life. I could see the hook and had serious doubts. But it looked interesting enough to overcome my reservations from its being a Bread Loaf/Bakeless Prize winner and picked it up.

And I am glad I did. Tucker is a working poet. Not because he writes self-referential poems about holding down a job (although he does that too), but because his poems are the product of a poet working at his craft just as he works at his primary occupation. The jacket tells us Tucker is a journalist. And plenty of the poems refer to this profession. But the work in Late for Work is the backdrop, the milieu of the poems, not the subject.

Tucker is not a great poet -- you can't expect the revelatory experiences of reading Whitman or Berryman or Neruda. These are not poems using language in a new way or extraordinary visions of the inner self. They are not flashy or arty poems. No, Tucker is a not great but he is definitely a good, steady poet and his poems reflect language used well to examine a life and the society it is lived in.

Which is surprisingly uncommon nowadays and what makes this book worthwhile. Here is a poet taking his time and looking closely:

Through most of January my two brothers and I
drove back and forth to the hospital where our old man was dying.
We did eight-hour shifts, just watching him go
from the final disintegrations of liver cancer, swabbing his lips,
talking into his coma, with sidelong looks at death.
--"Enough of It"

The careful articulation lets you see into the narrator's predicament, experience loss with a clarity that is not possible when the tragedy is your own. And with that clarity comes insight:

I've seen all the x-rays I ever want to see, checked all
the IV bags I ever want to check, heard enough of the morphine counter
and its little metal tongue.

And just as his poetry is slow and studied, his endings do not allow for the easy out either:

      -- and praying
and having faith that you'll get over it and move on and let go,
and the long view you take after losing one loved so much --
I've had enough of that too.

Even in his more flippant moments, Tucker poems are controlled (such as in the poem "Voice Mail", which personifies the one technology that is perhaps the most dehumanizing, beginning "this is what's-his-face's voice mail.") But where Tucker shines is where he examines the everyday, the common events we all share but must experience separately: life, death, work, etc. Poems such as "Enough of It", "The Men Decide", and "Putting Everything Off" make Late for Work a book well worth reading.

If there are flaws in Tucker's books (and one would imagine there must be in a first full-length book) I can see only two. Every once in awhile, Tucker draws out his images so carefully, so long and so far that he goes beyond poetry and stumbles into -- well -- prose. For example, this from the poem "That Day":

The mother sings some song we can't quite hear anymore
as she carries a sack of groceries on one arm
while the boy wades around her, kicking the dry leaves.

As for the second possible flaw, Tucker is a solid poet and his poems are not repetitive. But there is a certain structure that you see repeated in several of his poems. It is the slow beginning, the steady deepening of the images, followed by a turning as the poem progresses, finished off with a final twist in the last two lines. This is not a pattern unique to Tucker. Many poets do it. It comes from a desire for closure, a clean finish. The danger is that you fall for an easy out, a neat but artificial closing image. I recognize it because I recognize it from my own work and the work of others. It is a familiar trap.

Tucker doesn't fall for the easy or the quick close, the surprise ending. But he does favor that final poetic image and uses them frequently. He may want to consider occasionally letting the poem come to a halt, without that closing final exclamation, and let the poem rely on its own merits. A little ambiguity never did any harm.

But this is just nitpicking, quibbling over details. Late for Work is a surprising book because it isn't surprising. Its just good strong poetry in the American vernacular.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What is Knowledge Architecture (the Short Version)

In one of the industry mailing lists, a member asked if anyone else had the title of knowledge architect and, if so, what do they define it as. Since that is the title I go by, I thought it might be useful to explain how I define the role and what separates it from others.

(I was somewhat surprised to find that I hadn't answered this before -- in writing. I do it a lot in person. My opening posts define Information Architecture and Knowledge Management, but skipped the synergy between them that is where I live and work today...)

I tend to keep my definitions simple. So to me Knowledge Architecture is the application of information architecture to knowledge management. That is, using the skills for defining and designing information spaces to establish an environment conducive to managing knowledge.

Borrowing a metaphor from physics, you can think of the difference between information architecture and knowledge architecture in terms of energy. Information architecture tends to focus on designing spaces for existing or predefined information. What might be called kinetic information. For example, one branch of information architecture focuses on findability, with little or no concern about how the content itself comes into being.

Knowledge architecture, on the other hand, deals with potential information. So, rather than determining the best way to use existing content, the knowledge architect is designing "spaces" that encourage knowledge to be created, captured, and shared. In this respect, the actual content doesn't matter as much as the life cycle -- how and when it gets created and how best to get it to the right people quickly. For example, collaboration strategies may focus on the structure and set up of team spaces or discussion forums -- how they get created, how they operate, how people find them and vice versa. But the actual tasks and topics discussed in those spaces are up to the teams that use them and may not be determined to long after the strategy is completed and in place.

That is not to say that knowledge architects don't have plenty of traditional information architecture/content management responsibilities as well -- such as taxonomies, web site structures, search interfaces, etc. But what sets them apart from other information architects is their focus on the design of spaces and the processes that support knowledge being exchanged, rather than on the knowledge itself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Please, Enough with the 2.0 Already

I am tired of 2.0.

It's not Web 2.0 that I object to, that's not the problem. Tim O'Reilly's moniker for the recent developments in web applications really caught the imagination of the populous because it does an excellent job distinguishing today's social computing from the previous iteration of the web as well as from the theory and as-yet unmet expectations of the semantic web.

No, I like Web 2.0. It is all the other two point oh's I object to. First there was Enterprise 2.0, which is an expression I try hard not to use. There is very little benefit calling something Enterprise 2.0 over web 2.0 in the enterprise or social software applied to business. It takes the identification of a truly revolutionary transformation in computing and turns it into a fuzzy catch phrase.

But it got worse. I started hearing about Knowledge 2.0 in the KM community, Training 2.0 among my friends in instructional design, and most recently Work 2.0.

Stop it! For one thing, if we are talking about work, we must be at version 10.2.2 at a minimum. (I'll explain my numbering scheme later, if anyone cares.) Web 2.0 is, at least in part, both responsible for and a manifestation of the latest transition of work in its constant cycle between waves of oppression, cooperation, and exploitation. But don't confuse the two.

So let's make a pact: no more 2.0. If you really think you have identified a revolutionary and transformative trend, come up with your own label that can accurately describe it and
represent that trend. Don't leech off the creativity of others and confuse the issue by attaching a clear name for something happening today to fuzzy, ill-defined initiatives or wishful thinking.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Is Corporate KM Obsolete? (The Threat of Social Software, Part 4)

(continued from Part 3)

Knowledge Management does not occur inside the firewall alone. It happens inside the firewall, outside the firewall, and throughout the expanding universe of the company's employees and their communities -- which regularly ignore corporate boundaries.

Some might say that what happens outside the firewall is more chaos than management, but there is a significant amount of self-regulating process and order applied to the knowledge shared in the public domain. Distribution lists, Yahoo groups, forums, societies, and professional organizations all apply varying degrees of structure to their conversations and content.

Even blogs -- the random diary entries of millions of users -- develop an organic structure through the network of topic tags , blogrolls, cross-references and trackbacks.

So if, as I argued, the knowledge environment outside the firewall is far larger, more active, and in most cases more effective than that inside the firewall, what is the point of having corporate KM? Are we fighting a losing battle trying to keep knowledge inside the intranet?

Well, those are two separate questions with two separate answers. To the first question -- is corporate KM obsolete in the age of web 2.0 -- the answer is not quite. KM (and IT) as currently practiced in many companies around the world, is running against the tide and going to come under increasing criticism as more and more of the MySpace generation enter the workforce.

The answer to the second question -- are we fighting a losing battle to keep knowledge inside the firewall -- is a resounding yes. Corporate KM is not obsolete. But KM as currently practiced in many companies is certainly headed in that direction. The issue is being able to distinguish between what is most effectively (or securely) managed within the castle walls and finding the appropriate synergy with the knowledge flourishing outside.

Breaking Down the Walls

Corporate KM has traditionally been practiced as a self-contained system. Much of this has to do with preserving the privacy and secrecy of corporate activities. Clearly, you do not want employees discussing unannounced products out in the open. Also, many of the processes within a corporation could be considered intellectual property that needs protecting.

Another reason for the insularity is that organizations want a very high level of performance from their internal communities. In the past it has been hard to find a critical mass of similarly trained and like-minded professionals. Professional organizations, such as ACM, and annual conferences on various topics provide some amount of interaction between professionals from different companies. But the connections are limited and take time to establish and maintain.

With the introduction of web 1.0 and web 2.0, anyone can quickly find both information (search) and people (blogs, forums, and social networking) in similar fields and with similar interests and technical ability. Because of the seemingly limitless scope of detailed technical and business information available on the web, you do not even have to know the individual to learn from their experience.

More importantly, there is no "entrance fee". A new virtual community is created each time you perform a search or scan feeds from selected blogs. The low (no) cost of entry, plus the unparalleled volume of content, plus ready access essentially makes any professional a self-contained "consultant" in their own field of expertise. Employees are no longer dependent on their employer or their employment for their technical expertise and their career development.

Resistance to Change

As beneficial as this newfound independence within the workforce is to the company (in terms of self-directed career development and finding answers to problems which might never have been uncovered within the company itself), it is also a threat. Independent employees are threatening to the corporation for two reasons: loss of control and fear of poaching.

Corporations have traditionally taken responsibility for "developing" their employees both in terms of teaching work processes and encouraging specific job skills. They also tend to claim ownership over all the information the employee garners during their employment -- and they are very possessive of that knowledge. Some have new employees sign agreements not to work for competitors for a set period of time after they leave. Others sue when they fear confidential information will be given to a new employer, as in the case of Google and Microsoft fighting over Dr. Kai-Fu Lee.

More recently, there are companies that have gone so far as to attempt to ban employees from blogging or commenting on blogs because they are a "conflict of interest" or endangering the company's reputation or intellectual property.

These all-or-nothing approaches to IP protection are in conflict with reality and -- more importantly -- in conflict with the employees' perception of knowledge ownership. They blur the distinction between what is the intellectual property of the company and what is the professional experience and expertise of the employee.

Intellectual Capital vs. Intellectual Property

As an example, I personally know a fair amount about Microsoft SharePoint. We were a field test site back when it was known as Tahoe. I was involved in the original structural design of the SharePoint infrastructure for my company, and I continue to support SharePoint as a content architect. Having lived through three versions of the product, I have a fairly broad working knowledge of the technology and its uses.

That knowledge was garnered as a direct consequence of my employment as a knowledge architect. Some of that knowledge is intimately linked to my knowledge of the company itself: the specifics of how the sites are structured to support the internal organization, what applications use what data, even the names of the specific servers and services within the corporate firewall. That information could fairly be considered the intellectual property of the corporation since it is specific to the company and revealing it outside could potentially damage its business prospects (by exposing internal plans or structures).

However, knowledge about how SharePoint works and how it can be applied to different business situations is not specific to my current company. It is part of my professional expertise. This can be considered part of the company's intellectual capital -- the resources it has available to it to produce products or offer services.

One way of thinking* of the distinction between intellectual property and intellectual capital is to look at the consequence of an employee's leaving. If I were to quit my company, their SharePoint infrastructure would not change; the structure, server names, applications etc would stay the same. They retain their intellectual property. However, my professional expertise in SharePoint would no longer be available to them to modify or maintain the system or its content. They would lose whatever intellectual capital I personally provide.

In other words, intellectual capital is the knowledge I can take with me and make use of in a new endeavor separate from my previous employer. Intellectual property is the information that stays with my employer and whose context is specific to their business and not dependent on my working there.

Striking a Balance

So what does this mean in terms of knowledge management? It means that corporations can benefit significantly by allowing and encouraging employees to share and expand their professional intellectual capital in the larger external world of forums, communities, wikis, blogs, etc. Their professional development, and their ability to apply it to their job, will increase much faster when they have access to the broader professional community.

At the same time, the corporation can benefit by focusing internal efforts on two key aspects of KM:

  • Managing the intellectual property that drives the corporation -- optimizing internal processes and the sharing of company-specific information.
  • Maximizing the synergy between intellectual property and intellectual capital -- helping employees find appropriate resources outside the firewall and making the connections between internal, company-specific processes, and the generalized, profession-specific knowledge available on the internet.

Finally, the company is still responsible for preserving the security of its intellectual property and trade secrets. The employees are responsible for holding up their end. However, the employees do not always know where to draw the line.

If the company takes the old Draconian view of all or nothing, for the employees to participate in the new web 2.0 information economy, they are left to choose for themselves what to share or not. The company and its employee become adversaries fighting over knowledge that in most cases no one benefits from restricting.

Rather than trying to block all external sharing (or going too far the other direction and sharing everything), companies can help both their employees and themselves by providing guidelines about what knowledge is professional expertise and what is legitimately intellectual property of the company. Names of employees, development projects, internal services, as well as descriptions of proprietary processes fall should all fairly fall under the rubric of trade secrets. Knowledge of a professional nature -- expertise in the use and application of tools, products, or methodologies -- are all part of the employee's professional identify and "toolkit" and do not warrant restrictions.

By helping the employees understand and employ this distinction, the company can help leverage the "wisdom of crowds" for both their own and the employee's benefit.

*I am using a broader concept of intellectual capital and intellectual property than the purely legal definitions. In particular, I believe the crux of the issue lies primarily in the definition of "trade secrets". Explicit Intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents, that can be isolated and articulated poses very little threat of misinterpretation. But the implicit IP of what what comprises a trade secret and suitable for protection will prove much trickier to define.