Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sustainable KM: The Challenges (Part 2)

[Continued from Part 1]

The previous example of a skills database brings up another principle of sustainable KM: design for the people, not for the data. We often get so caught up in what we are trying to capture, that we forget who we are capturing it from and who will use it.

I was recently filling out a form online that asked where I got my college education. What's more, it insisted on trying to guess my answer. I couldn't simply enter the name of the university; it insisted it had a complete list of all possible answers. As you might suspect, it was neither complete nor easy.

Why did it do this? Because whoever wrote the program wanted to make sure the data was valid -- that there was no ambiguity between University of New Hampshire and University of NH, for example. People have no problem understanding this sort of variation. Unfortunately, computers do.

As a result, the designer decided I, the user, was the one who would have to solve the problem. I was forced to scroll half way through an extraordinarily long list of names to discover that -- for the sake of the computer -- my alma mater was classified as NH - University of, Durham.

This is a case of simple annoyance. But this type of thinking, when dealing with large volumes of data and more complicated concepts, becomes debilitating.

Going back to our example of a skills database, these applications often assume a preset list of skills, organized hierarchically into job categories (such as administration, information technology, management, marketing, communications, etc.) More often than not, the UI reproduces the computer's way of seeing the information, forcing the user (the person whose information it seeks to elicit) to click blindly through hierarchies looking for something that resembles their skills. What's worse, the preset list is often defined by management, so it not only is incomplete, it lists only what management wants to see, rather than skills the person entering might choose to identify.

The results are predictable. Entering information in such a system is frustrating and annoying. People will avoid it or enter as little as possible to get done quickly. Where presets do not match actual skills (or can't be found easily within the hierarchies), people will deliberately choose incorrect or approximate answers.

This is before we get to any of the psychological issues of what information (true or false) people will enter based on the implicit messages the preset items and hierarchies are telling them about the importance of specific skills.

The consequence is that those responsible now have to budget time and money for training on how to fill out the form as well as prompting people to maintain their data!

A disconnect between the interface and the users' perspective results in frustration, misuse, mistakes, invalid entries, and avoidance. This concept is well understood in the field of usability and UI design. Unfortunately, it is not applied frequently enough to internal systems design and KM. The result is (unsustainable) systems that often cost more to maintain than to create.

[Continued in Part 3]

Monday, March 30, 2009

TwitterFish: Bridging the Language Gap

A common problem for knowledge management programs -- especially those that span multiple countries or continents -- is bridging the gap between languages. People obviously feel more comfortable communicating in their native language and in many cases cannot communicate well -- if at all -- in other languages.

For formal documents such as white papers or reports, there is no easy solution to this problem. Automated translation services exist but the results are often rudimentary, at times amusing, and at worst they can actually be misleading or just plain wrong. There is very little choice but to do manual translations for important documents, insist that everyone communicate using one common language, and/or live with a Babel-like ignorance of the knowledge and expertise of other countries.

Because of their limited usefulness for published documents, automated translation services have been shunned by most KM programs. But are they really so bad? Or are there cases where automated translation is not only "good enough" but provides a vital missing link for multilingual teams?

I was recently working with an organization that operates in four different locations around the world, in four separate languages. Clearly, the language barrier is a significant obstacle for them. It turns out, however, that within each geographic region team members communicate frequently among themselves through IM and mobile texting.

The good news is that communication is happening. The bad news, from a knowledge management perspective, is that the language barrier has become a permanent wall separating groups of employees and the insights they hold.

The usual KM solution to this problem is to try and get each group to capture their learnings in whitepapers, reports, and other written documents. The problem of translating those documents is then addressed as a separate task. The language problem is exchanged for a translation problem and significant extra work for everyone. This is in addition to the many bright ideas and offhand stories that are lost in the move from conversation to written documents (i.e. implicit vs. explicit).

But if you take a step back, translating everything (or even a select portion identified as "important") before determining if it is actually going to be useful, is inefficient and almost guaranteed to be prohibitively expensive. What is really needed is to get a rough sense if something is of interest before making the effort to establish connections across the language boundary.

Which is exactly what automated translation is good at. Trying to follow a procedural document written in a foreign language -- or translated badly -- without other assistance can be both difficult and dangerous (depending on how risky mistakes are). But knowing that such knowledge exists, even if you can't read it all, can save hours or days trying to recreate the learnings that have already been captured.

What would we give for a way to "listen in" to conversations -- no matter what the language -- to see if there was either a discussion we could contribute to or knowledge we could use.

Well, we have ways to listen in through social computing. Forums, blogs, and microblogging move the one-to-one conversation to a broader social platform. Micro-blogging services in particular, such as Twitter, provide almost all of the immediacy and interaction of IM but to a much larger audience. All that is missing is the ability to read the different languages.

Which is where TwitterFish comes in. TwitterFish is a prototype to demonstrate the effectiveness of automated translation services for identifying potential points of useful information.

Twitter already provides a translation feature for its search interface. But the public timeline and the stream of your friends' updates do not. TwitterFish lets you select a language and translate all updates into that language on the fly. You can also click on a specific individual to see just their status updates, if you find something interesting.

The translations are still rough. You cannot use them alone. But the point is they give you window into what people are discussing in other languages that is not available in any other form. What's more, each message is associated with a person. So if you do find a piece of information you want to follow up on, you can start a conversation directly with those involved. Unlike translated documents, where the text is all you have, in social applications such as Twitter you have both the words and the people.

TwitterFish is just a prototype. Viewing the public timeline (the default) is interesting but not necessarily useful. However it does demonstrate the potential of automated translation services for dynamic data. The techniques used to create TwitterFish would be far more effective to groups bounded by a common interest. For example:

  • Apply TwitterFish to Yammer, the business version of Twitter, where only messages from within a single company are visible.
  • Create a Twitter account that "friends" a specific, global community of users, such as a professional organization. The accounts' stream can then be recast-- or displayed on the organization's web site -- translated into the viewer's language of choice.
  • Apply the same technique to other dynamic community content, such as forum posts, blog comments, etc.

As a final note, TwitterFish is a fairly simple application. It would not be possible without the generous availibility of a number of foundation services. Specifically:

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Business of Casual Games

I recently received mail from a game publisher offering me free access to one of their PC games. The invitation was very nice; they were offering it to me since I talk about video games, obviously looking for a review but not insisting. I was, actually, pleased that they asked.

Yes, of course it is a marketing ploy. They would like me to write a review. But they managed to walk a very delicate balance between gifting and requiring reciprocation. It was an offer, and nothing more. And I appreciated that.

However, I was still left in a bit of a quandary. I am not a professional reviewer. I talk about games I am playing when I think I have something interesting to say about them (either good or bad). I don't review everything I play and I certainly don't have time to review lots of games sent to me out of the blue. (I do have another career, etc.)

But even that wasn't what bothered me. And then it struck me: my problem is that I don't play PC games. It is kind of funny because I work with computers all day (and frequently at night) so have plenty of opportunity. And it is not like I've never played games on computers. (I was very fond of Tetris and various Breakout clones years ago. I even wrote a few games -- toys really -- as programming practice while with one of my previous employers.)

But with a few exceptions (Myst, Riven, The Journeyman Project, and Microsoft Flight Simulator) once we got into game consoles -- and especially handhelds starting with the Gameboy SP -- I have not done any PC gaming.

Why not? Well, there are several reasons:

  • Usability: Quite frankly, the keyboard and mouse are seriously under par as a control set for real-time games. They are OK for strategy/board games with a lot of pointing or typing, but otherwise the controls are awkward. Game systems on the other hand are designed specifically for that purpose. (I'll save my comments about bad game console design for another time.)
  • Compatibility: why do I need a $3,000 computer to play a $50 game? Or why does a $20 game insist on resetting the color scheme and resolution of my monitor (and not setting it back)? Or why can I play games on one version of an OS and not on another?
  • Lack of time for "real" PC games: Quite frankly, I no longer have hours to devote to the larger PC games like Myst, Age of Empires, etc.
  • Lack of patience with "casual" PC games: I just can't get involved in the multitude of what might be called "semi-professional" downloadable games that litter the casual games market for the PC.

It is this last item that got me thinking. I know I don't have time for longer games - whether on the PC or a game console. But casual games would seem to fit right into my vector of needs, interests, and limitations. Quick, fun, no heavy investments...

But they don't attract me. Why? Because I've been burnt before. As, I suspect, have many of you.

Its very simple: there are lots of amateur and semi-pro casual games out there (most with free downloadable demos) and the majority of them stink.

Now, I am not saying there aren't console games that are deplorable (and I've been unfortunate enough to play several). I also don't feel quite comfortable with my previous remark about "the majority" of semi-pro PC games. Despite the high cost of entry for publishing console games, if I were being frank it is unclear whether the ratio of gold to dross is any higher for consoles than for PC games.

However, when you encounter a loser on a console, you simply remove the cartridge and throw it away with no side effects. No uninstall, no danger of virus contamination. No leftover hidden bits and pieces you might not know about. With PC games, there is always the lingering doubt (and plenty of quirky behavior on the part of PC's from whatever source) about its long-term impact.

So, as kind as the offer was, I declined. It is unfortunate, because I would like to give independent artists and developers their due. But ultimately, time and the technology is not on their side. This may be why the market for independent games on smart phones (such as the iPhone) is taking off. It provides both the marketplace -- and a relatively secure hardware platform -- that gives users the confidence to try out less familiar or well-financed options.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sustainable KM: The Challenges

Budget is not the only factor affecting the sustainability of knowledge management. In fact, it is only a minor obstacle that tends to impact all larger business initiatives equally. By far the most important factor is the people involved in the program and their willingness to participate.

When people talk about the "sustainability" of a KM program, they are usually referring to the level of engagement of the target audience and their willingness and enthusiasm to keep participating. No effort is sustainable if its audience is resistant. However, this is unfortunately the case for many KM programs.

Some of the common complaints I've heard about KM programs over the years include:

  • I don't know where to put things.
  • How do I use it?
  • Why do I have to enter this information again?
  • I don't have time to participate.
  • And (one of my favorites) how do I charge the time I spend on knowledge management?

This last is particularly confounding, because no one asks how do I charge the time I spend drinking coffee or the time I spend using the xerox machine?

Each of these complaints is often handled separately, by developing training on the benefits of the KM program or how to charge time (further increasing the size and complexity of the initiative). But they are really just symptoms of a larger problem, which is that KM is seen as separate and distinct, an "extra" activity from the normal work of the employees.

Trying to convince someone that an activity is good for them is always an uphill battle. So one of the first principles of sustainable KM should be do not to make KM additional work. Knowledge Management practices should be embedded in the existing business processes.

Note that I say "existing business processes". A second reason that KM initiatives are often so top heavy is that they attempt to alter business processes to make the processes more amenable to managing the knowledge. By attempting to change the process -- no matter how well-intentioned -- you are seriously adding to the "weight" (in terms of cost, both in resources and money) of the program and the likelihood of failure. Changing people's behavior is extremely hard to do from the outside.

Programs that are trying to externally influence behavior are easy to recognize. They inevitably include activities labeled as "change management", which can consume up to 50% of the project.

To put it crassly, change management means you are trying to get people to do something they don't want to do. This is both expensive and usually only partially successful, if that.

That doesn't mean change can't happen. Often change is necessary. But trying to dictate change leads right back to the need for an executive champion -- someone willing to enforce the change -- and all of the deficits and difficulties such sponsorship presents.

So how does change happen if you don't enforce it? It happens because it benefits the people who need to enact the change. In other words, people change when they see value for themselves in the change.

It may seem like a contradiction, but changing processes is extremely difficult, whereas getting people to change the processes themselves (if they see fit) is much easier. An example might help:

Say you were building a skills database. (I am not promoting this activity, just using it as an example.) You will require all employees to fill out a form identifying their individual skills and level of ability. Managers will use the database to find resources with the appropriate skills and employees will need to keep their entries updated.

Now, even assuming this is a good idea, why would employees participate? They get no benefit from the results of the activity (only managers get to see the results) and it repeats work they are already doing (they already have to maintain an up-to-date curriculum vitae). The effort requires training for all employees and a significant management push to get them to comply with the initial loading of the database. Worse yet, once loaded, there are no triggers in their regular work that would initiate an update. So there will have to be an equivalent effort put into getting updates every six months. This is anything but sustainable.

Before you argue that this is a nonsensical example, i would point out that I know of at least two companies using a system like this. An alternative approach would be the following:

Build the skills database so that everyone has access to the results. Use the content provided by the users to generate intranet profiles. (E.g. employees immediately see the results of their effort and get feedback from their peers as to its usefulness.) Also, collect enough information to autogenerate the CV they need to maintain under current policies.

Which system do you think employees are more likely to contribute to? By extending the initial purpose and putting in the effort to provide extra functionality, you not only fit the new system into the existing process (i.e. employees maintaining their CVs), you significantly reduce the overhead required to enforce compliance.

So another principle of sustainability is avoid change management, help change manage itself.

[Continued in Part 2]

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Notes Towards a Theory of Sustainable Knowledge Management

This is the first in a series of posts.

For a number of years there has been a growing interest within the field of physical design for "sustainable architecture". Definitions may vary, but the general theme is to design buildings that do not drain the pool of natural resources: buildings that generate their own energy through solar power; that minimize the need for mechanical heating and cooling; even buildings that can be recycled without harmful bi-products when their usefulness is over. In other words, buildings that have a positive impact on the environment.

For some time now, I have thought that knowledge management as a discipline could do with a similar initiative.

Now, there are certainly things that can be done to make knowledge management systems and the computers they run on "green" or greener. However, these ecologically sound IT practices are not specific to knowledge management. They apply equally to all computerized business applications: supply chain, document management, accounting, etc.

What interests me is looking at knowledge management in a new way to see if we can reduce the impact and cost it has in terms of human resources. Can we design knowledge management initiatives with a smaller "footprint" in terms of cost in dedicated headcount, learning curve, and unique time away from people's "real" work? This is the concept I am calling Sustainable Knowledge Management.

Why Sustainable?

Knowledge Management has a reputation for requiring large, expensive initiatives with questionable results. That reputation is not entirely unwarranted. Many of the early KM programs were overly ambitious and software vendors have often sold large, all-inclusive systems (e-mail, document management, CRM, etc) as KM solutions.

Even smaller KM initiatives often require a significant upfront "push" in terms of cost, headcount, and executive attention to get them started.

Is all this effort necessary? More importantly, once the effort is underway, how much does it cost to maintain the initiative? Knowledge management is not unique in this respect. The same could be said of quality initiatives, change management, business process reengineering, etc. But my focus is KM.

Although I have no objection to having a career for life, there is a serious danger that knowledge management programs are pricing themselves out of the market. This is particularly true when there is no reliable or believable way to calculate Return On Investment (ROI) for most KM programs. This is because KM is focused on the longer-term improvement of business and employee performance and expertise, not bottom-line financials.

So without the direct-to-the-bottom-line connection between KM initiatives and improvement, it is important that KM programs reduce their disruptive impact and avoid becoming a ready target for cuts.

One common approach is to find a sponsor or a champion within upper management. Within KM circles, the need for "senior level" support is often discussed as a key component of a KM program. This means a VP or other high level manager who can influence budget and ensure the program is not axed. However, proponents of this approach are not so quick to explain what to do if you can't get that support.

Even if you do find a champion, relying on one person for your existence is risky. Management, particularly in western corporations, have a habit or restructuring and repositioning themselves frequently. It's called climbing the corporate ladder. What happens when you champion changes jobs? Can they still support your program?

Over the past 5-8 years, I've spent a nontrivial amount of time creating presentations explaining and justifying various KM programs to new managers. Having senior management support -- short of the CEO, and not even reliably in that case -- does not ensure that a KM program can be seen though to completion.

What we need is a more systematic approach to designing KM initiatives that are sustainable over the long-term.