Knowledge Musings

Musings about knowledge management as I go about my daily life

Friday, March 28, 2008

T5 Knowledge Holes

I'm currently involved with a couple of projects where a crying need is for reliable consistent information; where people can be assured that they are accessing the most up to date and authoritative version.

Think of the poor people at Terminal 5 (T5) at London Heathrow airport who lack such information (my daughter is travelling out of there tonight, so I have a personal interest). One person on the radio this morning, having come early to get a replacement flight for one that was cancelled yesterday, said that on arrival this morning (where the indicator boards now seem to use the euphemism "Inquire Airline" rather than "Cancelled") had to phone her destination (Glasgow) to find what was going on.

I recall my travelling days. If you knew at the outset that a flight was delayed 4 hours, you could make other arrangements. But too often it was "more information in an hour". It's the same on any public system. If information provision is poor or misleading, rumours spread, people get frustrated and it does nothing for customer service "I will never fly BA again - ever" said the lady this morning. I more or less made that vow about five years ago, when what was once an excellent airline seemed to lose the plot, thinking they could fleece business people for fares several times that of economy, but where the basic standards were declining. After all, the front end (business and first class) end of the plane always lands a few seconds later than the back end anyway!

And travel is not the only domain where lack of, misleading or inconsistent information upsets customers. Most of us can think of situations where customer-facing staff give out factually wrong information or give out information with a "take it or leave it" attitude.

Therefore up to date and reliable information should be at the heart of customer service:
  • Don't deny the situation (the Heathrow website at the time of writing prominently displays terminal 5 and the pleasures and comfort of the new terminal; even its hot news is dated 8th January!)
  • Think: what does the customer need to know when things go wrong
  • Customers want certainties, not maybes; to know about alternatives, and even get help with remedial measure (booked on a non-BA connecting flight last year that got cancelled, the airline automatically rebooked us on a rival flight while we were still in the air on our first leg)
  • Best deliver bad news and improve on it, rather than keep making incremental promises that cannot be kept (I was delighted when the new sofa that was going to take another month arrived within two weeks)
  • Ensure that those with the authoritative information have good channels to get the information to customers and customer-facing staff (you don't want your staff saying "you know as much as I do")
  • Bring back scenario planning - it's what we used to do quite a lot of; "what if the government changes?" "what if the oil price reaches $200 a barrel"; "what is the worst disaster that can strike our company?" (in 1985 our managers came up with some apparently whacky off-the-wall ideas on that one; some ideas that with today's terrorist tactics are not unusal today).
All of which means that you have clear information policies that can cope with sudden change. And that you have in place the mechanisms to gather and rapidly update key information. But most importantly of all that you have ways of moving it quickly to those who need it, and that you customer-facing staff are properly trained to assess it in terms of what it means to different categories of customers.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Putting the I back in IT

Ever since knowledge management took off, organisations have looked to IT to provide a 'silver bullet'. All along I've stressed the need to put back the I (Information) into IT. Now a recent report from TFPL and Cap Gemini (see the Information Opportuntity Report) says the same thing in a slightly different way. They want to put the I back into CIO (Chief Information Officer) "or else companies will suffer".

Their key point is that "the information culture is broken", "information management is poor" and "by not sharing information, organisations are suffering financial loss". One of the reasons, they say, is that more money gets thrown into the technology rather than working out what to do with the information.

I recall at least of couple of past assignments that I have labelled 'rescue missions'. Some persuasive enterprise solutions salesperson has sold a perfectly good piece of software, often with many 'bells and whistles', more than most users can take advantage of. Then as roll-out approaches, there is this stark realisation that too little attention has been given to such things as:
  • how do our users actually work; how does it fit into the way they do their job?
  • who is responsible for verifying and maintaining the quality of this information?
  • how should it be characterised; what metadata should be used to describe it?
  • what is the publishing process: what rules are there for checking before publication?
  • how do users find the authoritative, most up to date version?
Of course, IT vendors will say that the technology can take many of these decisions out of the users hands, with auto-tagging of content with metadata and built-in workflow. However, as a recent case study of Christian Aid's intranet indicated, the last thing you want to do is "automate a mess".

Every time you even think about implementing a new solution, why don't you think carefully through all the information process issues, the tasks, decisions and business processes that the information informs, but above all the hapless user who is often not consulted until a technical decision has been made.

It behoves anyone who has 'information' in their title, whether they are a technical guru or not, to remember the words of business executive William Pollard: "Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit."

So make sure that your technologists remember to put the I back into IT.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Virtual Economy

With all the turmoil in finanical markets, I recall an article written by Peter Drucker in the mid 1980s. Credited with coining the term 'knowledge worker' Drucker has been very perceptive on many management issues. He wrote back then that the financial economy was becoming too disconnected from the real economy in that the amount of trading of financial instruments (e.g. foreign currency) was 30x more than that of foreign trade itself. He said that some multiplier, say three times, was OK and needed for liquidity, but 30x he really questioned.

As I was returning from a day with a client in London yesterday, I read an article that trading in oil was running at 2 billion barrels a day, yet only 85 million barrels comes out of the ground - thus re-emphasising Drucker's point.

In my book Capitalizing on Knowledge (2001) I wrote that financial intruments were examples of knowledge products, being purely the fruits of human creativity. I even cited Enron as an example of creative innovation in knowledge products. But you can take creativity too far - especially in financial accounting - and we now know what happened to Enron! Even earlier in Knowledge Networking (1999) I wrote about the need for better knowledge ethics and governance. At that time Long-Term Capital Management had just collapsed, having traded heavily in financial derivatives. I asked:

"What value does such trading bring to furthering a true knowledge society where desirable outcomes are successful businesses of all sorts and quality of life for citizens? ... Intervention is needed in financial markets to halt computer trading when price swings get too violent. Will knowledge markets evolve in the same way, needing bodies to govern them, analagous to the Securities and Exchange Commission?"

The fact is that trading in such highly leveraged financial instrument is really just betting on future prices. Even betting on horses, it seems, is less risky! And who are the losers in such heavy derivatives trading? Usually those in the real economy - who trusted their hard earned money to banks in the first place!

Will the gap between the real and virtual economy identified as an issue over 20 years ago ever narrow to sensible levels, or will we keep repeating the mistakes of the past and present?

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Whatever happened to ...?

I was asked last week by Jerry Ash, editor of InsideKnowledge, to contribute an article on IT as an enabler of KM. He drew my attention to an article of mine written in 1998, saying "it just needs a little updating". The article in question is 'Knowledge Management: The Role of Technology'. Although most of the concepts are the same, and technology has improved somewhat (but not spectacularly), two main types of change caught my attention:
  • Change of language - old-fashioned terms we don't use anymore
  • Disappearance of some favourite products - for several reasons.
Anyway, curious to know what happened here's the results of what I found:

Whatever happened to the term ...?
  • Groupware - we tend now to use the term "collaboration software", though the term lives on in a number of open source products;
  • P2P (peer-to-peer) - it didn't catch on in the mainstream and these days one tends to refer to the software's function e.g. streaming, file sharing, and if used it is usually spelt out in full
  • KM suites - all the rage as document management and other companies tried to relabel their products and jump onto the KM bandwagon; however, most vendors (Eloquent is one exception) dropped the term and the more generic term of EDRMS (Electronic Data and Records Management System) is now more common;
  • Computer conferencing - once meant a variety of synchronous or asynchronous methods of messaging over the internet (other than email), such as bulletin boards; today the term conferencing is most commonly used for videoconferencing or webconferencing (even here webinar is more common); perhaps the most common term today is 'online forum' which are web browser based anyway;
Whatever happened to product...?
  • Lotus Notes - once ubiquitious in KM circles, Lotus was taken over by IBM and whereas Notes once referred to either server or client, the server is now called Domino. Notes (or at least Domino) is apparently very much alive, now on version 8, and IBM claims more people using it than ever before. One 2005 article described it as "a program used by 120 million people, of whom about 119m hate it." Perhaps that's why I don't hear about it much these days in the KM community?!
  • COPE - a fascinating concept mapping software developed by Colin Eden. It has been visually improved and is now sold as Banxia Decision Explorer alongside other specialised products.
  • Themescape (Cartia) - this excellent visualisation software for knowledge mapping was bought by Aurigin and became part of its patent analysis software. Aurigin went bankrupt in 2002 and its patent software assets acquired by Micropatent (part of IHI) who incorporated it into it's Aureka software. In turn IHI was taken over by Thomson Scientific and Themescape carries on as a patent mapping tool within Aureka.
  • Groove - a great peer-to-peer collaboration tool developed by Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes (so a good pedigree). Groove Networks was bought my Microsoft in 2005 and the product marketed (in quite a low key way) as Microsoft Groove. With Groove 2007 now being part of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite (enterprise edition) we may hear more of it again.
  • Semio (including Semio Map and Semio Tagger) - a fascinating set of software for taxonomy visualization and semantic indexing, Semio was acquired in 2002 by Webversa who then changed their name to Entrieva. Entrieva's main thrust is now its internet advertising targetting service ClickSense, in which Semio's technology (now fairly invisible) helps with the contextual targetting.
What this article illustrates is that many good KM software solutions often start as niche. There then seems to be three directions of evolution:

  • They remain niche, though are often grouped with related products for marketing purposes
  • They become mainstream (e.g. Groove, Lotus) but never quite have the leadership they showed when they were new innovations.
  • The technology is subsumed into vertical applications, a segment of the market which continues to grow.
I'd be interested to hear what happened to your favourite software and terminology.