If the world is flat, seek out the bumpy bits

January 9, 2007

Cory Banks on the actKM forum brought my attention to this interview. In it, Tom Stewart references Friedman’s best seller The World is Flat and argues that, in such a world, the only way to make money is in the ridges and valleys. He sees this as one of the big ideas: how do you find the anomalies, the bumpy bits where you can do things differently. He also asserts that managing your ”smarts” (intellectual capital) is key, but knowledge management went down the wrong route with a focus on codification; a position I have supported all be it with a different twist.

At the same time as I listened to Tom on my head phones early this morning, my RSS feed produced two interesting quotes. The first was from Accenture courtesy of Jack Vinson :

Information is becoming a burden on knowledge workers and will remain so until companies consolidate and streamline the stores and sources of intelligence,” said Greg Todd, an Accenture Information Management Services (AIMS) senior executive. “Doing so will enable them to give back part of the working day to staff, helped by better governance, delivery, integration and the archiving and retention of information.

The sales intent of this survey and its analysis, and the throw back to a failed concept of KM is evident even under the camouflage of an objective survey! Contrast that with the intelligent observation of my second quote from Euan Semple:

…. there is little point starting with a claim that you want one type of system – one that helps people work together and get stuff done – when the requirements suggest you want a very different type of system – one that manages and monitors what people do.

Now I am reasonably confident that anyone who knows anything about knowledge management or for that matter anyone who has lived through the failed experiments of the last decade, will reject the AIMS alalysis and conclusion. However, much as I agree with t Euan, I think we need to understand that a lot of people actually think the management and monitoring is the way to create a system that will get people working together. I know this is a depressing thought, but I think the AIMS managers quoted are genuine in believing that their survey shows both a causal linkage and a solution. Evil is often done for the best of all possible intent! It’s an example of the sort of blindness to the obvious that characterises an old model of the world, seeking to accommodate new realities. They just don’t understand bottom up systems, or the anarchic and messy connections that are achieved through social computing.

Now this comes back to the issue of what information we need to act, or to make decisions. The classic approach is to use phrases like :the right information in the right place at the right time which contains the flawed assumption that one can know what is the right information or the right time other than with the benefits of hindsight. Information management in a knowledge informed environment comes down to three critical principles:

  1. You can’t scan all the available information, so its critical to know where to look, and how to pay attention. However this is inherently unknowable in advance and designing the sort of system envisaged by AIMS, while it may be generally useful, will not provide a solution, let alone be cost effective.
  2. We have to live with the position that we will always have too much, and at the same time, not enough information. In other words we are looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack, while paradoxically wondering if we have enough hay.
  3. We naturally filter out anomalies when we look at data. If it doesn’t fit the patterns of our expectation it will be ignored. The comfort of current orthodoxy is a safer and more natural space for organisational discussion makers. Pioneers in organisations generally die from arrows in their backs, not their chests.

Of course it’s easy to say that, but its more difficult to come up with an alternative. Realistically a modern organisation cannot just leaves things to be, they will manage them. In the case of anti-terrorism you cannot leave the problem of weak signal detection to the ad hoc collaboration of analysts as that has demonstrably failed. However shifting to the controlled and structured AIMS approach is equally deadly. So let me move on with a quote of my own:

From an organisational point of view there is no difference between a terrorist, a customer, a citizen or an employee. They all represent instances of the problem of asymmetry in which a large, structured organisation is trying to understand mass, unknowable actions and motivations that are outside the control, but not the influence of the organisation itself.

One of the things we are finding as we move into the interesting final months of our anti-terrorist software build is that solutions developed in that field have applications in understanding markets, employees and citizens with little or no alteration.

I’ve included here a screen shot from one of the approaches that is just coming out of prototyping (one of a series of developments that are being managed by Cynthia Kurtz)and will be in the software by the end of March. It will then be available to accredited practitioners . It was not, I hasten to add, inspired by Friedman, but rather by observation of the way that military decision makers work. In a military environment you have to deal with large volumes of data, in which the detection of an anomaly is literally a matter of life and death. One of the techniques used is the representation of complex data sets through symbols on acetates or overlays that allow you to see the battle space as a whole, but (with the aid of technology) drill down into specific aspects. One of the basic metaphors here is that of a landscape. Ironically given Tom’s comments, we chose to represent an asymmetric decision space as a landscape. The flat spaces are those of stability, where cause and effect relationships can be trusted. The peaks and troughs, the bumpy bits are where the opportunity (and the threat) is to be found. The screen shot is a representation of what can be thousands of narratives gathered from multiple sources self tagged by their originators (there is no taxonomy).

Key here is that we do not attempt to interpret the data, but to sense patterns in the metadata. Only then can we risk looking at the data itself, to do so earlier would be to risk pattern entrainment. By looking at landscape shifts over time we can sense subtle patterns that would escape a traditional analytical approach. Now we are not the only people using visualisation, although we have unique aspects in the combination of visualisation, semi-structured tagging and open source methods. My point here, illustrated by our own work, is to say that we have to think very differently about information management before we can even engage in managing knowledge. We are not going to be able to proceed by the tired and failed practices of centralised systems based on how we think people should behave. The simple recipes of too many a management text book, or a survey designed to sell consultancy services, will just not do any more.

In the interview Tom gives a diplomatic answer to a question about the efficacy of airport bookstall best sellers on management theory. To paraphrase he says these are situations where business never stands still so you cannot say that A caused B or that A will always cause B. Just when you think you have it right, people or competitors shift, something happens so you will never get it right.

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