Thursday, May 22, 2008

What I'm Playing: We Ski

The Wii game console is so popular, everyone is trying to cash in on the fad. They are oodles of games out there, all with chibi-headed cartoon characters and bright colors. Unfortunately, about 90% of those games stink to high heaven. Overly simplistic, boring, repetitive, awful controls... You get the point.

The trouble is trying to find the 10% that are good without having to experience (or buy!) the bad. It's hard, since they all tend to look alike. This is particularly true of the slew of "casual" sports games. Video game reviews can help. But even they can be misleading (since you and the reviewers may have different tastes).

So when you do find a good one, you feel compelled to tell the world. And last night I found one.

I am addicted to skiing games. I don't know why; I've only ever gone skiing twice in my life and I found it difficult, nerve wracking, and exhausting. I am sure I'd get better at it if I did it more. But there is something about the concept of flying down a hill on a couple of sticks (or a board) that really appeals to me.

So I have played a number of skiing games. I prefer the realistic ones (such as 1080°) to the over-the-top tricksters (such as SSX), but I'll take my virtual skiing where I can get it.

Which is why I bought We Ski. It looks like the other cheap ripoff Wii sports titles but this one is different. It really is a good game. Now, we are not talking complex or overly challenging, just lots of fun and plenty to do.

The controls -- using the Wiimote and nunchuk -- are accurate and very intuitive*: thrust down to push off, tilt to turn, rotate outwards to crouch... There are more complex moves (especially aerial tricks) that require additional buttons or twists. But the point is you can get going very quickly.

And once you are going there is plenty to explore. Multiple trails and chair lifts, plenty of variety. You can even ski down from the top of the mountain to the bottom in a single go. In addition to the skiing (and avoiding the other skiers) there are plenty of additional challenges (and unlockables) available if you talk to the people you find on the mountain.

No, there are no olympic level challenges (although one hidden course is quite a beast) -- this is a more relaxed game that lets you go at your own pace. But for a budget title (currently $30), it is packed with more fun than many if not most of the full-priced games out there for the Wii.

So if you are looking for some cheap thrills -- literally -- give it a try. I especially recommend it if you have friends to play it with.

* Footnote: We Ski supports the Wii Fit board, which may be its key marketing point. But I haven't tried that. In fact, when I first heard about the game, that feature put me off it since it sounded too much like a gimmick. But when I heard you could play multiplayer using the Wiimote and nunchuk I was sold.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What I'm Playing: Phantom Hourglass and Dragon Sword

I am currently playing two games on my Nintendo DS -- Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. I didn't intend to play them together. I started Phantom Hourglass after it came out, but got stuck in one of the dungeons. Not seriously stuck, just stuck without sufficient time to work out the solution. (This happens to me a lot -- not having extended amounts of time to dedicate to gaming. As a result, there are certain games I get "stuck" in just because they require an hour or so to make progress and I just can't find the time. But that is fodder for a separate rant.)

So I put Hourglass aside and went back to other games. In the meantime, I picked up Ninja Gaiden and started playing it. Then about a week ago I actually had two free evenings, so I went back to Phantom Hourglass, completed the dungeon and moved on. That same evening, I played more of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword as well.

What's interesting about playing these games together is that -- if you were to describe them -- they sound almost identical. But the experiences from playing them are almost exact opposites.

Both games are action adventures where your goal is to free a kidnapped female. They both use the stylus almost exclusively. (Dragon Sword allows the use of a button as guard. Otherwise all interactions are with the stylus.) Both are story-driven, largely linear gameplay -- although both give the impression of free roaming -- where you fight a seeming endless supply of enemies, followed by intermittent boss battles. In both games your primary weapon is a sword you swing by slashing with the stylus. In both you also have secondary weapons (shuriken in Dragon Sword and a boomerang to begin with in Hourglass).

So what's the difference? Well, style certainly. But not just style. It's timing as well.

Stylistically Dragon Sword is realistic pseudo-3D. The backgrounds are definitely flat 2D images -- like 1950's painted movie backdrops -- but your character gets to move "around" as if it were a 3D space (forward, backward, left, right, and up and down when appropriate). The character is probably rendered as 2D sprites, but it is rendered in a realistic style that gives the feel of 3D.

Hourglass, on the other hand is real 3D programming in a cartoonish style. Large blocks of bright colors, very little texture mapping, big headed cartoon characters. Even the sounds are bright and cheerful, with lots of major chords and bright tinkling and chiming noises as enemies disappear in a puff of colored smoke.

But it is not just the graphics that create the distinction. Kingdom Hearts (on PS2) is also cartoonish, but doesn't have the same feel as Phantom Hourglass. Much of the difference is in the timing. In Phantom Hourglass, the enemies, although endless, appear in a fairly regular pattern one or two at a time. Except for boss battles, you usually have plenty of time to plan your attack. When there are multiples, they are spread out so you can easily take them out one at a time. It is planned, almost rhythmic in nature.

In comparison, the enemies in Dragon Sword appear in groups. They come at you as a swarm or surround you; there is no taking one out while ignoring the rest. The pace is frantic and intended to raise your adrenaline level at least two notches.

The result is that -- although the storylines are almost identical and the challenges similar in nature -- playing Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is like knocking down a hornets' nest and having to figure out what to do next, while playing Phantom Hourglass is more like popping balloons and seeing if you can do it in the right order to win a prize.

One other distinction between the games is how they handle the hardware limitations. Both games push the limits of the DS hardware: Dragon Sword in its striving for realism and Phantom Hourglass in its use of 3D.

In the boss battles, Dragon Sword really shines -- the realism and details of the characters and their actions, the urgency of the battle while still requiring strategic action -- these are the best parts of the game. The boss characters are also large, fairly filling the screen. However, during the interludes where you wander through woods, caverns, and palaces fighting off hordes of lesser minions, the realism falters. The 2D backgrounds are detailed, but your movement is artificially limited. And much of the detail is lost simply due to the small size of the figures on the screen. This is particularly notable when it comes time to talk to people and the game has to revert to flat cartoon stills of faces to provide "character" to the story.

Hourglass, in the other hand, always stays just within the bounds of what the machine can do. The graphics are fully 3D, but are kept simple not to push the hardware too much. Cut scenes also zoom in and take dramatic camera angles to emphasize the "3D-ness" of the game. but they still manage to get smoke effects and plenty of action onto the screen.

Dragon Sword is an impressive achievement, both as a game and a technical demonstration. However, Hourglass stands out with Mario Kart DS as perhaps the best and most consistently powerful use of the system so far.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Enterprise 2.0, Revisited

Having had yet another fruitless discussion about how important one or another piece of web 2.0 software is to the enterprise, I am even more firmly convinced that social computing -- sometimes referred to as Enterprise 2.0 -- cannot happen inside the corporation without some major changes to processes, practices, and preconceptions. This is not "change management"; this is a deep, fundamental change in beliefs throughout the corporation.

Lots of companies are dabbling in web 2.0. I say "dabbling" not to imply dilettantism, but to reflect the tentative, experimental approach most companies are taking. They implement a bookmarking service here or a company-wide wiki there, a blog or a social networking service as a prototype, and then try to encourage employees to use them. And the results are fairly predictable. There is a moderate level of participation early on and some enthusiastic devotees who preach the gospel of web 2.0 to others. But ultimately, usage tends to stall or even drop off before any critical mass can be achieved.

And let's not fool ourselves; critical mass is essential. Without sufficient numbers of people using these services as part of their day-to-day activities (rather than as a one-time trial separate from "real work") the services will falter. There is no social computing without an active, vibrant society.

What is the alternative? Well, it isn't to assume social computing can brazenly take the place of well-established corporate systems (such as email or intranet web sites). Neither can you run them as two wholly separate systems covering the same function. Your employees simply cannot accept that sort of schizophrenic behavior.

Any company planning to adopt web 2.0 has to first accept two basic facts about corporate life and then take several steps to ensure their web 2.0 efforts are successful. The two basic facts that need to be accepted are:
  • A business is not a democracy. It cannot be run by the wisdom of the crowd. You can delegate responsibility, but ultimately management is responsible (legally and financially) and will dictate the direction of the company.
  • Employees are individuals and will decide for themselves whether they believe a decision, a direction, or an activity is good or bad. That doesn't mean they won't follow orders (except in extreme cases) but it will significantly impact the performance and effectiveness of any process, to the point of influencing what business efforts succeed and which fail.

The consequence of these realities is that there are at least two social cultures within any corporation: the official organizational manager-employee relationship and the unofficial lunch room culture. Official announcements travel through the first network. Gossip travels through the second network. The first is strictly hierarchical and well defined. The second is dynamic, amorphous, and ever changing.

Both cultures need to exist. They intersect, interact, and influence each other, but neither can survive alone.

So what does this have to do with social computing? Social computing is the physical manifestation of and vehicle for the informal network. Blogs are not hierarchical. Wikis are democratic (or possibly even socialist). They are not an appropriate channel for official management communication -- although they are a very good channel for discussing official communications.

Similarly, the corporate intranet and applications such as the employee directory, expense forms, organizational charts, etc are the representation of the official hierarchical network. The corporate intranet portal is -- at least in part if not in toto -- a controlled communication vehicle of the management structure.

Just as the formal and informal networks must co-exist, the tools, applications, and web sites that support them must co-exist, not compete. What this means is that where the cultures intersect, the tools should intersect as well. So, very pragmatically, the following actions are needed at specific points of intersection:

Search & User-Generated Content:

  • The intranet portal is the masthead of the official culture. However, search is the employees' gateway to all knowledge. Unfortunately, in many companies, search and the portal are seen as one (and managed by the same organization). In these cases, search is often restricted to only crawling "official" intranet sites and much user-generated content (such as blogs, wikis, forums, etc) is excluded.
  • If your social computing efforts are going to succeed, they must be included in the corporate search index. Preferably, search will allow scoping so users can choose whether to search official material or user-generated content or both.

Employee Directory & Social Networking:

  • The employee directory is usually managed by HR, which is logical since they manage the employees' official status (name, address, job classification, and position in the organizational hierarchy). If the company is also experimenting with social networking, the user-managed profiles will compete with the employee directory.
  • The employee directory and any user-generated profiles should be connected. Preferably, this means the employee directory will display both HR maintained and user-managed content as a single page. At worst, the HR-managed directory should include links to the user's personal profile and other personal content (such as blogs and bookmarks). These links should be automated to ensure completeness.

Corporate Intranet Banner & Tagging, Bookmarks, Etc:

  • Most large corporate intranets have a standard web banner that gives a consistent look & feel to intranet sites and provides links to common functions such as the portal home page, search, etc.
  • If the corporation is experimenting with social tagging, bookmarks, or commentary (ala Digg), these functions should be embedded in the corporate banner. Why? The logic goes like this: the reason for running an internal service is to tag, bookmark, or comment on internal sites. (Otherwise why not use the existing external services?) If the employees have to find a page they want to tag, then have to manually visit the internal service, it is just too much work. They could use logos within the page as you see on internet sites. However, this would require all intranet site owners putting in the appropriate code. An unlikely thing to happen. By having the service accessible from the banner, it is automatically included on all intranet sites and employees are constantly reminded the service(s) exist and tagging becomes a single click activity.

Can social computing activities survive without these actions? Yes. Will they flourish or reach their potential? I'm afraid not.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Four Paradoxes of KM

Knowledge Management is a big topic. There are different models and approaches for managing knowledge -- any of which can be helpful in establishing goals, a strategy, and tactical initiatives for a corporate KM program. Each model narrows the focus to a subset of the larger problem. Some focus on communities, some focus on capturing tacit knowledge, some emphasize best practices, while others target search and/or structuring knowledge that already exists.

However, whichever approach you take, at some point you will come face to face with one or more of the paradoxes of corporate KM. These are problems without a solution. They trigger intense philosophical debates when they arise and can lead to quite heated, sometimes personal, attacks on one position or another. The professional careers of a number of consultants in the field are based on advocating one side or the other of the debate.

Why? Why must it be one or the other? Why can't there be a middle ground? The reality is that any given KM program has only so much time, money, or attention to spend and must tactically select what problems to attack and how, thereby staking a position on each issue. And when you do, there will be advocates within management, among your professional peers, and in your audience base who will argue -- loudly -- for the alternative.

Be prepared. These issues cannot be resolved by pure logic or persuasion. They must simply be faced as a hazard of the profession.

The four paradoxes of KM are the following:

Tacit vs. Explicit

This is perhaps the oldest of the paradoxes and the most intractable: whether to focus on explicit or tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is information that is written down: project documents, white papers, lessons learned, best practices, etc. Tacit knowledge is all the information your constituents have garnered from experience but still have locked up in their heads.

A focus on explicit knowledge usually leads to an emphasis on search, taxonomy (categorizing the explicit knowledge), and sometimes selection (e.g. qualifying best practices). A focus on tacit knowledge often requires a concentration on establishing and encouraging communities (where tactic knowledge can be shared), story telling, and the technologies and events that support them (forums, blogs, SIGs, face-to-face meetings, etc.). Search is also important, but often focuses on people rather than documents (finding expertise rather than static information).

Local vs. Global

The second paradox concerns the geographic scope of the knowledge sharing. It is relatively easy to establish a community for knowledge sharing within a local area. Sharing involves trust and trust is easier to establish among people who share physical and cultural proximity. A small localized community also has more opportunities for face-to-face meetings that further increases trust and understanding between members. So you frequently see requests to create a local group, forum, wiki, or repository, although the topic at hand is itself universal (such as a Project Management community for the Boston area, say).

However, once a local community is established, either consciously or subconsciously, it creates barriers to those outside of the group. Just the existence of a local group will create an emotional barrier to people not within that area. They do not advertise their activities outside the region and often think their concerns are unique to themselves. In many cases, they even use security mechanisms to restrict access to their local members only.

But for large companies, sharing knowledge locally is not the problem. Making information and problem solutions visible and available across the corporation is the issue. Consequently, these localized efforts actually create barriers to sharing knowledge between regions and organizations.

Global communities are harder to get started. Individuals don't feel as connected and, for multinational companies, different languages can create an additional barrier. So, if there is a local community, employees will tend to expend their energies participating in the local activities and ignoring the global efforts. (There is actually a chicken-and-egg situation that arises, where people will claim, fairly, that there is no benefit in their participating in the global community because it isn't as active as their local group. But the global community cannot thrive until the individuals get involved...)

So, the individuals would prefer and will -- in the absence of any outside influence -- create small, closed, local groups. But from a larger corporate perspective there is a critical need to establish and foster global sharing. And until the global communities are firmly established and prove their worth, there can be continuing and sometimes heated battles over who gets to establish communities and how.

Open vs. Closed

The third paradox focuses on the tension between security and sharing. This paradox is closely related to the issue of global vs. local, but is not restricted to geographic proximity.

The goal of knowledge management is to maximize the value of the corporation's accumulated experience and wisdom by sharing them and applying them wherever possible: i.e. using knowledge as a business asset. But, in business parlance, assets need to be protected against misuse or -- worse -- industrial espionage. This is usually done by restricting access to the assets to only those who need to know. In other words, putting them under lock and key.

This approach may work well for machinery and a few highly confidential business strategy documents, but it does not work well for knowledge. As soon as you restrict access to knowledge you drastically reduce its ability to be applied and consequently its value.

Knowledge is one of the few "renewable" resources in business. In fact, it is not only renewable, it is regenerative, because the more you use it the more knowledge you create.

Unfortunately, there are many urban legends that scare managers and reinforce the urge to secure any but the most innocuous documents against misuse. Stories of a contractor who also works for a competitor, takes documents, gives them to the competitor who then presents the information as their own work and "steals" customers out from under your company. Even within a company, many groups will protect process documents, examples, best practices -- even sales presentations -- against access from anyone but select members of their own subdivision.

This sort of intellectual property hoarding is hard to argue against because it is not based on rational thought; it is based on fear. If you perceive others within your own company as a threat, it will be very hard to establish a culture of sharing and trust. And as the the average time of employment shrinks and changing companies becomes commonplace, even the most trusted employees within your division become potential future threats.

Quantity vs. Quality

Lastly, the fourth paradox struggles with the choice between a few excellent examples and sharing as much knowledge as possible. The argument goes like this:
  • On the one side, you should save and share everything so as not to lose any of the valuable knowledge captured in your business documents. Besides, you cannot tell in advance what knowledge will be needed. Users can then search through and decide for themselves what is the most appropriate content.
  • On the other side, even if you save only part of the accumulated documents, you don't want your employees wasting their time sifting through piles of unstructured content. The best examples should be reviewed, approved and highlighted to make sure they get the most appropriate content quickly.

Note this argument tends to come up most frequently when dealing with explicit knowledge. But it can also apply to tacit knowledge, when you get into discussions about archiving and how long to store forums, blogs or other user-generated content.

In most cases, whenever I have been caught in the middle of this argument, it has been completely hypothetical. The organization having the argument is neither capturing any measureable amount of unqualified content and has no process, criteria, or personnel in place to locate and rate best practices from any other type of knowledge. However, the debate rages on, hindering any further progress in either direction.

But the paradox does not have to be taken to extremes to prove troublesome. Even when a company attempts to take the middle ground -- accepting peer submissions, then reviewing, selecting, and highlighting best examples -- arguments still arise. To begin with, identifying certain samples as high quality and raising their visibility has the natural effect of discouraging contributions from those who and are not selected. If you encourage people to reuse the "approved" entries, you are implicitly discouraging them from using the rest, so why bother submitting? The other common difficulty that arises is disagreements over who (which group or which role) should have the right or has the expertise to make the selection.


I say these paradoxes are unsolvable, but that is only when they are being argued in abstract. Given any specific business situation, there is always a better and a worse approach that will fall to one side or the other of each issue.

When dealing with call centers and help desks, there is a considerable amount of explicit knowledge required. The call agents are not experts; they rely on databases of "answers" to respond to calls. Any issues that are escalated need to be captured into the database to aid future calls.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, when dealing with consultants, there is a certain amount of explicit knowledge -- contract templates, legal boilerplate, even past examples -- but the critical issue is enabling them to share, combine, and reuse their implicit knowledge with each other as they face new challenges each day.

Unfortunately, people tend to see these paradoxes as abstracts, even when facing specific business challenges. So, although it ought to be possible to argue the merits of a knowledge management program based on the specifics of its strategy and alignment with the business situation, you will more than likely be drawn into a philosophical debate over one or more of the paradoxes at some point in the project.

Being an optimistic, you might view it as a positive sign of interest and enthusiasm for KM. Being a pessimist, it might appear purely as unnecessary interference from the uninformed. Either way, it is best to allot extra time in your plans for it because no matter what you do, you are unlikely to be able to avoid the argument.