Going hands on to get your arms around Enterprise 2.0

I was not able to attend last month’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. I wanted to pick up on something Andrew McAfee had to say during his keynote there, however. Here’s his set up:

I found myself in an uncomfortable position at the end of my short keynote speech during the Enterprise 2.0 conference yesterday. I got through my prepared material and still had about five minutes left in the alloted time. So I had to ad lib.

The idea that occurred to me (from no identifiable source) was to make Enterprise 2.0 personal. I compared where my thinking was a year ago to where it was today, and tried to convey how big a shift had taken place.

[Speaking From the Heart, and off the Top of My Head ]

He goes on to share some of his observations about blogs, social networks, and how organizations are taking up the mix of technologies that fall under the Enterprise 2.0 rubric. For example:

I used to believe that blogs were primarily vehicles for blaring opinions, and that bloggers generally proved Kierkegaard’s great quote that “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” I now get a large percentage of my daily food for thought from blogs, and write one myself. It’s proved to be an unparalled vehicle for getting ideas out into the world, getting useful feedback on them, and meeting people who are interested in the same things I am.

[Speaking From the Heart, and off the Top of My Head ]

What struck me was the particular importance of hands on knowledge in appreciating the importance of these technologies. The organizational value of these technologies is in how they change the possibilities for productivity and effectiveness of the managerial and executive core. You need to work with them in a substantive way to appreciate what they can do for you. That makes them different from so many other applications of technology in the organization. McAfee has made that investment and has become an effective spokesperson for them. How do we get others in similar positions to invest in the necessary learning?

More insights from Hans Rosling at TED 2007

Someday I will find a way to attend a TED conference. In the meantime, I hugely appreciate that they are making videos of the conference available to mere mortals. Hans Rosling returns for an encore to his 2006 performance (which I blogged about last year about this time) to offer new insights to be gleaned from statistics about health, education, and economic development. You can find Rosling’s presentation video here.

There are a lot of good lessons here including how powerful good data, good software tools,  and good storytelling combined can be.

Knowledge management: the newest battle between the neats and the scruffies

“There are two groups of people, those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t.” –Robert Benchley

Years ago, when I was doing work in the field of AI, I came across one of those binary splits that continues to be useful for my thinking; the split between “neats” and “scruffies.” In the field of AI, the split differentiated between those favoring highly structured, logically precise approaches and those preferred something more along the lines of “whatever works.” Wikipedia offers a nice summary of the debate from that field.

Back in my school days, I think I was a neat (philosophically, not in terms of my room or study skills). When I first delve into new areas I am drawn to those who argue the neat case. As I get older and, I hope, more experienced, however, I find myself increasingly scruffy.

Much of the recent debate in the narrow field of knowledge management can be interpreted as one more recapitulation of the neats vs. scruffies argument. The technologies of blogs, wikis, and social media that collectively comprise the emerging notion of Enterprise 2.0 celebrate scruffiness as the essence of success in knowledge-intensive enterprises. The claim, backed by appropriately messy and sketchy anecdotal evidence, is that a loose set of simple technologies made available to the knowledge workers of an organization can provide an environment in which the organization and its knowledge workers can make more effective use of their collective and individual knowledge capital. Grass roots efforts will yield value where large-scale, centralized, knowledge management initiatives have failed.

Several implications flow from adopting a scruffy point of view. For one, “management” becomes a suspect term. If you can manage at all, you must do so at another level of abstraction. You aren’t managing knowledge; instead you are trying to manage the conditions under which knowledge work takes place and within which valuable knowledge might be created or put to use. At that point, it becomes more productive to think in terms of leadership rather than management; particularly if you subscribe to Colin Powell’s characterization of a leader as someone you’ll follow to discover where they’re going.

Second, you will need to deal with the problems that the neats have created in previous runs at knowledge management without alienating them at the same time. In most large organizations, knowledge management has been characterized as a technology problem or as a analog to financial management; placing it squarely within the purview of the organization’s neatest neats. This is a recipe for disappointment, if not outright failure.

It might possibly be an open question whether knowledge management can be eventually reduced to something as structured as accounting or library science. But it is a lousy place to start. Most organizations aren’t yet mature or sophisticated enough about knowledge work issues and questions to be obsessing about taxonomies or measurement and reward systems for knowledge work. But those are activities that are neat and specifiable and only superficially relevant. They lead to complex efforts to get to the right answer when we would be better served by simpler efforts to make things better.