Lowering the power of context

Comment on post 3734 on 10/18/03 by Dare Obasanjo. *chuckle* It’s amusing to see my words critiqued out of context. It’s almost like being a celebrity or a famous politician being crucified over misconstrued sound bites. Almost. [chaosplayer News]

Dare chides me on taking his remarks out of context in yesterday’s post. On reflection he’s probably right in the sense that we are both making more or less the same point and are not in any disagreement.

His comment, however, triggers several other thoughts. One, that the tools here make it simple for anyone here to go look at what he said and draw their own conclusions. Two, that the particular quote I pulled by way of Scoble did trigger a reaction and let me start a train of thought that served my purposes. For that I am grateful, even if I may have been less than accurate in representing Dare’s point.

This suggests to me one of the advantages of blogging as a form over newsgroups and threaded discussion. In a threaded discussion I am more bound by context than I am here. Lowering the power of context without removing it entirely, makes blogs more conducive to working out your own ideas. I wonder what Denham would have to say about this? He’s generally been an advocate of the collaborative powers of tools such as threaded discusisons and wikis. Blogging adds another flavor to the mix. The challenge now becomes working out for yourself and your organization how to manage the mix.

A formula for blogging in organizations

I just learned about another SQL Server weblog community: SQL Team weblogs. Running on Scott Watermasysk’s .TEXT. By the way, the SQL Team website has tons of info on SQL Server.

[The Scobleizer Weblog]

I was going to point to this as a good example of the benefits you obtain when you lower the barriers to expression. And it is. But it also contains some interesting material on knowledge work from a slightly different point of view than I’ve taken before. So I’ve also subscribed to their RSS feed (SQL Team Weblog RSS feed).

One of the benefits you get when you lower the barriers to expression and lower the barriers to attention by providing RSS feeds is that the abstract notions of self-organizing networks get a set of operational tools. This is what is getting us excited about the potential for these new tools inside and across organizations.

Blogging in organizations = lowering the barriers to expression + lowering the barriers to attention. That’s a formula that warrants some thought. Moreover, it’s a formula that would likely never have occurred to me without living inside the phenomenon.

Go with the weblog flow

Andrew Grumet. Andrew Grumet: “Free your mind, and your weblog will follow.”  [Scripting News]

All the evidence I'm familiar with says peak performance depends on “flow.” So why is so much of the practice of management day to day about control? Some more from Andrew:

To really get into weblogs as a writer, try to keep moving to stay with the flow. The old advice to a budding jazz musicians applies: “If you make a mistake and hit a bad note, don't stop! Hit it again and keep going”. Too much worrying will make a burden of posting, making work of what should be fun.

The promise of weblogs in the organization is that they help us get more accustomed to flow. The threat the pose is the same thing; they work against those who are more comfortable with control than with performance.

Dolly Levi as the patron saint of the knowledge economy

Apropos of the gift economy of weblogs, here’s a great little story courtesy of David Gurteen on courtesy among scholars.

The scholar’s courtesy. A few weeks back I met with a very interesting woman called [Shane Godbolt] who works for the National Heatth Service (NHS) in the UK.

As she valued my website and newsletter – she brought me several ‘knowledge gifts’ in return as a ‘thank you’. This is just what I love about Knowledge Sharing – you get back as mcuh as you give – if not more [Smile!]

Amongst these gifts was a beautiful little story about the importance of acknowledging the sources of your ideas – regardless of whether they are in ‘print’ or not.

I received an early lesson about acknowledging others from my mentor George Spindler. The Spindlers were houseguests visiting me after I took a full-time academic appointment upon completion of doctoral studies. I eagerly shared an early draft of a chapter I had been invited to write, tentatively entitled “Concomitant Learning”.

Spindler was up early the next morning, but to my disappointment I found him looking through materials he had written (my library contained many of them) rather than reading my new draft. He had already read and enjoyed my article, he explained, but he expressed disappointment at my failure to credit him as a source of inspiration for the concept that provided my title and rationale. He had been searching for the citation I should have made. “But you’ve never written about it ,” I explained, reaffirming what I already knew and he was beginning to suspect. “I got the idea from you, but you only suggested it in a seminar. There was no publication to cite.”

Technically (and luckily ) I was correct, as his search revealed. That wasn’t the entire lesson however. “No matter where or how you encounter them,” he counseled, “always give credit for the sources of your ideas. It’s so easy to do so : so appropriate to good scholarship … and so appreciated.”

Never again have I limited my acknowledgements only to people whose ideas are in print. And I, too, have “so appreciated” that courtesy when extended to me!

Harry F. Wolcott, Writing up qualitative research, 1990, pp.72-73). Quoted in Blaise Cronin, The scholars courtesy, the role of acknowledgement in the primary communication process. Taylor Graham 1995, p122. [Gurteen Knowledge-Log]

Na ve though it may be, I continue to believe that knowledge hoarding and information hoarding are fundamentally pathological behaviors that have little chance of surviving in the face of healthy organizations. People who really know stuff are always willing and eager to share their interests and knowledge with others. Those who feel compelled to hoard their knowledge do so because of the meagerness of their holdings not because of their riches. Dolly Levi is the patron saint of the knowledge economy not Ebenezer Scrooge.

Eric Raymond on cognitive stress and knowledge work

A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have. A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress: I have been thinking about UI design lately. With some help from my friend Rob Landley, I’ve come up with a classification schema for the levels at which users are willing to invest effort to build competence. The base assumption is that for any … [Armed and Dangerous]

Somehow, I missed this when it first appeared in May from Eric Raymond. I find his RSS feed erratic at best. It shows up at a good time, however, as I’m thinking through the implications of shifting focus to knowledge workers instead of knowledge management. Raymond is focused on user interfaces, but I think his perspective can be generalized to the challenges of doing and coaching knowledge work.

From managing knowledge to coaching knowledge workers

I’m continuing to work out the implications of shifting attention from knowledge management to knowledge work. It may not sound like a big difference, but I believe it will prove to be a crucial shift in perspective.

One important view of organizational design is the long standing notion that certain parts of the organization serve as buffers between a volatile external environment and a stable and standardized set of internal processes. The goal is to isolate variation and map it into standardized inputs to standardized products and services.

In an industrial world this is a very sensible organizational design strategy. In a knowledge economy, however, the goal becomes one of providing unique responses to unique inputs. Moreover, more and more of the organization finds itself coming into contact with the external environment. You can’t buffer it and you don’t really want to buffer it.

At the same time, our language and our metaphors keep pushing us back into that industrial, standardized, mindset.

As a consultant, my role is to help clients understand their unique problems and frame a suitably customized response. Yet the industrial mindset, and perhaps human nature to some degree, encourages us to sort problems into the bins we have learned to be comfortable with. To the client, their problem is unique. To the consultant it looks a lot like the last fifteen they’ve dealt with. This is why a client turns to consultants in the first place, but there’s an important shift in attitude that separates the best consultants from the rest. It’s a shift from shoving a problem into a particular standardized box to drawing on a deeper experience base to focus on the unique aspects of the problem at hand.

As an aside, my two favorite resources for helping develop this shift if focus are Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (Second Edition) and Gerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting : A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully.

This shift in perspective is relevant to understanding why so many knowledge management efforts have failed and why focusing on managing knowledge work is likely to be more fruitful.

The fatal flaw in thinking in terms of knowledge management is in adopting the perspective of the organization as the relevant beneficiary. Discussions of knowledge management start from the premise that the organization is not realizing full value from the knowledge of its employees. While likely true, this fails to address the much more important question from a knowledge worker’s perspective of “what’s in it for me?”. It attempts to squeeze the knowledge management problem into an industrial framework eliminating that which makes the deliverables of knowledge work most valuable–their uniqueness, their variability. This industrial, standardizing, perspective provokes suspicion and both overt and covert resistance. It also starts a cycle of controls, incentives, rewards, and punishments to elicit what once were natural behaviors.

Suppose, instead, that we turn our attention from the problems of the organization to the problems of the individual knowledge worker. What happens? What problems do we set out to solve and where might this lead us?

Our goal is to make it easier for a knowledge worker to create and share unique results. Instead of specifying a standard output to be created and the standardized steps to create that output, we need to start with more modest goals. I’ve written about this before (see Is knowledge work improvable?, Sharing knowledge with yourself, and Knowledge work as craft). In general terms, I advocate attacking friction, noise, and other barriers to doing good knowledge work.

This approach also leads you to a strategy of coaching knowledge workers toward improving their ability to perform, instead of training them to a set standard of performance. In this respect, knowledge workers are more like world class athletes than either assembly line workers or artists. There are building block skills and techniques that can be developed and the external perspective of a coach can help improve both. But it’s the individual knowledge worker who deploys the skills and techniques to create a unique result.

Software development – a model for knowledge work as craft

I’ve been working out the notion of knowledge work as craft for a while now. Knowledge management approaches fail to the extent that they try to shoehorn knowledge work into an industrial framework. If I buy a thousand Thinkpads for my organization, I want and expect everyone of them to function identically. If I distribute them to a thousand consultants, their clients will expect each presentation, analysis, and report to creatively reflect the unique needs and characteristics of each client. If I’m a smart manager, I’ll focus on making it possible for that uniqueness to appear. I certainly shouldn’t expect the management practices designed to eliminate variability to be very much help when variability is what I actually want.

Last week I had a chance to catch up with Greg Lloyd, founder of Traction Software, which is an enterprise level weblogging environment. Traction is rooted in the work of Doug Engelbart and the early hypertext/hypermedia research of Andy van Dam at Brown. One of the topics we talked about was where to find helpful models for understanding knowledge work and how it differs from production work.

Software development is arguably one of the oldest “modern” knowledge work fields and holds many lessons for all of us doing knowledge work. Better still, for my purposes, software development has worked through the blind alley of trying to force knowledge work into a factory model and come out the other end as 21st century craft.

The goal here is to focus on the principles and practices that software developers have developed to guide and manage their work, not on the substance of the work itself. Think of what software craftsmen take for granted that the rest of us knowledge workers lack or have to cobble together for ourselves–version control, issue tracking, forking. These are just a few of the techniques for making the work of software development more visible and, therefore, more manageable. Other concepts that come to mind include iterative development, granularity, prototyping, and modular design.

Lots of details to work out here, but this feels like a productive line of thought. Some of the sources I’ve been monitoring and can recommend:

Extreme mobility and knowledge work effectiveness

Extreme Mobility: a rant that I had to write after reading Tim, Dave, and this all in one day. [Ray Ozzie’s Weblog]

Just getting around to reading this post of Ozzie’s from last week (one of the advantages of news aggregators). Full of lots of Ozzie’s usual excellent insights.

I believe we’re currently in a transition period for personal computing: from a tethered, desk-bound, personal productivity view, to one of highly mobile interpersonal productivity and collaboration, communications, coordination. We’re focused right now on devices and networks because we’re coming at the problem bottom-up: preoccupied by gizmos and technologies’ capabilities rather than focusing on how our lives and businesses and economies and societies will be fundamentally altered.

I’ve been living in this mobile world arguably since the early 90s. My primary computer since 1993 has been a laptop of one variety or another. I’ve lived the the scenarios Ozzie describes including the joys and aggravations of Lotus Notes when it was the only environment to deal with keeping a mobile workforce in sync.

Most organizations still operate on the notion that the corporate network is a fortress to be protected. This makes my life difficult from two perspectives. First, getting into my own network is more difficult than I would like from my selfish, time-pressed, user perspective. Second, when I am with clients, my effectiveness is compromised by the hurdles I have to negotiate to get access to material on their networks. Email becomes the lowest common denominator for coordinating work and the impacts on knowledge work effectiveness are invisible to the organization. Extra hours that I work to cope with these limits don’t show up anywhere in the reporting systems.

One aspect of this transition to extreme mobility is that I control the tools of my craft. I do have to reach an understanding with the folks in IT support so that they trust I won’t do anything stupid and will keep them in the loop. But I can experiment with new tools and practices. The challenge is to bring the useful lessons back into the organization. Ozzie sums it up well:

Regardless, one thing seems certain: with the notable exception of a small number of truly visionary CIO’s such as the one mentioned above – exceptional individuals who are willing to move their enterprises forward by taking risks – discovery and innovation in mobility and interpersonal productivity & communications – in “relationship superconductivity” – is being driven primarily from “the edge”: from small businesses, organizations and individuals who are experimenting with new communications technologies and software. Innovation now works its way into the enterprise; it no longer migrates outward. The technology leaders of the past – enterprise IT – are now focused (for very good economic reason!!) on cost reduction and efficiency, on “fast solutions”, and on a very tough regulatory environment, through strict controls. Liability, and the sheer mass and difficulty of managing broad ICT deployments encourages conservatism, and this won’t be changing anytime soon.


If the only tool you have is a hammer…

A Day In My Life, By Bill Gates. (SOURCE:Scobleizer Radio Weblog)-PREDICTION: Within 10 years, the centre of most knowledge workers (including Bill Gates) will be a blog type application. NOT email. <quote> I’d say that of my time sitting in my office, that is, time outside of meetings, which is a couple of hours, two-thirds of that is sitting in E-mail. E-mail is really my primary application, because that’s where I’m getting notifications of new things, that’s where I’m stirring up trouble by sending mail out to lots of different groups. So it’s a fundamental application. And I think that’s probably true for most knowledge workers, that the E-mail is the one they sit in the most. Inside those E-mails they get spreadsheets, they get Word documents, they get PowerPoints, so they navigate out to those things, but the center is E-mail. </quote> [Roland Tanglao’s Weblog]

Roland catches the real point of this interview with Gates. The interview provides some interesting raw data on the day-to-day work practices of our economy’s quintessential knowledge worker. Email is the tool he has for communications so it is the tool that he uses. It is worth seeing how Gates thinks through how to get leverage from the tools that he has available. We all need to exercise that kind of thought about how to use our knowledge tools — blogs and aggregators included.

Don’t define knowledge, improve knowledge work instead

KMPro with Mark Clare. Mark Clare argues that KM needs to step back and define knowledge before plunging forward with the “next wave” of knowledge management approaches or applications. [Knowledge Jolt with Jack]

I disagree.

I think that most efforts to define knowledge get hopelessly bogged down. The reason this happens is that the discussion is locked in an assumption that there needs to be a centrally managed agreement (at a minimum) about the definition.

I take a different approach. Focus instead on knowledge workers and knowledge work. Work on eliminating friction and hassles in their ability to do whatever it is they think matters. Attack the problems that are preventing knowledge workers from being as effective as they would like to be.

There’s an old story that I’ve heard described as a Russion proverb. It says that if each one of us takes care of sweeping the sidewalk in front of our own home, we won’t need streetsweepers. It’s worth thinking about how that might apply to the world of knowledge work, both on the level of being an individual knowledge worker yourself and on the level of helping make the other knowledge workers that surround you more effective.