Making Knowledge Work

August 10, 2011

Tardiness, tagging and things to come

Filed under: LIKE, Tagging — virginiahenry @ 4:14 pm

The year’s flying by, the ‘To Do’ list isn’t shrinking, and I’ve been meaning to write this entry for ages!…

Recently the LIKE ‘collective’ turned its attention to planning the autumn/winter season for the London Information & Knowledge Exchange. Looks like it’ll be exactly what we LIKE best – a programme of enjoyable and enlightening events.

We ended our official summer sessions on a high, with Martin Belam’s: “Information Architects: The Secret Librarians of the Internet”. Martin talked of the varied roles and experiences that led to his present job as Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media, then he told us about how he does that job (read more about the talk’s content on his blog.   His hands-on, pragmatic approach to the role was inspiring. I guess you’d expect someone with “user experience” in their job title to be pretty focused on making the users’ experiences as fruitful and rewarding as possible, but expectations aren’t always fulfilled are they?  ‘Guerilla usability testing’ helps keep his information architecture on track, as does his empathy for colleagues’ requirements and deadlines.
What fascinated me most was how the Guardian’s content model relies for its success on tags.  Having recently spent a few months implementing an Oracle WebCenter platform with Balfour Beatty WorkPlace I’d been immersed in content tagging (tags being one of the more pleasing aspects of WebCenter – a bit like delicious, but not as pretty), and was interested to hear how they manage tags and use them to create content relationships and cross-promotion of content.  I love that the Guardian’s got a keyword guardian (tag manager, Peter Martin ).

In a recent survey of LIKE members, one question we neglected to ask was “what were your favourite sessions of the 2010/2011 season?”.  If we had, I think Martin’s would have been high on the lists: it prompted a number of blog posts, and a vow from me that I’ll try tag-based file management on my laptop (anyone out there used software such as Elyse, or have any alternative suggestions?)

Informal LIKE summer meet-ups continue through August then, at the end of September, we’re back at The Crown for what promises to be a brilliant start to the autumn/winter season: ‘Connecting Information with Innovation’.  John Davies will be exploring the findings and implications of TFPL’s recent survey of KIM roles and responsibilities. See you there perhaps?

April 29, 2011

Human Library – LIKE 24 being bookish!

Filed under: Knowledge Networking, LIKE — Tags: — virginiahenry @ 7:47 pm

One of the many things that make LIKE  events wonderful is that you can turn up after a long day at work feeling weary and a little out of sorts (at LIKE 23 I was ‘going down’ with the pneumonia that kept me in bed for the next fortnight!), or maybe a tad dubious about the issue up for debate (what the heck is Human Library, and why should I care?!) – and in no time at all, you’ll be having a fascinating, illuminating evening.  And you probably won’t want it to end.

In truth, if you’re going to spend a night learning about Human Libraries, there can’t be anyone better to do it with than Linda Constable

Linda’s been working with Human Libraries for five years, and she told us how the Human Library is a forum for making connections, communicating differences and challenging ideas.  These events are best held in comfortable environments, with quiet corners for books and readers to talk – and with a few ground rules agreed:  books and their readers need to maintain a relationship of respect, books can refuse to answer questions they don’t feel comfortable with, they should be’ returned’ in the same condition as they were when’ taken out’ and the period of the loan depends on how many borrowers are waiting their turn.
Human Libraries are often used as a means to help bridge cultural gaps – getting people talking and listening to those they wouldn’t normally come into contact with.

There are a nice couple of sentences on the Human Library website:  “One of the great features of the Human Library and taking out a book, is that there are no such things as stupid questions.  Books have been prepared and made themselves available, in order for you to be able to dig deep and find out what you always wanted to know about the book title.”

Not sure how prepared the LIKE books felt, but Linda made things easy for us by guiding us through the process of writing titles and descriptions on sheets of paper.  These enticing “covers” also acted as booking slips, so readers wishing to explore the subject could book a loan with the book.

There was an impressive range of topics including:
Comics for Adults, Online Gaming, Multicultural Britain, Gardening, Running a Marathon, English Non-conformism, a Guide to Hackney, a Rough Guide to Italy, Flamenco Dancing…..

Linda was adept at pairing readers with books and orchestrating the loans- which was great, as everyone else was so deep in conversation they seemed scarcely aware of time passing.  I got very involved in discussing Knowledge Management with a LIKE member who’d flown down from Edinburgh for the event, and by the time we were joined by another LIKEer, and were delving deeper into ways of making knowledge work, it was almost time for dinner – but it felt as though we’d only sat down to talk a few minutes earlier.

It was good to catch up with others over dinner, and hear about what they’d been “reading”.  And it was interesting to think about the applications of such a format in business environments.  An evening that had started with insights from someone who works a lot in communities – helping people to benefit from sharing their life’s experiences with strangers – ended with discussions about how useful Human Libraries could be as vehicles for business knowledge sharing.

April 25, 2011

Mobile Information. LIKE 23

Filed under: Communication, LIKE — Tags: , , — virginiahenry @ 3:46 pm

On the last evening of March Mark Needham – the far-sighted founder of Widget (UK) Ltd – presented us with information at the speed of LIKE 😉

Just a few days before we welcomed the 500th person to join the London Information & Knowledge Exchange, it was especially appropriate that one of our newest expert members should give us a lightening review of the evolution of ‘pocket computers’.

Mark told us how a Starship hero in “The Mote in God’s Eye” had used a pocket computer in 1974, long before they were available to us in this tasty world.  By the 1980s you didn’t need so much imagination to see the future coming.  Mark was then working at Psion and their Organiser 1 . was a revolutionary device.  Its 2k of RAM and 8k or 16k memory cards may seem puny now but, Mark told us, the evolutionary line from Psion to Smartphone is clear.  And the great inventions – microprocessors, the worldwide web and wireless networks – that enable us all to carry pocket computers have been around for over two decades.

Mark compared the delay between the emergence of such innovations, and public uptake of them, to the time lapse between the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century and the mass production of the Model T Ford in the 1920s.  And, just as cars have remained basically recognisable for the past century, handheld computers are likely to undergo lots of minor improvements, but remain consistently familiar to us.  It may become common practice for us to use our phones for video calls and to make movies – but Mark’s iPhone will still carry the data he’s been transferring to each new device since he first saved it to his Organiser 30 years ago.

Henry Ford, with his vision of consumerism as the key to world peace, would probably have been delighted by the ubiquitous Smartphone and, maybe, even more chuffed that its development is so obviously being driven by user demand.

Andrew Swaine, another expert member of LIKE, runs knowledge sharing and internal communications at ARM 

Andrew explained the powerful influence Smartphone users were having on the evolution of his industry.  The focus used to be on how fast a computer was, now it’s all about power consumption: pocket computers need to run for an entire day (his Smartphone works for 10 hours, but his laptop battery lasts for 2 hours!).  And although battery technology isn’t progressing very fast, people are writing programmes taking into account not only how fast they are, but how much power they consume.

Speed of performance is high on Users list of must-haves too, so Andrew foresaw a pretty rapid evolution from multi-core (lots of phones are now dual core) to many-core.

And platforms are being consolidated – impatient users will demand a single working environment across all platforms.  Andrew hoped one day to be able to plug his iPhone into a docking station, as he currently does his laptop.

There’s lots of change happening in his industry, not least because it was taken rather by surprise at the big deal applications on phones became – in such a short time.  The web wasn’t really ready for it.  Andrew reckons that we’ll end up using web applications a lot more, to overcome carrier and storage issues, and improve user experience.

Users rule!  When, as is the case, the interactive experience is more important than the underlying hardware – anything that irritates a user is “officially” a bug (music to the ears of anyone who has worked with uncompromising, unempathic Developers :-))!   If you’ve lost data because you didn’t save a document, you are not a stupid user – the interface is wrong.  So on mobile phones and tablets, you don’t need to remember to save stuff.

Andrew said it wasn’t because there’s anything special about mobile:  it’s just that at this period of change in the industry it has been possible to change underlying assumptions about user behaviour quite rapidly.

After the inevitable comparisons of what mobile devices we all had on us (to my perverse delight – it’s not like I don’t know how desirable Apple stuff is – we HTC users seemed to outnumber the iPhoners, and lots of us had business Blackberries) we got down to a pre-dinner exercise. Groups around different tables were asked to identify the kinds of information different professionals need to access via their pocket computers, and the barriers to doing so.

Requirements included:

Office documents, contact details, schedules, spreadsheets etc, legal information, research papers, reference sites, Hansard (for MPs), news reports, business systems, audio and video, sites for the co-ordination of activities (in case of Aid Agencies), lesson plans and registers (in the case of Teachers)

And among the Constraints were:

Tiny screens, the need for the device to be as effective at ‘ input’ as it is at ‘consumption’ of data, lack of single sign-on, lack of  voice recognition, unreliable infrastructure, employer policies, information management issues such as document versioning control and lack of confidence in data security – eg of cloud hosting under US regulatory system.

Well, Ford cars may not be the most inspiring of analogies, but the Maserati brothers  started creating their steel symphonies just a couple of decades after Henry’s Model T first came out – and look where that’s led in a relatively short time!  It surely won’t be long before our pocket computers can do all the stuff we want and need them to do.  Probably rather stylishly.

Talking of innovative chaps, my wonderful husband has just ordered me a Kindle.  On the basis that “you’ve always got your nose in a book, might as well have a lightweight collection to carry around”.  Among my first downloads will be a chapter or two of Mark Needham’s new eBook “66 Famous Plots Updated with Modern Technology”   Apparently it all started with Bill Proud’s tweet from Anna Karenina……

March 13, 2010

3D 21st Century Taxonomies

Filed under: LIKE — Tags: , — virginiahenry @ 8:08 pm

Fran Alexander has an enviable talent for taking the terror out of taxonomy.  Her pre-dinner talk made LIKE 11 (our first anniversary meeting) a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening event.

She began by explaining that people have been organising ideas and making lists for thousands of years. By the time of classical Greece, taxonomies were familiar things, developed from lists as a way of representing knowledge.

And people have been predicting the death of taxonomy for almost as long.  It hasn’t happened yet, as our minds tend to like things to be organised – they understand order and narrower relationships.  The notion of zooming in on something you want is familiar and instinctive.

Even though we have a world of Google and free-text search, classification is still really useful.  Fran said she often gets asked, and wakes up at 3 in the morning thinking, “why don’t we just bung Google on the lot and forget it”.  But there are some very good reasons not to.

For one thing, free-text search fails to help with knowledge discovery.  It’s great if you know what you’re looking for, but not great if you’re not sure and you want to understand what’s known in a field.  You can wander about following links, but won’t get a sense of the field.  You’ll get random pathways that can be very interesting, but won’t end up building a body of knowledge and an overview of a set of subject matter.

Anyone who’s wasted an afternoon following random links and not answering the question they were trying to answer will understand that.  You tend to miss obscure, but important, unexpected, non-commercial things.

Other problems include disambiguation, misspelling etc. Google has phenomenal synonym control and thesauruses underpinning its searches, but they can’t help in smaller domains where you don’t have everyone in the world doing searches to process those results.  And that ties in with the notion of ‘about-ness’.  When you’re doing a search and looking for specific words – you won’t necessarily find things that are about that topic, but don’t use those specific words.  It’s the same case with audio- visual assets – you need to get a sense of what the asset’s about, and all sorts of metadata might not capture that.  So you need some classification to help you.

Fran said the real killer for the BBC is comprehensiveness.  They’re expected to know everything they hold on a topic. So they can’t rely on a few keywords.

People ask her – “can’t you just do some folksonomy?    That’d be cheap – just free tag”.  But if folksonomies are going to be any use, you need to collapse them into taxonomies.  Because if you  get too many people tagging too many things with too many different viewpoints and too many different words you just end up with a lot of meaningless nothing.  Fran found it interesting that some people say “taxonomies represent a single viewpoint, folksonomies represent everybody’s viewpoint”   Her response was to ask what viewpoint is represented in a folksonomy?  And her answer: you don’t really know – there’s some kind of algorithm underneath it putting tags together and doing some disambiguation, and weighting the tags. There are assumptions the software developers have made…….. and you don’t really know what’s going on.  At least with a library classification you can see what it is and how it works.  If it’s got a western bias, you can see that.  If it was written for lawyers – you can see that.

But, she said, folksonomies are tremendously useful in helping us keep our taxonomies flexible.  We’re not in the rigid fixed world that classificationists of the 19th and early 20th centuries were faced with.  Back then there was an assumption that you could build a classification having a sense of who your users were.  They didn’t talk in terms of usability and findability as we do now.  But classificationists like Cutter and Bliss were very interested in how people used libraries, how they looked for things in different ways – and how you could meet those different kinds of needs.  But they had an assumption that you could have an answer to that: you could set up your classification and it would be stable.  And they were more or less right, because those systems stayed pretty stable for a long time, for all sorts of social and political and technological reasons.  If you spend a great deal of time and effort building a classification – say back in the 1950s, using pieces of paper and cards and writing on your books and so on.  You weren’t going to say – “ooh, not sure we did that bit of Biochemistry right, let’s go and reclassify all our books”.  So classifications tended to be left alone: it was easier to get humans to understand the classification and adapt to that.

Nowadays, Fran said, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have ten pathways to the same digital asset.  And there’s no reason not to quickly put another tag onto it.  Because the digital world is a totally different environment.  Users are more demanding now; people do tend to be fickle – they want to use the terms they understand; they want to pick up terminology quickly and they want us to react to it.  The old-style linear project planning was great – when you could say “I know who my users are, I know how they’re going to behave I can go out and do my traditional requirements gathering, tick all my boxes and set up my system, and it’ll stay stable”.  Businesses like you to do that, IT people love it – because you can fix your costs, set your parameters and say what you’ll do. You assume the world is going to stay the same and stable.  But with big projects, that doesn’t work.  Things change so much between the point where you do your requirements gathering and the point of delivery – you’re almost not delivering the same thing any more.  A nightmare for the finance people and the suppliers, because how do you cost something that’s constantly changing? And it’s a problem for us – how do we go about building a taxonomy today that’s going to be relevant in five years time?  It’s very hard, said Fran, but there is a way.  And that is to stop thinking of taxonomies as fixed classifications, but as organic and open entities, that need to grow and change.  One of the best ways we can make our taxonomies dynamic and open is to look at how we link them up with other taxonomies.  Once you start to think of your taxonomy not as a thing in its own right, that sits in a silo, that represents your knowledge, your view, your opinion, but look at it more like an application, an open port into your content repository, as a navigation method into your content, rather than a fixed thing in its own right – then you can open it up to other taxonomies.  So you can get round the problems of “this is a taxonomy for lawyers, and this is a taxonomy for salespeople.  This one is for marketing, and this for schoolchildren”.  Because what you do is take all these taxonomies and look at a mapping methodology – you look at how you can map them together.  By opening up your taxonomy, you immediately increase its range and the number of viewpoints it can serve.  And, she said, it also means that a trendy new technical taxonomy, some new terminology or your folksonomic terms can be harvested and bolted on to your main taxonomy.  So you’re not faced with major revisions.  You look at a link point, a route in – your taxonomy’s open, so you can fix other bits on to it.  Like a Meccano model of taxonomy.

This means your building starts to become a dynamic process, because as you bolt bits on they will inform how your main taxonomy is working.   So through the mapping process you can improve areas of weakness in your main taxonomy, responding to user needs, because you’re bolting on bits that are popular and not worrying about bits that are less popular.  You can create a very dynamic and exciting search experience for people that way, because you give them different routes in, different options. You can even allow them to navigate around their folksonomic tag clouds that sit around your main taxonomy – opening up the 3-D navigation by setting up all sorts of relationships through your content repository, and looking at it in all sorts of different ways.

Fran said that the semantic web and linked data technology is starting to be really useful in this area.  The basic principle is that semantic web and linked data languages – such as RDF, OWL and SKOS give you a way of expressing your taxonomy.

Basically it’s the computer coded bit, like XML, that sit around your taxonomy and mean that if your taxonomy’s expressed in SKOS format and so is someone else’s, all sorts of automated mapping can happen programmatically.  It takes a lot of the heavy lifting out of the taxonomy mapping process, so the idea of mapping two big data sets together becomes much more practicable.

The reason Fran doesn’t think the semantic web will lead us into one great unified consciousness is the amount of negotiation to be done.  Data sets need to match up; agreement on metadata standards is needed.  But, she explained, semantic web linked data is working really well in domains like the biological sciences:  if someone’s doing experiments on fruit flies they can use data from someone else doing experiments on fruit flies.

In organisations there’s a lot potential for this to have great benefits.  In the BBC they’re looking at taking the archive taxonomy and expressing it in a linked data format, to interact with people who are doing the public facing website navigation.  They’d then be able to do is pull in resources from the archive very easily, using their own terminology and their own web navigation systems and links.

Thinking in this way, Fran said, it quickly becomes obvious that you can surround your taxonomy with ontologies as well.  Ontologies are made of lots of taxonomies joined together, so the ontology fits into the semantic web world and fits into taxonomies, because it provides horizontal navigation between bits of your taxonomy.  It means you can dive off in all sorts of directions.  Which is tremendously exciting and we couldn’t really do with our old-style card classification systems because the number of cards we would have needed would have been unthinkable.

Fran gave an example of a really exciting project using linked data.  The Europeana project is creating cross-navigation of all sorts of cultural artefacts in museums, libraries and archives throughout Europe.  By mapping their taxonomies together they’re creating a single user-interface into all this data, immediately opening up all sorts of possibilities for researchers.  And the rest of us…..

December 9, 2009

LIKE 9 – Sharing the Point

Filed under: Knowledge Networking, LIKE — Tags: — virginiahenry @ 7:57 am

There was a record turnout for LIKE 9 last Thursday.  If you’re an information professional (or an IT wizard) struggling to make SharePoint work for your organisation, you might not find that surprising – as we’d gathered to tell our ‘tales from the SharePoint trenches’.

A few LIKE members had completed pre-meeting questionnaires, and one particular comment seemed to sum up the general sentiment of those with SharePoint experience: “in some ways SharePoint defines my role rather than enabling it

Metataxis’ Information Architect and SharePoint expert, Cerys Hearsey, works with the system, and makes it work for her clients.   She told us about the charms and the challenges of SharePoint, and filled us in on its history:

In 1998 Site Server 3.0 was released.  It did some web content management, offered analytics and search, had some personalisation, some indexing and a little document management – pretty much what we see now in MOSS 2007.  The product fitted well with Bill Gates’ vision of “information at your fingertips”.

By 2000 Portals were taking off.  Microsoft wanted a funky portal user interface, so between public beta 1 and public beta 2 of SharePoint 2001, they re-branded.

However, by the end of 2001, the fraudulent accounting practices of WorldCom and Enron executives had focused the minds of business people around the world on records management.  Not especially funky, but essential.  So Microsoft brought back Site Server and put it into their portal.  As this version was slightly better than the original – it was believed to be good…..

‘Veterans’ who experienced the painful upgrade to SharePoint 2003 found no comfort in the fact that Microsoft had replaced their Webstore hierarchical database with relational databases.   Building file plans in SharePoint became pretty challenging.

Indexing isn’t much fun either.  In the 1998 version of Site Server, Microsoft talked about document “profiling”, then changed the term to document “properties”.  They stuck with that until, with SharePoint 2007, they opted for “columns”.  Sadly, these can’t easily be replicated across site collections.

Workflow has had a chequered history in SharePoint.  Windows Workflow Foundation was there in 2001, was removed in 2003, and in SharePoint 2007 it’s back – unchanged and unimproved.

Another change has been more costly – in 2001 search was free, with 2007 the same search engine is covered by one of the most expensive licence Microsoft offers!   (There’s talk that for SharePoint 2014 Microsoft may incorporate FAST, which they bought a couple of years ago.  We didn’t even begin to discuss what impact that may have on legacy content….)

According to Microsoft’s overview pie chart – MOSS 2007 provides:  Portal, Search, Collaboration, Business Intelligence, Business Process and Forms, Enterprise Content Management.  Into that last slice of the pie is crammed document management, records management, knowledge management, web content management and pure content management.  This lack of distinction between types of information is further demonstrated by the low-profile place records management holds in Microsoft’s hierarchy of user groups – it’s a subset of the document management working group

Why, asked Cerys, do we tolerate this apparent indifference to our concerns and priorities?
Liz Scott-Wilson and one or two others helped her list the main reasons:

  • SharePoint has a lot of incredibly useful features, if you can make them work for you
  • Considering the very high cost and inflexibility of some other systems, it’s not such a bad option
  • We can, at least, get more involved in configuring and managing SharePoint
  • Unlike other unwieldy and CAPEX-devouring systems – much of SharePoint is OPEX
  • It sits well with Office 2007

If the world were a different place – one in which $4 billion was spent on developing SharePoint and only $3 billion on marketing it (instead of the other way around)….a world where ‘records management’ and ‘archiving’ were cool buzzwords, up there with ‘dashboards’ and ‘workflow automation’…. a place where Info Pros were the acknowledged superstars of their organisations…….   Yeah, right.  Better to hold on to the hope that SharePoint 2010 will address some of the most troublesome issues, and to take careful note of Cerys’ 5 top tips for making the product your organisation has opted for as good as it can be:

1. Have a coherent strategy
Whether mapped to an information strategy, IT strategy, or tools strategy – it must fit the wider landscape of the organisation.  If it’s the ‘odd one out’ it will look odd, and looks matter.  If it’s the core to your business, it won’t seem strange.

Be innovative
Traditionally, EDRM systems worked like old paper filing systems.     SharePoint cannot and will not ever work that way.  You need to think about your information as a set of objects rather than using the distinctions of data, knowledge, content etc.  Think about how you use and automate data, and how you present it to your organisation.

Talk to your IT department
In a SharePoint implementation, they’re the best friends you can have.  You will need to work closely with them to make sure SharePoint works for the organisation and its strategy.  But it’s important to remember that the more development you do, the more difficult it will be to migrate and to get support from Microsoft if things go wrong.

4.    Get involved on the ground
Talk to people.  If they don’t like the system, and you don’t know about it, that is not good.  Discuss peoples’ problems with them and offer help with resolving them.  To do that, you must get to know the technology stack.   It’s not easy to master: it has plenty of legacy issues and lots of components.  But an organisation is unlikely to use all of them.  So, for example, if yours decides to embark on the Forms route – get to know Info Path inside out.  Then you’ll know what the issues are.

5.    Know where you’re going when you start out
Have a clear idea of what the thing is going to look like and work like at the end of the implementation.  Do not decide to pilot some document management with a couple of teams and let them use it as ‘business as usual’.  Because, all of a sudden, everyone will want Team Site, and everyone will want to be able to save their documents and search for them.   Then your pilot for a couple of teams will be for the entire organisation – and you’ve built it in one site collection which can only support up to 100 gigabytes worth of data.  And that accrues pretty fast, especially when you’re doing transactional stuff.

So take the time to plan for where you’re going at the start.  If you want to do document management today, but you know you want to do records management tomorrow, that’ll have big design implications from the outset.  If you want to store a bunch of data and then harvest it using business intelligence tools, you’re going to want to use a dashboard.  You may want to explore excel services, do you have an enterprise web licence?  Most of the cleverest features of SharePoint aren’t in the standard edition, they come in the enterprise edition – and that includes the business data catalogue that enables you to link the SharePoint database to, for example, your old Lotus Notes database.

Cerys’ advice reminded me of a quote I read somewhere from Guy Creese of the IT research and consulting firm, Burton Group: “a really good SharePoint installation is as much organisation as it is technology”.

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