Making Knowledge Work

February 27, 2011

Real Knowledge Management – LIKE 22

Filed under: Knowledge Management — Tags: , , — virginiahenry @ 5:50 pm

For February’s LIKE we wanted to explore what Knowledge Management really is.

There are so many books and academic papers devoted to the discipline, so many definitions and declarations of its rise/demise/resurgence…… that we thought it’d be refreshing to look at KM from the perspective of practitioners.  You know – people who really do it, in real jobs, in real organisations 🙂

It was a popular decision: the upstairs room at the Crown Tavern was packed, and the four LIKE members who delivered speed presentations on KM were compelling speakers.

Matt Walsh is Knowledge Manager at the Medical Defence Union.  He’s been working in knowledge management for around 7 years, and knows about the challenges and practicalities of making it work.

His organisation has adopted five key principles – they were originally developed to guide a specific intranet project, but were so well received that they’re applied for all aspects of organisational knowledge management now:

  1. All users must be able to add content and use content in any system. (Matt told us that when they started on the journey, 5 years ago, they were confronted with folders with names such as “Bob’s stuff”, and information was widely duplicated across the organisation).
  2. Everyone has to share collective responsibility for information, and for putting it into the systems. They must share their knowledge and take it forward.  (Matt’s been working with people to help them take ownership of information and develop the confidence to say “this is in the wrong place – it should be moved to somewhere more intuitive”)
  3. Information should be shared wherever possible.  (Matt spends much of his time dispelling the belief that “knowledge is power” by negotiation with people and getting them to exchange knowledge with their colleagues.  Demonstrating that shared knowledge is ultimately more powerful than small islands of know-how)
  4. Information must be current and accurate.  The organisation is interested in using their qualitative information, or business intelligence, to inform their decision-making: connecting current knowledge with the people who need it, when they need it.
  5. Information should be easily retrieved. (The MDU has found taxonomies and ontologies are important in achieving this)

Linda Woodcraft has the challenging role of Global Portal Content Manager at Hay Group.

She told us that selling KM as a stand-alone proposition is incredibly difficult to consultants whose primary concerns are selling and billing, not sharing best practice.  Particularly so, as the Hay Group has no CIO or CKO, and KM is not endorsed or advocated at a senior level.

Linda’s tiny global team of 4 KM professionals have to take a covert approach.  They’ve developed a tool for ‘project summaries’ – when a project worth more than $50,000 is recorded, project managers are sent an automated form which they must complete before the project can be closed and the billing credit activated.  The story behind the project can then be shared on Hay Group’s portal, and consultants working with a similar client or sector can benefit from the experience and use an already-invented wheel.

To connect the knowledge-poor with the knowledge-rich in their global firm, there is another tool – “Ask the Experts”.  Questions are submitted through the portal and the KM team direct them to relevant experts.  The responses, and any supporting documents, are collated and published on the portal – tagged with a rich range of metadata so they can be easily found.  Some expert groups are less responsive than others, but the tool has proved very successful and the team receive up to 40 responses a week.  They’re developing an extensive knowledge base, and are planning to enhance its value by adding discussion forums.

Linda explained that the Q&A tool illustrated an important aspect of Knowledge Management – connecting people with content (news, documents, tools, methodologies) is important, but connecting people with the right people is key to successful knowledge sharing.

She identified another trend that showed the important role of the Gatekeeper: a move away from unmanaged collaboration areas to team/project sites which use the standards, taxonomies and guidelines her KM team have put in place through their global portal.

James Andrews The Knowledge and Information Management Officer for the British Red Cross began his speed presentation with a couple of quotes on what Knowledge Management is about: “Helping people to work better together”,  from Chris Collison. And from Dave Snowden “Helping to drive organisational improvements and better decision making based on past experiences and better understanding and appreciation of our current situation”

James told us that the British Red Cross KM strategy is focused on People Processes and Technology – they advocate the provision of technology, and of KM tools and techniques, to support activities wherever they occur in the organisation.

‘People’ encompasses social media, collaboration, loose networks, unstructured data etc (the unordered side of Cynefin framework )

‘Process’ includes records management, information management, approval flows, structured data, HR systems, Finance systems, CRM etc (the ordered side of Cynefin framework)

These elements of the KM strategy are supported by a platform of technology and techniques.  This approach emerged from the organisation’s overseas work – the experiences of their international divisions in a number of the programmes and emergency responses they’ve been involved in: reviewing the programmes and identifying improvements to be made around knowledge sharing and the coordination of their work.

They’ve developed a new programme for information management – starting with their people:  finding out how they work, the similarities and differences between different teams, what works well, what doesn’t, how things can be improved. Having gathered that information, they applied it to the processes, tools and procedures for programme development and delivery. They then identified suppliers of the technologies that would help them.  SharePoint 2010 has been chosen to deliver new standardised procedures, linking with key corporate systems such as HR and Finance, allowing global collaborative working and enabling access in high and low bandwidth areas using a specially designed interface  It’s currently being developed using the Agile approach.

Katharine Schopflin is the Head of Information Management at the House of Commons and Head of Information and Knowledge Management at the Houses of Parliament.

She told us she’d first come across the term “Knowledge Management” about 14 years ago, and was completely sceptical – KM systems seemed to be just databases, and Knowledge Management seemed simply to be what information professionals had been doing for ages.  Her scepticism wasn’t alleviated by the knowledge that the BBC had a ‘Head of Knowledge Management’, who had nothing to do with information or archives, but worked in the internal communications department.

Nowadays she’s an advocate of Knowledge Management and feels it’s important to define it: “If we can’t define it, how can we justify it – and how can we justify our role in delivering it.  We need people to understand it’s a profession, and to prove its not, as I once thought, just a gimmick but a way of making organisations work better.”

The definition is challenging, however, because at one end of the KM spectrum you can have mandated organisational processes – for every operation and project you do, you note down your method and what you’ve learned.  But on the other hand you can have unstructured staff events and discussion forums and that’s knowledge management too.  Katharine said that in theory she manages a department that does things in a structured way, but in practice they often find that it’s the less structured approaches that work better.

Katherine took up the challenge of defining KM:

“If Information Management is ensuring useful information can be found again in a logical place.  KM aims to do that with knowledge that has not been expressed or written down but is held in the heads and capabilities and skills of the workforce”.

The four speakers sparked an animated debate – groups of five or more LIKE members gathered around their tables to continue the discussion of what KM is.  Matthew Rees had the unenviable task of calling the room to order and asking for summaries from spokespeople.

A number of discussions focused on the differences in organisational cultures, and how “KM-ready” they might be. Some people felt that many organisations get stuck at the information management stage, finding it too challenging to move on to knowledge management, or actually believing that they’re doing KM with their databases.  Others considered the many barriers to knowledge management – people have other things to do, there are prejudices against KM, there can be paranoia about sharing knowledge and thereby losing influence, lack of desire or will to be bothered with KM….. but at the same time, many organisations are recognising the strategic angle of KM, and seeing that they need to do something about managing their knowledge.

There was talk about the valuable knowledge of people who’ve worked in an organisation for years, and the risk of losing that expertise – KM helps ameliorate the risk by connecting others with that person and by helping them to make their knowledge more public.

Another table asked how much it mattered if an organisation lost knowledge in that way.  For some evolving businesses, the loss may not have too much impact, but for an organisation such as the British Library, where focus is on the long-term, it probably is important to capture it.

There were debates about KM’s value in informing business decisions, and stopping the continuous ‘reinvention of the wheel’, and there was quite a lot of chat about enabling informal knowledge-exchange (I’m sure someone mentioned the effectiveness of KM down the pub!)

It was generally felt that social media was tailor-made for KM, and there was a realistic debate about the challenges of tagging content with meaningful metadata.

There was no single answer to the question “What is Knowledge Management?, but underlying the variety of opinions and interpretations was a belief in its constructive role in building businesses and informing business decisions.

I think the late Lew Platt has been so frequently quoted over the past couple of decades (“If only HP knew what it knows it would make three times more profit tomorrow”) because he was right.

I remember working with an insightful CEO who also understood what Knowledge Management could achieve. When she took over a recently merged group of companies, her brief to the knowledge management team was to “create the culture” of the business.  Using the intranet as a central collaboration platform, and a network of local knowledge managers as “match-makers”, the barriers of discipline, geography and habit were gently dismantled.  Not an easy process, but achievable because the leadership made knowledge management central to the success of the business.  Everyone was responsible for knowledge-sharing, and all managers were accountable for their teams’ contribution to the organisation’s growing knowledge assets.

That company wasn’t too different from most of the organisations I’ve worked with.  There were the inevitable “black holes” – where knowledge and useful business information went in, but nothing came out.  Often, at the centre of these black holes was just one individual, whose reasoning were variations on one of the themes identified during our LIKE discussion.  Maybe you’ll recognise them:

The “I’m too important and busy” person: often a member of the leadership team.  They never had the time – always rushing to a meeting, dashing for a train or plane, too busy to do anything they didn’t want to do.  Sometimes their lack of input was underpinned by a belief that their knowledge really was their power, and to give that up too readily would somehow emasculate them.

The “I have people to do that” person: often a manager with an impressive title such as “Head of….” or “Director of….”.  Sometimes their belief that managers delegate rather than do was accompanied by a conviction that attending courses or workshops – where they might learn how to manage a team or how to lead by example – were also activities they were exempted from.

The “They can’t mean me” person.  The motive for this notion could stem from a number of beliefs – different for each individual.  There were the old hands who’d been in the same, relatively junior, role for some time, and believed they had little knowledge of worth to contribute to the organisation.  There were those who were new to the organisation and felt they had much to learn before they could share what they already knew.  There were the “fast track” graduates who focused on their career and the benefits they could accrue from the organisation, rather than the contribution they could make to it.  And there were the poorly-managed, highly skilled, people whose confidence had been so diminished by their daily experiences they doubted anyone would be interested in what they had to share.

It’s a pity, but we don’t see too many of those people at LIKE events.

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…..

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