Blogs as an ugly term

There seems to be a consensus that ‘weblog’ and ‘blog’ are ugly terms. Many worry that this ugliness adds an element of additional challenge to realizing the value of weblogs within organizations. Recently there’s been some effort to coin more appealing terms.

One of the central features of knowledge based organizations is that individual knowledge workers are the people in the best position to evaluate and design their work. This is a radical departure from industrial-logic organizations where the coordinated design and definition of tasks and jobs is the norm.

Part of the generally disappointing results from centralized efforts at knowledge management follow from this disconnect between organizational logics. Shoshanna Zuboff and her husband James Maxmin have recently published a new book that may shed light on this. It’s titled The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism. I say may because I am only about a third of the way through it. What Zuboff and Maxmin argue is that the logic of managerial capitalism has run its course and needs to be replaced. Managerial capitalism represents the organizational and economic logic and norms that worked to create mass markets to match up with the production capacity of mass production.It essentially drove much of the economic growth of the 20th century.

From a variety of perspectives, the logic of the emerging knowledge economy is more distributed and decentralized. The work itself requires local perspective and initiative.

What I find interesting is the emerging alignment between several distinct threads. One is this decentralized logic of knowledge based organizaions. The second is the strength of intellectual capital arguments such as the end-to end argument, Dan Isenberg’s notion of stupid networks, and Doc Searls and Dave Weinberger’s most recent piece on the a world of ends. Finally, in this context, we have the application of weblogs inside organizations as a tool to promote knowledge sharing. Here, this alignment of weblogs with these parallel trends suggests that weblogs are a technology well matched to the problem.

Given the match between weblogs and this broader trend toward decentralized and distributed solutions, the lameness of ‘blog’ as a term might actually be one of its primary strengths. It reflects that weblogs are tools coming into organizations from the grassroots, not something imposed from a central source. That may be more important than usual for organizational innovations when we’re talking about an innovation that is in sync with the demands of knowledge economy organizations.

Investing in knowledge sharing – starting on the weblog learning curve

Very helpful discussions lately on weblogs in knowledge management contexts. Matt Mowers starts by taking me to task with the observation that:

I don’t think that weblogs do anything and I’m increasingly of the opinion that the benefits that we are seeing at the moment are simply those of tapping into a particular type of personality, i.e. the enthusiastic early adopters who will do something with anything you throw at them.

So far I’m not seeing the kind of evidence that weblogging (in whatever form you name it) offers a particularly unique solution to the KM problem generally. Those solutions are going to have to come from us, in how we apply what is, after all, just another technology. Otherwise I predict in 12-18 months time, articles about “how weblogging has failed us.”

In my opinion, we do have an opportunity to use the current wave of popularity for weblogging to get people to experiment with this new medium, try to change some working assumptions and the practices that go with them and move things on a little. [Curiouser and curiouser]

Stephen Downes, whose initial post started this round of discussion, continues by observing that:

I’ve been weblogging for the last five years. I’ve long since solved the input problem, the one Jim McGee talks about. But using this information is still a pain, despite a fair bit of thought and work around the problem of information retrieval from weblogs (what do you think my [Research] button is? Most weblog software hasn’t even addressed the problem, much less solved it). [OL Daily]

So Downes has already discovered what I’ve only started to suspect after a little over 18 months of weblogging. We’re still in the early, early stages of understanding how to help knowledge workers be more effective at doing knowledge work.

This is the essential perspective that I believe has been largely missing before the advent of the current round of tools, despite their limitations.

I’ve had a continuing conflicted opinion about the role of technology in making knowledge work more effective. I’m not as anti-technology as my friend and former colleague and co-author, Larry Prusak. There are times when he can sound like a total luddite and he’s certainly a proponent of the social dimensions of knowledge management.

Many of the challenges of knowledge management are either created or aggravated by the information and technology that comprise so much of our organizational context. As technologies like email let us operate organizations of much greater scale and scope, they also create a demand for knowledge sharing across timezones and oceans that we haven’t had to address before. And, as I’ve argued before, these technologies have also complicated our information and knowledge lives by making our work less visible. To the extent that technology has helped create our knowledge management problems, it also needs to be enlisted in solving those problems.

Weblogs by themselves don’t do anything more than any other tool. Someone has to pick up the tool and put it to use. What is it about this particular category of tool that has persuaded someone like Stephen Downes to maintain and evolve a weblog over the past five years? All innovations have early adopters. Successful innovations build on the lessons learned from those early adopters and evolve the innovation in ways to make it more suited to the needs of those who follow on the adoption curve.

I heard a story the other day about a computer science class that assumed that mainframe computer systems were developed by scaling up from the “first” computers, which were the PCs developed in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m old enough to know that it worked the other way and to remember the rhetoric around PCs as the “great equalizer” that was going to shift power from faceless corporate data centers into the hands of the individual. Apple’s marketing is still built around that myth.

Organizations took that general purpose, universal tool and shaped it toward their own specific needs. It’s my contention that those needs were rooted in industrial models of organization and information processing and largely ignored those aspects that make knowledge work different.

Weblogs are one technology component of an important shift in perspective from the organization to the individual knowledge worker. For production work and for much routine information work this shift is irrelevant. It is the increasing percentage of of knowledge work relative to the total work of the organization that is changing the discussion.

Paolo Valdemarin has an excellent post today on the potential contribution of weblogs to building social capital inside (and across) organizations.

…Besides using “social capital” to measure countries’ economic power, I believe that the same concept can be applied to any community. Applied to the weblogs community, this concept help explain the huge power that has been unleashed by blogging.

Reading other people’s weblogs creates trust and efficiency, and it’s an excellent base to build businesses and relationships.

This is interesting also for k-logging (or “business journalling”): if a country with a better community is richer, then also a company with a better developed trust and efficiency amoung its workers is going to be better off than others.

So, no, we are not wasting time writing on our weblogs, we’re investing. [Paolo’s Weblog]

Right now, a relative handful of early adopters are playing with and experimenting with this new tool of weblogs. It’s a tool whose strengths are well matched to a changing shift in emphasis toward a greater role for knowledge workers in organizations.

There are always new tools and innovations promising to solve problems. I’ve been disapppointed by many and helped by a few. My intuitions and my experience tell me that weblogs fall in this second category. Those early adopters and leaders such as Stephen are already figuring out how to solve the next round of problems. But those are good problems to have. They are the problems that surface after you’ve decided to take personal responsibility for managing your own knowledge and learning. That may be an unnatural act for many inside organizations who would prefer that the world not change. I’m convinced it is changing and that most of us will have to start learning what Stephen has. It’s not something that you can wait until everything is already figured out. You’ll be better off the sooner you can get started.

Sharing knowledge with yourself

Stephen Downes responds to my recent post on weblogs and passion with the following observation:

Weblog tools are just another input device. Great. With a lousy search and user interface. Weblogs get data into the system, but that’s never been the problem with knowledge management: no, the problem is in using the data in any meaningful way. Will weblogs help with this? Not until something thinks seriously about the other end of the equation, thinks of the harried user rather than the inspired blog writer. [OLDaily]

While I agree that the current generation of weblog tools have some serious limits in terms of search and user interface, I disagree with his contention about where the problems lie in knowledge management systems. In the organizations where I’ve struggled to make knowledge management work, one of the fatal flaws has been the notion that knowledge management is somebody else’s problem. The silver bullet is out there in someone else’s head and “if only that lazy SOB had recorded the knowledge in the first place, then I’d be sitting fat and happy.”

I’ve concluded that one of the root problems with knowledge management is that I’m that lazy SOB. Until I start to do a better job of managing my own knowledge, why should I expect anyone else in the organization to do so? Weblogs are the first tool I’ve found that start me on the process of making my own knowledge more useful to me.

Here’s where the explicit vs. tacit distinction made so often in knowledge management discussions is misleading. Sure, the knowledge that has become so central to my work that I don’t have to think about it is a source of great power, is difficult to capture, and more difficult yet to share. But a huge amount of the knowledge important to me remains explicit and never ends up making the cut to tacit. That doesn’t mean I can’t make it a more useful resource to me.

Here’s a little test you can run on your own PC. Search for all the document files, spreadsheets, or powerpoint presentations stored on your machine. How many have a filename something along the lines of “final draft xx.doc” where xx is some number between 1 and 10? Can you tell what’s inside that file without opening it? If there was a diagram you used in a presentation last year that you wanted to use tomorrow, how many presentations would you have to open and scan before you found it?

The problem with getting more leverage out of knowledge work isn’t somewhere out there in the organization. It’s looking back at me in the mirror every morning. Worse than that, it’s that lazy slob I was looking at in the mirror six months ago who was too busy then to put a halfway decent name on a file or save that really great diagram as its own file.

What does this have to do with weblogs? Weblogs put the emphasis where I believe it belongs; on the individual knowledge worker. It encourages them to begin thinking about their own knowledge work more explicitly and systematically. It helps them realize that they are the problem and the solution. You have to learn how to share knowledge with yourself over time before you can begin to share it effectively with others.

Weblogs and passion

I had an opportunity to listen to Mena and Ben Trott talk about Moveable Type last night courtesy of AKMA at Seabury Western. They sparked a good discussion around the role of weblogs in creating and sustaining community (two good live blogged accounts from AKMA and Gabe Bridger by way of Mike Marusin).

At least some of the power and energy behind the weblog phenomenon has to come from passion of the creators of weblog tools. All of the products supporting weblogs are labors of love; all grew out of individual efforts to scratch personal itches–Blogger, Moveable Type, Radio.

This is why weblogs will become important to knowledge management and knowledge sharing in organizations and why the big software players haven’t been a significant factor yet.

Organizations have recognized that knowledge is an essential part of the value that they create. Knowledge management efforts on the other hand have largely been a disappointment because they have tried to force knowledge into a product metaphor; trying to force what is fundamentally a product of craft into an industrial model of reusable parts (see knowledge work as craft work).

Discussions about knowledge management in organizations always raise the issue of sharing with the argument that people will be reluctant to share out of fear that their efforts will be appropriated by others. This is rooted in a industrial product metaphor of knowledge. See knowledge work as craft, however, and the sharing issue dissolves. Craft workers exist to share the fruits of their creating. A true knowledge craft product embodies something of the soul and personality of its creator. You share it with others not so they can copy it but so that they can find inspiration in using it in their own craft.

Weblogs hold so much promise in the organizational realm precisely because they amplify this connection between craft and creator. Your record is there to be seen and to be shared.

This is also why weblogs are so confusing in the organizational realm. You have to move beyond the notion of reusable and reproducible product as the putative goal.

I had a conversation with Alan Kay a while back about Smalltalk and object-oriented programming that I now finally think I understand (conversations with Alan can be that way for those of us who are mere mortals). He was disappointed that the early commercialization efforts around Smalltalk and OO emphasized the idea of reuse. His goal had always been (and still is, take a look at Squeak and SqueakLand) to make it possible for developers to express what they were trying to do faster and more effectively. He was trying to make computers a medium for expressing certain kinds of thinking.

Weblogs accomplish something similar for knowledge workers. They lower the barriers to sharing ideas far enough that it becomes possible for nearly all of us to do so. Bring that inside organizations and you have a powerful tool for being effective as opposed to merely productive. Scary to the established order? Sure. But if value does truly depend on how well and how fast organizations can create and share new knowledge, then the winners will emerge from those who commit to making it work.

Truth and story

Truth & Story. This posting on truth and story made my day. I read it on Serious Play this morning shared it this… [UNBOUND SPIRAL]

An interesting story about story. I’ve been a proponent of storytelling in knowledge management settings and have always envied effective storytellers. This provides some good food for thought.

Making room for good knowledge

It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so

Will Rogers

There have been a number of items coming through my news aggregator lately that set me to thinking about this old Will Rogers remark (while I’ve seen it attributed to Satchel Paige, Rogers comes back most frequently as the author per Google). For example, apropos of rational responses to the possible threats of chemical and biological attack, there is this.

Bio/chemo/nuke protection without duct-tape. This fascinating one-pager from a former Drill-Sergeant is a reality-check in respect of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, explaining what they do, what they don’t do, and how you can really protect yourself. Without duct-tape.

Bottom line on chemical weapons (it’s the same if they use industrial chemical spills); they are intended to make you panic, to terrorize you, to heard you like sheep to the wolves. If there is an attack, leave the area and go upwind, or to the sides of the wind stream. They have to get the stuff to you, and on you. You’re more likely to be hurt by a drunk driver on any given day than be hurt by one of these attacks. Your odds get better if you leave the area. Soap, water, time, and fresh air really deal this stuff a knock-out-punch. Don’t let fear of an isolated attack rule your life. The odds are really on your side…

Finally there’s biological warfare. There’s not much to cover here. Basic personal hygiene and sanitation will take you further than a million doctors. Wash your hands often, don’t share drinks, food, sloppy kisses, etc., …. with strangers. Keep your garbage can with a tight lid on it, don’t have standing water (like old buckets, ditches, or kiddie pools) laying around to allow mosquitoes breeding room. This stuff is carried by vectors, that is bugs, rodents, and contaminated material. If biological warfare is so easy as the TV makes it sound, why has Saddam Hussein spent twenty years, millions, and millions of dollars trying to get it right? If you’re clean of person and home you eat well and are active you’re gonna live.

Link Discuss (via Interesting People)[Boing Boing]

    There are, of course, multiple rear guard actions that attempt to appeal to reason. Two of my favorites are and insultingly stupid movie physics which both rail against the bad knowledge promulgated by Hollywood and the media in the pursuit of entertainment. Now, many will argue that it’s just storytelling, what’s the harm in a bit of dramatic license. If there were more evidence that viewers actually understood how little relationship there was between the real world and what we are told about the real world, I’d be less concerned. But as I listen to executives in those industries make proposals about how information technology should change to support their views of how digital restrictions ought to work, I fear that they, at least, are confusing their fictionalized view of the world with the real thing.

    In the broader world we live in, the descent into unreason is much more frightening. At the mundane level, anyone who travels is confronted with security procedures that bear no relationship to risk or effectiveness. Responses such as “Are you scared stupid?” from Wired News help as does the willingness of folks like Penn Jillette to twit the system. Last week’s duct tape nonsense makes good fodder for comedians, but it hides more troubling problems about the willingness to defer to authority just because.

    I want to believe that reason will triumph. Part of my attraction to blogs is the opportunity to watch people trying to think through problems. The willingness of folks as diverse as Dave Weinberger, Dave Winer, Doc Searls, AKMA, Ed Felten, David Reed, and others to think in public and on the record is immensely encouraging.

    There are many days when I fear that Carlo Cipolla got it right when he wrote “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.” Fundamentally, I’m too optimistic to accept that. Instead, We need to revisit and update our view of what constitutes an appropriate liberal education for the 21st century. Whatever conclusions your own careful reasoning brings you to, I choose to hope that this Wendell Berry sentiment will prevail.

    The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

    Bubbling blogs and emergent order

    Fleming adds some very useful counterpoint to the evolving debate on blogs and power laws started by Clay Shirky. He picks up on Ross Mayfield’s post on Distribution of Choice that I picked up on yesterday, but takes it in a more interesting direction. He focuses on what can emerge from each of us thinking, writing, and then interacting with one another. The patterns that Shirky sees at the macro level are the end result of all of our activities at the micro level. Some of Fleming’s key observations:

    Blogging allows us to work more openly and refer to each other’s work, while also sharing it with a bigger audience. …

    Connections form. …float up and into the cloud of the web. Specifically they will end up in an assortment of directories and search engines, most notably in Google.

    …the choices of many relatively ordinary folks become more visible than ever before. And they form emergent patterns that become very visible.

    …The point is not at all whether I have unfairly more or less readers than some other weblog. The emerging democracy in blogs is in that we together leverage our choices in a way that normally isn’t possible unless you run a big corporation or you’re run by one. We’re a swarm of thought bubbles. [Ming the Mechanic]

    What we have in blogging are tools and a process that let us participate in the kinds of messy, distributed, emergent process that will characterize work and life for us tomorrow. It’s the concrete instantiation of what Howard Rheingold is talking about in Smart Mobs and Steven Johnson described in Emergence.

    If you only have a nail, every tool looks like a hammer

    Like many bloggers I’ve been following the recent debate around Clay Shirky’s Power laws and blogs article with interest. At the same time, Lilia and Denham Gray have been carrying on a blog-conversation about blogs vs. threaded discussions and wikis.

    Ross Mayfield adds some excellent observations about the multiple possible purposes for blogs from something resembling journalism to tools to support collaboration among tightly integrated teams.

    Blogging software such as “Radio” or “Traction” has that wonderful characteristic of the best kinds of tools that can be warped and twisted to fit so many different needs. Think of Excel being used as a word processor or database manager, for example.

    Couple that flexibility with lowering the barriers to entry so that you expand the universe of potential users by an order of magnitude or so and you get the blogging phenomenon. You don’t have to be any sort of technology expert to pick up a blogging tool and get started. Want to talk about your cats? Feel free. Want to become an instapundit? The name is taken, but there’s room for more if you have something worth saying. Want to improve knowledge sharing among a project team? That’s fine too.

    The tools don’t put much shape on how you interpret them. That means you interpret and explain them from the perspective of your work. If the problem you have looks like a nail, than this must be a hammer I’ve just picked up. It’s the fundamental beauty of general purpose software running on general purpose computers. The limit is your imagination. No wonder the establishment is worried.

    IBM research papers on knowledge management

    Some excellent resources found by Lilia in her research.

    IBM research papers on communities, learning and more.

    Trying to find a paper on-line gives you a lot of other interesting things. So, I came accross public papers of IBM Watson Research Center. These are some I’d like to check out:

    • 02-07 Understanding the Individual, Community and Organizational Benefits of Work-Based Communities
    • 02-01 Understanding the Benefits and Costs of Communities of Practice
    • 01-06 The Dynamics of Social Interaction in a Geography-based Online Community
    • 01-03 Social Construction of Knowledge and Authority in Business Communities and Organizations
    • 00-07 Coming to the Crossroads of Knowledge, Learning, and Technology: Integrating Knowledge Management and Workplace Learning
    • 00-06 New Workplace Learning Technologies: Activities and Exemplars
    • 00-05 Designing Learning: Cognitive Science Principles for the Innovative Organization