Outliners NOT considered harmful

Guardian. Guardian: “Outliners force us into a way of thinking that is actively inimical to creativity.” [Scripting News]

Yet another boring screed about the evils of Powerpoint launched off the fact the Colin Powell used it to organize his briefing to the UN.

First, I have yet to meet anyone who has ever used one of the stupid Autocontent Wizards provided with Powerpoint. Second, if there is one positive feature to Powerpoint it is the outliner.

The issue is not a problem with Powerpoint. It is a problem with too few people who know how to use an outline as a thinking tool. Which has absolutely nothing to do with how most of us learned about outlines back in the fourth grade. For any argument or story longer than a paragraph there needs to be some structure of ideas, assertions, evidence, inferences, and conclusions. That structure is rarely a simple linear flow (ever listen to a toddler tell you about their day?). Finding that structure is an iterative effort of arranging and rearranging materials until the story works. Outlines are a tool for doing just that. One of the best innovations in PC software was making outlines something whose structure you could manipulate.

One of my favorite tools from the early days of the PC was Thinktank. It, along with its descendants, let you focus on manipulating the structure of your thinking instead of the form. The flaw of WYSIWYG tools like Word and Powerpoint is that they bury the important tools like the outliner underneath the fa ade of pretty fonts, justified text, and multi-column layouts.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened if word processors had focused more on helping the hard part of writing (thinking and organizing ideas) and less on the last 5% (making things look nice for management)? Remember that the early generation word processors were designed to improve the productivity in typing departments not the work of writers. To what extent does that bias remain embedded in the foundations of the products?

Is knowledge work improvable?

Dehumanizing Knowledge Management. Kim Sbarcea, CKO at Ernst & Young Australia (formerly a knowledge manager at Australian law firms Phillips Fox and Allens Arthur Robinson) dislikes the term knowledge management. It reminds her of “Taylorism”—the scientific management of factory work. Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), was a mechanical engineer known for his innovations in industrial engineering. He applied his engineering innovations in a such a way as to de-humanize factory workers to the point of turning them into robots.

Sbarcea likens knowledge management to Taylorism: “KM techniques carry the marks of modernity in that we are trying to ‘manage’ knowledge using command and control language and methodologies. We speak of ‘capturing’ knowledge; we obsess about measuring its effectiveness and watch for the bottom line impact of KM initiatives.” Sbarcea prefers a more “organic” approach to managing knowledge. In fact, she prefers to calls knowledge managers “knowledge enablers.” [excited utterances]

I’m no fan of the term knowledge management (see this post for example) but I think it is a mistake to confound the issue of what to call knowledge management with objections to Taylorism.

Funny about the synchronicity of this coming into my aggregator as I was adding my notes about Peter Drucker’s thoughts on knowledge worker productivity. I’ve been working out some ideas on knowledge work and how to go about improving it. Taylor’s fundamental insights about work are pertinent, as is clarity about what organizational values matter.

Frederick Taylor and work as an improvable process

Praised or vilified, Frederick Taylor is widely acknowledged as one of the seminal thinkers of the industrial age. One of his central contributions was establishing the notion that work was systematically improvable. In the craft world that preceded him, masters set a standard to which apprentices aspired. Moreover, this standard was of the quality of the finished product. Process was essentially invisible; certainly not something worthy of attention.

The knowledge economy brings us back to a world of craft. While Taylor’s methods may not be relevant, his perspective is. His methods are irrelevant because the outputs of knowledge work are one offs. Analyses, decisions, designs, all derive their value from being tailored to the moment and the situation. If it can be reduced to standard operating procedure, it is information work not knowledge work.

This defines knowledge work and knowledge management as a residual problem. Knowledge work is the work that remains after you’ve solved all the easier problems. If you assume that managers are at least intendedly rational (thank you Herb Simon), then they generally tackle problems in the order of least effort/most return. That suggests that as you solve problems, your reward is harder problems left to solve.

There was a time when inventory management was a management responsibility of some import. Over time, operations researchers have structured and defined inventory management problems so that what were managerial decisions become the outputs of accurate information filtered through algorithms. The new managerial problem becomes one of ensuring that the relevant data is accurate and timely.

As a residual problem, the components of what constitutes knowledge work will be a moving target. There are two strategies for dealing with knowledge work in organizations. One is to target the tail of the distribution where problems are on the border between knowledge and information problems. Continue the strategy of turning inventory management into a structured information management process. Leave the remaining problems in the realm of management art.

The second strategy is to attack the center of the distribution. Return to Taylor’s fundamental insight that work is improvable and apply it to the new craft of knowledge work.

Is knowledge work improvable?

Stipulate that improving knowledge work is desirable. That still leaves the question of whether it is feasible. Taylor’s work focused on observing and improving repetitive manual processes. Later efforts extended the success to repetitive information processes. Two underlying strategies underpin much of that success. One strategy is Adam Smith’s basic notion of specialization of steps in processes. The other is a strategy of identifying and eliminating non-value added work steps from the overall process.

How, if at all, do these strategies apply to knowledge work? Does it make sense to think of process improvement at all in the context of knowledge work? Will the strategies of specialization and elimination continue to be the most relevant and productive ones to apply? Or have we reached the limits of return on these approaches and it’s become time to consider alternate strategies?

This is the question that Doug Engelbart identified in the 1960s with his distinction between automation and augmentation. Automation is a substitution strategy. Replace intelligent people in systems with process. It has yielded remarkable results. Augmentation is a partnership strategy. How do you allocate tasks in a system that has both intelligent people and powerful process/technology? In this approach it is worthwhile to think about a general purpose knowledge work process that is relatively simple and very robust.

Knowledge Work as a Process

Basic knowledge work process

This is a process that is fundamentally iterative. The loops in this process are feedback loops, not opportunities for streamlining. You don’t improve this process by rearranging the steps or breaking them down into specialized tasks to be distributed. Nor are there opportunities to eliminate non-valued added steps. Improving the value of knowledge work calls for different strategies. Two that are worth exploring are to improve the infrastructure at the periphery and to eliminate friction. I’ll come back to that tomorrow or Monday.

Knowledge work and productivity

I’m rereading one of those classic Peter Drucker articles that make everything seem so straightforward and obvious. This one is from the Winter 1999 issue of the California Management Review and is titled “Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge.” (CMR, V.41, #2, Winter 1999, pp79-94) If it is typical Drucker, the rest of the world will start catching up with him in another couple of years. For those of us in the midst of knowledge work related topics, better to start paying attention now.

His essential thesis is that focusing on the productivity of knowledge work will drive economic success in the 21st century in exactly the same fashion that manual work productivity drove 20th century economies.

Some selected observations from Drucker.

  • “Whenever we have looked at any job – no matter how many thousands of years it has been performed – we have found that the traditional tools are wrong for the task.”
  • “What Taylor saw when he actually looked at work violated everything poets and philosophers had said about work from Hesiod and Virgil to Karl Marx. They all celebrated “skill.” Taylor showed that in manual work there is no such thing. There are only simple, repetitive motions. What makes them more productive is knowledge, that is, the way the simple, unskilled motions are put together, organized, and executed. In fact, Taylor wa the first person to apply knowledge to work”
  • “Making knowledge workers more productive requires change in basic attitude, while making the manual workers more productive only required telling the worker how to do the job. Furthermore, making knowledge workers more productive requires changes in attitude not only on the part of the individual knowledge worker, but on the part of the whole organization.”

Drucker identifies six factors that determine knowledge-worker productivity that I paraphrase as follows:

  • Definition of the task
  • Required autonomy of knowledge workers
  • Continuing innovation
  • Continuous learning and continuous teaching
  • Qualilty of outputs as signature requirement. Quantity is irrelevant until a quality standard exists
  • Knowledge worker as asset not cost

Lots of good material to chew on here. I’ll be revisiting this and pushing on it in the next few weeks.

Cruciverbalists congregate

For Gloria.

The 2003 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament is coming March 14-16. You can either participate in person by going to Stamford, Connecticut for the weekend, or play at home on your own time. If you’re a confirmed or aspiring cruciverbalist, you should check this out — the puzzles are great and the competition is light-hearted. (Will Shortz (right), director of the tournament and editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, was recently interviewed on 60 Minutes.)” [MetaFilter]

[The Shifted Librarian]

We usually make it through Thursday’s puzzle in the Times and manage to finish most Sunday puzzles. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to finish the puzzle on Saturdays.

b-blogs = k-logs

b-Blogs: The Next Level of Collaboration.

Clickz; Meet the B-Blog

Kathleen Goodwin discusses the implications of weblogs as business tools. From a marketing perspective she points out the business benefits such as customer dialog forums, positioning those within your company as niche industry experts, and providing open communication with business partners. The beauty of the weblog is that it is extremely cheap compared to any toher form of collaboration. But, does it have enough features to do the job?


Useful overview, although Goodwin’s b-blog seems little different from the k-log (knowledge log) concept developed by John Robb over a year ago. Not sure what we gain by introducing yet another ugly neologism. Here’s Goodwin’s key definition:

B-blogs can offer organizations a platform where information, data, and opinion can be shared and traded among employees, customers, partners, and prospects in a way previously impossible: a two-way, open exchange. Companies can (and should) encourage self-publishing from all corners of the organization. Employees who want to post information should no longer have to go through the corporate site’s marketing gatekeepers to post. Suddenly, the best thinkers in a company will have a digital voice they can manage and control themselves.

Sounds like a k-log to me. Of course, that’s the usual challenge in a new and rapidly developing area. Everybody’s trying to figure out what’s going on and trying to get their vocabulary to stick.

Research universities and the culture of ideas

MIT Technology Review Creating a Culture of Ideas. “Not so many years ago, Bell Labs conducted so much research it could easily house some very high-risk programs, including the so-called blue-sky thinking that led to information theory and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. But the world benefited, and sometimes AT&T did too. Now, Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self, subdivided several times through AT&T’s 1984 divestiture and subsequent split into Lucent, NCR, and the parent firm. Moreover, it is not alone [snowdeal.org | conflux]

First of a series of posts over at snowdeal focused on the corporate side of the R&D Equation. In this first piece, Nicholas Negroponte discusses the changing role of corporate R&D labs, the reasons why America is so innovative, and why research universities are likely to take on a more critical role in seeding technology development:

More than ever before, in the new new economy, research and innovation will need to be housed in those places where there are parallel agendas and multiple means of support. Universities, suitably reinvented to be interdisciplinary, can fit this profile because their other product line, besides research, is people. When research and learning are combined, far greater risks can be taken and the generation of ideas can be less efficient. Right now, only a handful of U.S. universities constitute such research universities. More will have to become so. Universities worldwide will have to follow.

Worth wandering over to snowdeal and following up the other links in this series.

Rational and organizational minds

Matt Blaze: “Although a few people have confused my reporting of the vulnerability (in master-keyed locks) with causing the vulnerability itself, I can take comfort in a story that Richard Feynman famously told about his days on the Manhattan project. Some simple vulnerabilities (and user interface problems) made it easy to open most of the safes in use at Los Alamos. He eventually demonstrated the problem to the Army officials in charge. Horrified, they promised to do something about it. The response? A memo ordering the staff to keep Feynman away from their safes.” [Hack the Planet]

It’s anecdotes like these that fuel my continuing interest in knowledge and organizations. I’m especially attracted to run-ins between the rational engineering mind and the bureaucratic mind. I blogged about this lock-story earlier, but this offers some more insight.

I started my professional life firmly in the rational engineer camp. I actually went back to school for my Ph.D. in order to understand why those !@# users weren’t using the brilliant systems I was building. That led me into long study of organizational behavior and design. I could never bring myself to treat organizations as totally political systems. For my own sanity, I have to work from the assumption that most people in most organizations are at least trying to do the right, and rational, thing. Figuring out what that might be is sometimes more tricky than others, but it generally gets you somewhere.

Confessions of an RSS bigot

Shifted Librarian. Shifted Librarian: “The Corante crew just doesn’t want to give up the RSS feeds, so I don’t read a single Corante blog.” [Scripting News]’

Yes, I’m an RSS bigot as well. And yes, I know that I could create my own feed using something like RSS Distiller as John Robb points out. But as my own support staff, I scarcely have time to stay current with the material that already comes into my news aggregator. the time to figure out how to parse a site’s html and generate a reasonable feed generally isn’t worth it.

I’m sure that the material in the Corante blogs is excellent. That’s not the issue; so is all the other material that comes to me via RSS. It’s about managing my poor, limited, attention which needs all the help it can get. For my selfish purposes, the more material that flows into my news aggregator the better. And better still if I can get full posts instead of teasers. I’ve yet to find a blog post that read better in context than it did in my plain aggregator. More often than not, it’s the other way round. In my aggregator I don’t have to fight with tiny gray type on dark backgrounds or some other nonsense that gets in the way of the ideas.

Am I missing something I might otherwise enjoy and benefit from? Possibly. Am I losing any sleep over it? No.

Writing posts from Radio’s outliner

A Minor bug in my outline post renderer from yesterday was revealed in my previous post. Nothing major, but the renderer was not properly closing off the unordered list. I fixed it and placed the revised script in my gems folder for download. I am sure nobody noticed because I had very few page hits yesterday.

I really, really like writing my posts using Radio’s outliner. It has got me wondering how far I can push this thing. Can I use my table renderer to conveniently drop a table in a post? Could I use rules to drive the layout with the Pike renderer? Is anybody else interested in using Radio‘s outliner to author their posts?

[On The Mark]

Mark Woods has started playing with using “Radio”‘s outliner to post to his weblog and has nicely shared the script for how to do so. As a long time fan of outliners, this is great news for me. I know enough about UserTalk to take advantage of other’s good work. Maybe this will motivate me to see if I can remember what I used to know about scripting and programming.

Certainly makes writing longer pieces a lot easier to contemplate than squeezing into a textbox.

Clear thinking on intellectual property

More wise words from David Reed.

The Intellectual Property Meme [SATN]

It won’t be long before it is accepted that everything you learn from
experience on the job is the “property” of your employer, just as they
claim ownership of your notebooks, and every creative thought you have, the
contents of every phone call you make (from your office), and every
keystroke you type on your computer. When they can download your brain,
and wipe it clean, you’ll be required to when you change jobs.

You can help stop this. Don’t ever use the words “intellectual
property”. You can say patents, copyrights, trademarks – those are more
well-defined terms, and if Congress doesn’t pull another Boner (er, Bono),
they are limited and narrowly targeted at a balanced social purpose. The
authors of the Constitution were wary of royal monopolies like patents and
copyrights, but they compromised because there was a reasonable social good
served by *limited* monopolies on things that would pass into the public