Defenestrating technology

Why I’m not a compugeek. While pondering some hypertext-related ponderings, I found myself thinking about how I approach computers, just because I don’t seem to be typical. You won’t catch me waxing rhapsodic about the latest chip speeds or wireless gizmos, much less the latest software. My laptop at home is a PIII/850, and it… [Caveat Lector]

Dorothea goes on to say:

Where I do seem to part company from other heavy computer users is that my most common response to the things is frankly adversarial—more than that, bullying.

Program crashes? I swear like a stevedore. Bug in something I’m writing? More swearing, coupled with grim determination to make the wretched machine do what I bloody well say it ought to. Something I’m writing runs clean? Ha! One spiteful victory dance, coming up!

I always considered that one of the defining characteristics of my relationship with all technology, especially computer technology. If I haven’t threatened one of my machines with defenestration during the day, I haven’t been working very hard.

For those of you Mac or Linux fans who think my threats are about uninstalling software, don’t be fooled. When I threaten out the window, I mean out the window, preferably an upper story one. I’ve worked with operating systems and technology back to OS/360 and it’s all been out to get me most days. I am in complete agreement with Dorothea here.

Traffic and traffic jams

One driver can vastly improve Traffic.

Traffic Waves [via Marc’s Voice, Smart Mobs, Werblog]

Science hobbyist William Beaty claims: “Sometimes one driver can vastly improve Traffic”

The basic principle is to “bring space into congested traffic” by slowing down and maintaining a large safety gap in front of you. Not only is this much safer for everyone, but it reduces the bunching up that causes the standing waves as shown in the animation above. Slowing down ahead of a traffic jam smooths the slow-then-go pattern. Further, leaving a large gap in front of you allows cars to merge into your lane. While aggressive drivers can’t stand the idea of someone “cutting in” on them, allowing merging can eliminate the traffic jams caused by lane reductions.

Especially entertaining is the FAQ, including, “Are you still alive? Haven’t the road-ragers beaten you up yet? ”

Note the subtle coupling that’s occurring in these traffic situations. Aggressive drivers contribute to traffic jams by causing the bunching up that creates standing wave jams. According to William Beaty, even individual drivers can prevent traffic jams because their slowing slowing down will affect other drivers and slow enough of them down to “bring space” to the congestion.

[Gary Boone’s Blogun]

A fascinating example of how people and systems interact in unexpected ways. If this kind of result interests you beyond its own merits you might want to look into Jay Forrester’s work on systems dynamics, starting with Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems (pdf). You might also want to take a look at Mitch Resnick’s Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds

Doc Searls stolen laptop

What’s Up, Doc?. Like many of you, I was shocked when I learned that my buddy Doc had his laptop stolen. What a crock! Well, it’s time to give back to the man who’s given so much to this community. I’ve set up a PayPal donation link. Let’s get that man a new friggin’ PowerBook! The 15″ SuperDrive model is only $2,799.00. If every regular Doc follower donates a few bucks to the fund, he’ll have a new machine in no time at all. I’m using for this particular campaign, and I swear (on my chest) that all monies will be given to him. If you’re going to pass the link around, please keep an eye on this particular blog post, as I’ll kill the PayPal item as soon as enough has been generated…. [C:\PIRILLO.EXE ~ Chris Pirillo]

These things happen, but at least we can do something useful about it.

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


Change as a team sport

“The only way to have a successful revolution in any field of human activity”.

In a recent post on Interconnected, Matt Webb quotes Kurt Vonnegut:

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise, the revolution, whether in politics or the arts of the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

I’ll let you read the rest on Matt’s site. Tom subsequently writes on how Malcolm Gladwell rediscovered pretty much the same idea.

[Seb’s Open Research]

I think the connection to Gladwell is a bit forced, although The Tipping Point is still a great piece of work and worth reading in its own right.

I would label these specialists Thinker, Citizen, and Teacher, and there’s little doubt that all are essential to successful change, even when change is short of revolution. One implication is that you’d better understand which you are and line up the missing roles if you want successful change to happen.

Sharing vs. hoarding knowledge

Several items over the past few weeks all suggesting that sharing knowledge pays off far better than hoarding does. Handy to have around if you’re fighting arguments that investing in knowledge management has to overcome hoarding.

Napsterize Your Knowledge: Give To Receive. The primary lesson: “The more that a company shares its knowledge, the more valuable it becomes.” It’s astonishing how many people still don’t believe this. But when I look back at the success my website and OLDaily have brought me – despite my lack of any obvious qualifications in the field – it is self evidently true. When you share your knowledge, you share your ability, and this is what makes you or your company more valuable. People prefer to hire or contract for services based on proven ability nearly every time. Moreoever, the more you share, the more people share in return (many of the items in OLDaily are the result of submissions from readers), which increases your personal or corporate knowledge base. Anyhow, this article discusses some of the benefits of sharing knowledge and then offers some advice on how to do it. (This and the next two items via elearningpost.) By Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, MarketingProfs, January 21, 2003 [Refer][Research][Reflect] [OLDaily]

Cluetrainish MDs.

Communities of Practice – The real thing!. Here is an excellent example of a medical team building their own Community of Practice using Radio so that they can serve their own Community better. [Robert Paterson’s Radio Weblog]

This looks like it kicks serious ass. From their “What we’re doing” document:

It seems very likely that the needed essential innovation in healthcare is sociological, more than technological innovation, more than economic innovation. We have more advanced medical technology than we can currently deliver to patients. We spend abut twice as much per person on healthcare delivery in the US as is spent in Great Britain and there is little to indicate our patients have better health or higher satisfaction as a result. The sociological innovation will be discovering how to cooperate. Some community will discover how they can cooperate among providers and with patients. That is the highly leveraged innovation. That community will change everything for the rest. The sciences of complex adaptive systems and social networks need to come together. To these we need to add the art of community conversations. [Seb’s Open Research ]

Hoarding is for the weak. Xerox has apparently proven what all knowledge workers intrinsically knew anyway; that knowledge hoarding is detrimental. Via Column Two

A recent Xerox research report has found that high-performing employees don’t tend to hoard information. According to the news summary: The idea that knowledge is power has been knocked on the head by researchers who claim that high-performing employees are more likely to be ones who proactively share information with their colleagues.

My own experience agrees 100%. I am personally more powerful in what I do when I collaborate and openly share with others. They provide essential critique, support and grounding for my thoughts. [thought?horizon]

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

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
  • Quality 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.