One of the best pieces of advice that I received from one of my mentors, was to read more and read different genres. She was referring to books, but the same principles apply in the world of networked knowledge. Managed knowledge, the one that you could neatly account for, curate and stuff in a box has been making room to accommodate networked knowledge, changing the ways of traditional Knowledge Management.The hybrid and diverse thinking that comes as a result of being plugged into networked knowledge has the potential to propel us to a point of advantage. This as an idea is powerful and there are plenty of devices for networked knowledge, from LinkedIn to Quora and from Google Plus to Twitter.
Networked knowledge has a lot of potential but it should not be mistaken for a silver bullet for innovation and ideation (some of it is just noise), it is however a strong tool that can be added to the innovation suite. The dangers of being part of only specific networks is that you unwittingly apply a filter and in fact, narrow your vision and your choices. Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble warns of falling into just that trap with an internet that is constantly being personalized. To avoid falling victim to echo chambers in networked knowledge, one must be actively thinking about punching holes in their echo chambers (as David Weinberger calls them). For example, if you work for a large Fortune 500 company, occasionally attend a local startup meetup to get a feel for the way things tick in a small entrepreneurial environment where people build something from scratch. If you are surrounded by colleagues and peers of your industry and domain, listen in to a conversation from a completely different world.
Knowledge Managers in their traditional roles have gathered, processed and disseminated knowledge in neat nuggets, they are adroit at tapping into a lot of information to distill the ‘best’ - the traditional data>information>knowledge>wisdom pyramid. However, recently even David Weinberger has been challenging the classic pyramid. His book Too Big to Know is a great read for anyone trying to understand the world of networked knowledge. If we are faced with such a shift, how does it all affect the traditional Knowledge Manager. As we start using collaboration or social technologies both within and outside our companies to grow our networks and our knowledge, we assume people know how to use networked knowledge to their advantage. We assume that social collaboration is intuitive and to some degree it is, but most could benefit from an education in this area. The fluid nature of networked knowledge means that Knowledge Managers will lean on the power of storytelling. Knowledge Managers will have to be honest with their stakeholders about the upfront and ongoing investment of time and attention in networked knowledge before the advantages become apparent. This is where it gets tricky. In an environment, where people are short on time, attention and anything else, they will need to be persuaded to make such an investment. John Stepper of Deutsche Bank oftens blogs about how one can manage one’s professional enterprise and intraprise networks. He also highlights the benefits of managing one’s online reputation in these networks in order to be more visible within their organizations and outside, learn from and teach others and become recognized for their knowledge in a certain area. And even Stepper admits that in most corporations, this represents a huge cultural shift.
Collaboration technologies will mature with time - the stand-alone social or intranet specific extensions of today will be integrated into other systems of the company that are specific to critical business processes. They are not there yet. In the meantime, the added role for Knowledge Managers? To be pivotal cultural catalysts and coach people on how to tap the chaos of networked knowledge to their advantage.
Stories are just data with a soul. (Brené Brown)
Marissa Mayer (CEO, Yahoo) says Big Data is like watching the planet develop a nervous system. One of the cool Big Data projects that is going on right now has nothing to do with any specific company’s or industry’s datapoints. Instead it is a globally crowdsourced media project focusing on humanity’s new ability to collect and visualize vast amounts of data in real time. Rick Smolan’s project called the Human Face of Big Data, is a mobile app driven project. The data console feature is fun to watch and captures moments and snapshots of people’s lives and minds. A book with some of the photographs from the project will be available in a couple of days - the result of a massive curation project.
And speaking of curation, for those of us who work in a company’s Knowledge Management group, the need to explain what KM is all too familiar. Most people know what it’s not - it’s not Sales or Marketing or Finance or HR or Communications or Training or Product Development or any of the other traditional functions in a company – we see ourselves as the connectors between all those functions. I tell them KM is the systematic capture of information that is generated within an organization, and sometimes supplemented with information from external sources, so that we know more by surfacing the information that is currently tucked away in pockets of the company. I tell them that KM as an idea, is necessary in any organization that is information-intensive and people-heavy, and especially important in large professional services firms where our formal knowledge is as important as our tacit knowledge and that having all this information at our fingertips makes us more competitive and ready for the marketplace. And that’s where it starts sounding like I am talking about Big Data. But the coming of Big Data actually encourages Knowledge Management to move to the next realm.
No longer content with having structured information at our fingertips, organizational planners, strategists, investors, marketers and the sales force would like to have insight at the speed of thought – which means tapping into unstructured information as well. It demands the ability to capture information both within and outside our organizations and the capacity to see the patterns. The organizations that will be able to tap into that reservoir of rich knowledge through connected enterprise solutions, will be the first out of the gate. Ofcourse once such a connected enterprise solution is available, everyone can get it for themselves. But it will be the pattern reading and the storytelling that will make the ultimate difference. The final spoils will go to those that will have the agility to leverage the patterns they see to their advantage (my earlier post on this).
As far as the technical possibility goes, the more ambitious enterprise software vendors claim that that kind of data integration and knowledge harvesting is around the corner. They might still be underestimating the effort required to string together legacy information systems (especially in large organizations) and although conceptually spot on, it will be some time before we can see the results of such a powerful possibility.
The above photo was taken on a business training trip, travelling from Oss, Netherlands to Lille, France.
Consumerisation is the trend in technology that first emerges in the consumer market and then spreads into business organizations. A great example is the burgeoning social web which is forcing increased awareness and use of enterprise collaboration tools (Facebook clones, LinkedIn clones, blogs, wikis, apps). In her book Get Bold, Sandy Carter (VP of Social Business Evangelism at IBM) defines a social business as a business that embeds ‘social’ in all of its processes, connecting people to people, people to information, and data to insight. If the word social is swapped for ‘knowledge management’, for those of us in Knowledge Management, the above sounds identical to a one-line description of our charter in companies. There is an uncanny resemblance between KM and Enterprise Social in their approach to connectivity and collaboration. For years, many companies have sought to understand whether they need Knowledge Management as a formal organizational function and if they do, what it should look like and how they use Knowledge Management as a discipline and philosophy to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. For years, Knowledge Management has aimed to create a viable and dynamic ecosystem within organizations which brings people and information together. Now Enterprise Social seems to be carrying a similar mantle.
However it may be different this time. For the first time in the history of corporations, they face the prospect of hiring in a generation that is much more informed about certain aspects of business technology than the managers they will report into. Historically, the technology experience at work (or even college) was markedly superior to what one could enjoy at home – but now that position is reversed. But it isn’t just the technology, add to that the tenacity of a younger generation to cultivate social and knowledge networks in a way that seemingly doesn’t justify the investment of time and energy (atleast to a different generation which is used to getting credentials or an equivalent in return for time spent ‘learning’ or ‘engaging’). It isn’t all altruistic either, but does represent a very different mindset and reward system. Recognizing this sea change, the first reaction (a few years ago) by most companies was to categorize (and label) the incoming generation as Digital Natives. The second reaction was the attempt to understand what can be done to make the most of this reality. Companies set up youth focus user groups and (following that) set up reverse mentoring relationships between the tech savvy fresh recruits and senior leadership, in an effort to bridge the gap between the next generation of employees and the current one (acutely aware of the uniqueness of this knowledge gap). Wise moves.
By encouraging collaboration, strengthening employee engagement, tapping into collective intelligence and unleashing creativity that transcends the formality of organizational silos social collaboration within the enterprise provides the power and opportunity to change the very fabric of organizations. Going back to my original point of what can be adapted from the consumer market. As a business, understanding and cultivating our customer base always comes first, but Enterprise Social enables us to do the same for our own employees - a fruitful endeavor in the long run. Employee engagement alone is a worthy goal. Actively disengaged employees erode an organization’s bottom line while breaking the spirits of colleagues in the process. Within the U.S. workforce, Gallup estimates this cost to be more than $300 billion in lost productivity alone.
As long as we are talking about ‘connecting’ with people and forging a sustainable connection then in addition to social technology, I see age-old notions of tribes and naturally sustainable ecosystems being surfaced as contemporary principles of successful business. From critical thinkers like Seth Godin who advises on creating and leading tribes, earning the permission to communicate and shipping to futurist Gerd Leonhard who shows us how the journey from Egosystem to Ecosystem is changing business models (his DO lecture). It seems very plausible that the organizations that will survive 50 years from now will be those that embed some (if not all) of these principles into their corporate code. These principles if properly taken up can be used to great effect to fundamentally change the culture within an organization in a way that makes it more adaptive, positive and transparent (the Digital Natives already know this bit).
In enterprises, content harvesting translates into an effort of collecting (usually manually) nuggets of information so they can be packaged into repositories of information that can be easily accessed, refreshed and used over and over again. By that token, content harvesting has become the end game of any knowledge management effort. The usefulness of such repositories is in direct proportion to the contribution into them and the number of times the same information can be extracted and repurposed. The information is used for internal planning and business development. In the same vein, Big Data and Data Analytics are the next threshold that commercial enterprises need to cross successfully, in order to mine valuable insights from the zetabytes of data they collect both through their enterprise systems as well as through social media. As the information created expands exponentially and companies find themselves battle emerging demand trends, volatile markets and non-sticky customers, they find the need for real-time decision making is more real than ever. The likes of IBM and SAP are trying to gain a first mover advantage in this space.
On a smaller scale, a startup Nektoon (producer of note taking app, Memonic), has recently launched a beta of its research app, called Squirro. For anyone who conducts research for professional purposes, this will be of interest. The app that runs on many mobile device platforms is able to curate content from several sources - social, internet, news sites, blogs and even enterprise systems (CRM) but claims that it is more than just another feed. Squirro will offer integration with Salesforce.com, SAP and other enterprise applications because it is aiming for a one stop content harvesting solution. Its target for now - the most obvious organizational group in need of up-to-date market intelligence for decision making – the Sales and Marketing function (others like New Product Development might be next). Squirro’s taglines - a ‘noise cancelling headset’ and a ‘personal research assistant’.
Others like Mendeley and Zotero, also ‘personal research assistants’ resemble Squirro in their content curation and social sharing features (albeit targeted to scholarly researchers). What gets my attention with Squirro though is its promise to integrate with the (somewhat elusive) content that can be extracted from the business systems in most enterprises. The holy grail of all content curation would be the combination of both internal and external content in a way that makes it easier to see the trends and make well-informed decisions faster.
Within large organizations, employees usually have the facility of digital enterprise tools to collaborate on projects (connect with content) and collaborate with each other (generate ideas and engage each other around a virtual water cooler that transcends borders and organizational boundaries). The former is usually around a structured collection of information and the latter around unstructured and spontaneous conversation and networking. Most of the time, both the structured and the unstructured are brought together through a dashboard on the enterprise intranet – this digital space started off a a little over a decade ago as a digital bulletin board of standard corporate information (news, policies, employee benefits, corporate discounts, latest white papers, etc) but in its next incarnation is aspiring to get to a higher level by weaving in other useful elements – elements that go beyond information ware and into operational aspects of business processes and social aspects of collaborating across the enterprise. The enterprise intranet has the ability to be the seamless interface for the trifecta of an informational, operational and social hub (the order of the trifecta is obviously directed by the owner of the enterprise intranet, that can range from the Communications group to the Knowledge Management group to the IT group to the individual business units).
Most enterprise intranets today serve as add-ons to an already existing suite of middle office desktop communication tools like email and instant messaging and may not always be embedded in the path of business processes (well-tuned business-intelligent organizations have their transactional business applications tied together, but that is also rarer than one would think). The Intranet managers, wherever they fit in organizationally, will increasingly face the growing appetites of enterprise employees who are enjoying apps available on the consumer web market and unfettered connectivity offered through their own mobile devices (whether they are stuck in traffic jams or waiting at airports and hotel lobbies). These enterprise employees already expect (if not demand) similar experiences within the enterprise. However, the order of magnitude for the enterprise intranet to move from an information-only publishing platform to a multi-dimensional hub where the trifecta (above) meet is very high. Some companies like Lowe’s are doing this already and doing it well (was recently impressed by two members of the Lowe’s Integrated Workforce Experience group who spoke of their work in this area at two different venues - the Intranet Benchmarking Forum Live Meeting in New York, June 13-14 and at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston, June 19).
The Enterprise technology masters will need to figure out how to match (if not out-do) the IT consumer market on the web which is catching up fast. This will need to be driven by a strong and clear vision of the future operational model and choice of IT architecture along with an unwavering commitment to infrastructure, resources and funding. The danger of not doing this is that employees will increasingly start using and even relying on their ‘external’ apps and mobility for convenience, which could come at the risk of exposing company information. What would be the top 3 things that are needed (without negotiation) for an enterprise to get and stay ahead in this game?
More and more people are transcending the role of consumers to becoming creators and curators of information (check out Steven Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation for a convincing argument). JP Rangaswami used an interesting analogy in his light-hearted TED talk @SXSWi (earlier this year), metaphorically comparing the cultivation, preparation and consumption of information to that of food to make a point. Rangaswami, who is Chief Scientist at Salesforce.com (and former global CIO of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein) writes an entertaining and insightful blog, Confused of Calcutta (something I only stumbled on recently).
As knowledge workers, we manage our day to day professional knowledge either as creators or curators or consumers (or a little bit of each) and traditionally the Knowledge Management function in enterprises has revolved around managing and improving a finite loop of processes and building-maintaining knowledgebases through structured warehouses of data. That corporate function will predictably go through an overhaul in the coming years largely given the blurring of lines between knowledge ecosystems that exist within enterprises and outside of them. Already, what is available to many knowledge workers outside the enterprise in the form of search engines, hyperconnectivity and indexed databases dictates the kinds of knowledge systems and user experiences they expect inside the enterprise as well - social capabilities, integrated platforms, mobile access, easy filters and the mechanisms to fluidly explore new and inter-connected ideas that encourage open and easy collaboration (these needs become even more pronounced in large, complex and geographically spread organizations).
Dr. Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto explains how in a complex world where many experts come together to manage different aspects of a project, having a checklist is essential to managing (if not eliminating) the damage that can be inflicted by elementary errors. A checklist, not to be misunderstood for a menial to-do list is highly recommended in the examples in his book which cover critical professions where the stakes are high and expertise runs deep; think skyscraper architecture, flight engineering and medical disaster response. Even when it is not a matter of life and death, one or a few wrong facts somewhere along the line can have a serious cascading consequence, as is the case with the current story about the unverified academic credentials of the Yahoo CEO (information that was posted on his bio page of the last company he worked at and in Yahoo’s public filings). The findings have already led to an independent investigation and much media attention.
Researchers that work in the fast paced world of news and sports reporting are usually the unsung heroes of the industry. These researchers have an intellectual curiosity which is only matched with their tenacity for looking for information and an uncanny ability to hold on to lots of facts in their heads and draw the connections between them. The fact-checkers in these industries dig through several sources to ensure (three times over) that their reporters and commentators have stories and opinions that can be corroborated with actual facts.
Researchers work in other industries as well and serve an important role in ensuring that companies have actionable intelligence so that the decision making process is a fact-based one. They work under the pressure associated with compiling the facts accurately and well to ensure that their clients are never embarrassed, or worse, misled due to wrong information. There is more to the Yahoo story given the motives by certain parties to gain proxy seats on the company’s board (which started this series of events) and it is highly likely that the CEO will lose his job over this flap, given all the speculation. Regardless, this story will become an all-time case-study for researchers on the importance of verifying their facts.
In Chess, there is a specific ending called a Smothered Checkmate where the King is forced into a corner, unfortunately surrounded by his own pieces - the checkmate is delivered by the knight. For this move, the opponent will make ‘material sacrifice’ (deliberately lose some of its pieces, to gain overall advantage with the end goal in mind). This move reminds me of how some companies employ similar techniques to gain ground and how others might end up losing the battle when they are only focused on building up their core business and fail to see far enough to recognize competition or threats in emerging trends and positive/negative patterns. The latter is either due to a lack of knowledge or a lack of foresight to gather that knowledge. Clay Christensen presents this idea as his Innovator’s Dilemma. Just as with the Smothered Checkmate, a myopic vision can cripple the organization’s ability to be open to change in order to brace for a looming threat. Strategy has often been compared to the game of Chess - if done well, leaders are looking at not just the next (obvious) move, but many moves down. This is a learnt skill and one that can be sharpened over time.
The onslaught of Big Data has only highlighted the need to be able to see these patterns ahead of time. To help with this, most large organizations have a Strategy or Innovation department and as long as they can see the patterns on the board and stay agile enough to take advantage, they will survive with a tenable and long-term business model. Seeing the patterns is the first step, the organization still has to be culturally attuned to respond in time.
Thanks to Moore’s Law, we will need to tap into the prowess of supercomputational skills to surface patterns from Big Data due to the sheer volume of data that is now generated. We will also need elegant data visualization techniques and sophisticated training to ‘present’ findings in a coherent and palatable way (an earlier short post on this topic). In an increasingly complex and connected world with ever changing business models, Data Scientists who have the ability to track patterns from Big Data will evolve into critical aides for business strategists, who will need to tune the corporate strategy and execute to survive in the long run. Companies like IBM and Microsoft have been getting into the game both through acquisitions and through investing into their own research labs that will enhance data-driven social sciences for some years now, they and others will only amplify their focus in this area.
Back to the chess analogy, it is a rules and logic based game and Deep Blue was a great example of how computational power can be applied to analyze millions of combinations (left-brain dominated). In 1997 chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov settled for a draw in his battle against Deep Blue. A grandmaster like Kasparov (very much like a seasoned strategist) can calculate between one and three moves per second when he looks at the board. Deep Blue, on the other hand, could analyze 2-3 million moves a second. Unfortunately in this historic man vs. machine battle, the loss of confidence (a human emotion that that would neither be emulated nor be responded to by a machine) that Kasparov felt after a single particular bad move in the six-game series ultimately became his Achilles heel.
The above photo is of my sons playing a lazy afternoon game of chess aboard a cruise ship.
When companies unleash their best minds on research with an investment in funding and time, they are doing it with an eye on the future return on their investment. Pharmaceutical companies compute the return on their pipelines years in advance, knowing that only a few of their patents will actually reap the profits they desire. This patented or locked knowledge promises revenue streams down the road. Universities, arguably the biggest centers of research have their own intellectual property transfer departments that help them capitalize their patented knowledge by sharing it with commercial enterprises. Traditionally when companies buy patents, it is with the intent to build their own products and services based on this locked knowledge.
Recently Microsoft made a strategic move to purchase AOL’s patents in the hopes of fortifying its own reserves of locked knowledge. Microsoft then turned around to sell a lot of those patents to an online ally, Facebook, within less than two weeks of purchasing them. Microsoft obviously has struck the alliance with Facebook to stand up to Google’s online dominance. Lacking the advantage of older companies like AOL or IBM, that have built their troves of intellectual property over the years, Facebook is instead ‘buying’ this locked knowledge to protect itself from possible litigation moving forward (already entangled with Yahoo over patent infringement). At the face of it, most of this patent portfolio exchange seems like ways for tech companies to defend themselves against infringement claims and also attack competitors (where possible).
The result of years of funded research and brainpower is locked up in these patents. It will be interesting to watch if companies will only hold on to them as insurance or will unlock the knowledge they hold to come up with their next big innovation.
The above photo was taken on a family trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra, this is a door of one of the neighboring forts.
Google takes away any excuse for being ignorant. It may not teach you everything about everything, but holds the power to connect you to atleast something about anything. With ubiquitous information spilling out of search engines, everybody has an amazing opportunity to know and learn about anything – countless web sites have sprung up to selflessly educate you on any topic. What we are observing is an amazing phenomenon of a society that is voluntarily giving up millions of man hours to create and curate information (sometimes for the glory, sometimes not even for that). The looming question is how are we to get on top of all this knowledge that is now so easily accessible.
Professor Eddie Obeng at the Henley Business School and founder of Pentacle, teaches his students how to survive and thrive in complex and fast changing environments. He summarizes his concept as “We have moved as a world, from an age when we could learn faster than our local environments change to one where the local environment of individuals, organisations and governments changes faster than we can learn.”
As our learning curves get shorter, should we aspire to know something of everything or be specialized in only one or two areas or instead build a strong network of collaborators around us, so we may always know where to turn to for what we need to know.
Google has always distinguished itself by thinking of the next threshold before anybody else does. As a search engine company, it has taken seriously the criticism levied on it regarding the lack of depth and context in its SEARCH results (even though it is arguably a powerful algorithm).
In traditional research databases, Search started as a keyword index-based task. However it has taken on a very different form on the internet, largely because of the ability to link content to one another. Google developed sophisticated algorithms to extract meaning from words and word sequences based on statistical heuristics. However that kind of SEARCH still missed attributes attached to a find. Professional researchers know intuitively that they should incorporate attributes attached to a keyword when they search – a lot of this is based on their research experience and the contextual knowledge they have over a subject matter. Even those who are not professional researchers may have some of that guiding sense based on their life experiences, and even they would likely dabble with related words and attributes. Clive Thompson in a recent Wired article highlighted the point by exaggerating why kids can’t search (effectively).
Two years ago Google purchased Freebase, a community-built knowledge base with 12 million canonical entities. It is now aiming to build a huge knowledge graph of interconnected entities and their attributes recognizing the challenge of a knowledge base that is increasing exponentially every day. This will be a project worthy of tracking (the original company that created Freebase was Metaweb).
In his new book, Too Big to Know, David Weinberger goes into some depth to acknowledge how linking curates the internet and in fact makes the accumulation of content on the internet more usable. This linking strengthens the content by attaching attributes to it.
An upcoming search engine, Duck Duck Go has quietly entered the market and positions itself with some key differences to other search engines (but largely compared to Google) – the biggest being a zero-click response function at the top of its result page in addition to the list of links it finds. In a style that resembles Factiva (a leading business research database), it lists out Search keyword suggestions on one side (reminiscent of index keywords). Duck Duck Go is gaining popularity with data privacy advocates who have expressed concerns over the recent changes to Google’s data privacy policies. It does not gather or share personal data (so no autofill). But at its essence, it is also trying to distinguish itself as a search engine that is able to surface the attributes (photos or graphical illustrations in some cases) of a search query faster (sometimes before you even stop typing) also recognizing why that would be increasingly important in time.