Knowledge Musings

Musings about knowledge management as I go about my daily life

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Where's the Oil?

I've just been reading an interesting article in Time Magazine by former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (and before that Energy Minister), Nigel Lawson, entitled Darkness Looms. In it, he argues that all our concerns about getting environmentally-friendly energy sources come up against the practicalities of an energy short-fall in the coming decades. Most of Europe has not replaced its ageing (and dirty) coal-fired power stations, nor its (clean but problematic) nuclear power stations. And where is the oil? In parts of the world where security of supply depends heavily on political forces and the prevailing diplomatic moods, like the Middle East and Russia.

But in the KM context, the phrase "where's the oil?" reminds me of BP's approach to knowledge management. When he led the KM team, Kent Greenes, would always ask this quesiton of any planned initiative. If KM could not translate into helping BP find oil better, cheaper, faster, or the efficiency of its overall supply chain, then what is the point of KM. At the moment I am helping an organisation put into place a KM strategy and action plan. One of my starting points is the approved 5-year corporate plan. By examing each objective in turn, I am asking:

  • what are the knowledge inputs (i.e. to achieve this objective what do need to know, and what information must be readily accessible?
  • what are the tasks, business processes and core decisions that contribute to this objective, and as a consequence...
  • what are the KM activities that support these processes, finally..
  • what are the knowledge outputs, e.g. reports, guidance, database entries
Already it is clear that there are some recurring themes, such as a virtuous cycle of knowledge development, where new knowledge is created, evaluated, shared, refined and developed, applied and lessons learned, which in turn are fed into an evolving knowledge base. Many of these processes are generic, fine-tuned only for stakeholder / user needs and the categories of knowledge (by topic, format, usage etc.)

So, wherever you are in your KM action plan, think of your organisation's product or service, and keep asking this probling question:

"Where's the oil?" (or whatever product or service is your most valuable).

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Eco-Friendly KM

Knowledge is weightless - so it ought to exhibit a low carbon footprint, right?

Well perhaps not, if you have to travel widely to gain or impart knowledge. Tacit knowledge, in particular, is not something that you can just download from the Web. In my younger days as a computer analyst and sales person in the 1970s, I would think nothing of hopping on a plane, often more than once a week, for meetings in Geneva, Munich, Paris or even shorter hauls like London to Manchester. Of course, in those days, airports weren't the hassle they are now and carbon footprints were what your colleague created when stamping out his or her cigarette in the office!

Yet - even though we now have the technology for virtual working, there seems a great reluctance to take advantage of it and reduce travel. I recall the early days of BP's knowledge management initiative where desktop webcams were installed so that staff could videoconference. Instead of flying out to an oil rig off the shore of Scotland, experts in the south of England could have a sensible online face-to-face dialogue. Further, if there were practical problems, and oilfield engineer could point the camera at the offending machinery and both parties could work out a solution online. It might take a little longer than if there in person, but all the time was quality time - not rushing from car park to bus to plane to taxi and so on. A finding that came out of BP's early experience was that a commitment made over videolink was more likely to be honoured than one made in email. In other words, it developed a level of trust close to that enjoyed through physical face-to-face presence.

Well eco-friendly business activities are now core issue for companies to grapple with. A recent article (Computing 7th Feb) on 'going green' aimed at IT professionals highlighted five tips for eco-friendly IT:
  • increase server and storage in data centres - modern kit is less energy consuming than oder kit
  • install energy efficient PCs and monitors
  • print fewer documents
  • enforce poser management (i.e. turn off your PC at night)
  • telework
It was the latter that got me into knowledge management. In the late 1980s I had initiated several telework (US translation - telecommuting) projects in my organisation. We identified benefits not just in terms of cost and time savings in travel, but office space (hot desking), more motivated employees (getting a suitable work-life home-away balance), higher productivity (not being interrupted all the time by phone or ignorant colleagues!). One of my tasks was to map different kinds of knowledge work and what environment suited it best. We found that the design of many offices was not ideal, and that by good planning and support sytems an employee need come into the office only occasionally. One of the main barriers to implementation was management culture - managers who were not confident of managing by output but who gauged employees by their input - the amount of time spent at their desk.

So think about it. Why doesn't your organisation telework more, especially using videoconferencing and webcams? And when you think (unless you are in a gas guzzling vehicle or plane) the energy stimulating your neurons adds very little to your carbon footprint, and may generate some new valuable knowledge.


Monday, February 18, 2008

Tick Box KM

Two recent things prompted me to address this topic. One is for a voluntary organisation I work for where one of our supporters would like our volunteers (people like me) to become accredited advisors. After all we would "tick all the boxes". However, since there is no demand from our beneficiaries (out of work managers and professionals who we help) and to become accrediated would cost us the equivalent of year's rent of the premises we use, I question its value.

Another is an interesting article (Computing, 7 Feb 2008) by software professional, Peter Merrick, who says "it is not project management that is of interest, but project delivery. The fact that a project is well managed and ticks the right boxes, does not mean it will deliver a working system".

I recall when pushing companies to achieve ISO standards for customer quality was in vogue. Even though a company could get accredited, it did not mean it could deliver exemplary customer service, simply that it adhered to the procedures and standards it set for itself.

Unfortunately in bureaucracies - and that's what many large corporations and public sector organizations are today - there is a tendency to say that processes are in place and rules have been followed and to take the eye off the ball about what is really important. I've had a running argument with one such public service recently who keeps hiding behind "our minimal legal obligations" rather than thinking about the needs of the customer.

So far, most KM initiatives have succeeded using necessary but 'light touch' procedures. But with IT playing a major role in many KM initiatives, it would be a pity if too much attention was given to ticking the right boxes in the project management methodology and not enough to the essence of the project. Another danger lurking is that if the movement to KM standards and professionalisation movement were to enforce unrealistic 'standards', then KM might itself become too bureaucratized. Fortunately, the British Standards Institute has realized this and at the moment feel that KM is not mature enough for highly specific standards, so it issues 'guidance on good practice'.

Delivering KM should be similar to what Peter Merrick describes as a delivery framework for IT, i.e. one that "prioritizes the business community stakeholders, senior management, middle management, project management and users". I commend his PrinceLite delivery framework as an approach for knowledge management projects. It may not seem 'lite' enough for some KM practitioners (in that there are mandatory requirements) but its merit is that it is stakeholder-focussed, something every project manager ignores at his or her peril. As Peter himself says: "it does not tell you exactly what to do, but does give you some very strong hints".


Friday, February 15, 2008

What Price Books?

I happened to be doing a search on Google yesterday, found a link I was interested in, and lo and behold - up pops a page of my book (Knowledge Networking) from Google Books. Two opposite immediate thoughts came to mind:

1. Why should people be able to read my book for free and deprive me of roylaties?
2. That's nice - I know it's difficult to get hold of now - so at least others can read it.

On the first, since it was published in 1999 I don't get many royalties now and anway I think it's out of print, since links on both Amazon and publisher's wesbite point to an expensive audio version. In any case, I don't think many readers will persevere with the media. It's not like a PDF you can download - you have to laboriously scroll from page to page. I found a chapter in someone else's book I was interested in and while fine for browsing a few pages, is not ideal for serious study. Further, it seems that books are incomplete and I think there are limits on the number of pages an individual can view (more on this in Google books FAQs).

On the second point, it's certainly useful to be able to point people at specific sections, without having to extract or risk violating the publisher's copyright. I was in the process of doing a 2nd edition a few years ago, but instead decided that writing books - unless you create a best seller - is not really very profitable, so I have focussed on packaging my knowledge in the form of shorter more specific guides and reports (see my K-Shop).

So how much is a book worth? It all depends on how you the reader values it. I get a lot of content from the web these days for free - and am quite happy to browse a long report on my notebook PC. Would I pay for such material? Yes - if I felt it really useful to me and I couldn't get the content anywhere else - but I would need to be convinced, typically by the comments of colleagues or independent reviewers. Certainly Google Books allows you to preview - as they say it is "designed to help you discvoer books, not read them from start to finish". That leads to my other point on value. There is nothing like the convenience of paper. So if there's a book I'm going to use a lot in different places, then its worth buying. Of course, I'm always looking for deals, and when I've finished with it and want it no more, there are many ways to recycle it - and not just in the recycle bin, but through others in my network, Amazon marketplace, book stalls at fetes and so on.

Talking of value what I do resent is paying very high prices - like $100 or more - not for unique in-depth research - but for books that because they are published through an academic imprint, cost three times more than what they should. Regrettably this has also happened to some peer reviewed KM journals, which when launched cost only a few hundred dollars a year subscription but are now over $1,000. But's that's another story (or blog!).

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ideopolises - An Idea Fit For Purpose?

While updating my research for an update supplement to the report Public Sector - Public Knowledge I came across the Ideopolis research programme of the Work Foundation (see this report). It draws on the term coined by two US commentators - John Judis and Ruy Teixeira (see WordSpy for citations) in 2002 - to describe a knowledge-city region. The idea is that a city which is knowledge-intensive (e.g. more than around 25% of workers in knowledge intensive jobs) will act as an economic powerhouse for the surrounding region. Much is predicated on having universities, high quality research etc.

In theory, all very good. But to turn theory into practice (i.e. positive economic outcomes) requires several things to be in place, not least vision and leadership. Even before the term was coined there have been many examples of such initiatives. One familiar to me is the city of Austin in Texas, which in the 1980s was a backwater. With leadership from people like entrepreneur George Kozmetsky, it has turned itself into a world-class knowledge city, with many knowledge intensive companies, and also start-ups like Dell, which is .. well.. no longer a start-up!

Another theme that comes out of all such successful initiatives is that of connectivity. I would go even further than the authors of the report venture and stress also the need for deep collaboration. This is a critical factor is turning all those academic and other ideas into real knowledge-intensive products and services of economic value. Studies of knowledge commercialization (happens to be the title of a book I wrote!) in R&D provide good examples of what works and what doesn't.

The pity to me is that many people who write and practice at the city-region macro-economic level demonstrate little real understanding of the application of knowledge management as used in corporate settings. Or sometimes they stumble across almost by accident, key factors and practices that are well understood in the corporate KM community. As good as it is, the Work Foundation report draws little from this pool of existing knowledge. Of course, it is important to draw on existing regional development and other knowledge. I just wish there was more connectivity - and collaboration - between researchers and practitioners who operate in these two different spheres.

Then perhaps the concept of Ideopolis will be truly fit for purpose.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Old Blog

In fact, I published more than I thought - too much easily to move across. So follow this link for a number of postings, including:
  • Knowledge is neutral
  • Quick Thinking = Bad Knowledge
  • The Power of Visualization
  • Knowledge Fatigue

Back to Basics

What use is a blog that has only two postings - both dated 2004? Not a lot, you say - and I agree.

One of my 2008 New Year resolutions was to blog more regularly, and here mid-February I am just starting to act on it. 2008 is also the year when I bring my website up to date, probably for the last time before full retirement. It's still a major resource for many KM practitioners and students around the world and has had several new items of content added over the last year - see What's New.

Right now I am semi-retired, mixing a (very) small amount of paid knowledge management consultancy with significant amounts of volunteering (e.g. I'm webmaster of and pursuing other interests (chess, astronomy, photography, rambling).

For posterity, the next two postings will be my first two blogs from 2004. They were written on the original blogger and I seem to have missed the easy migration path to the Google host.

Thought for today: "the value of knowledge lies in the mind of the recipient"