June 06, 2006

Attention Bloggers!

I haven’t written a blog entry in a while, but apparently a lot of people have. I heard in a presentation today that there are (as of May 30th, 2006) 28,592,813 blogs, and 43,109 new blogs in the last 24 hours. Hmmmm. One could argue that this is too many. As I pointed out in my first entry for the Babson Knowledge blog, the key issue is the imbalance of information in the blogosphere and the amount of human attention available to attend to it. It’s far easier to write a blog than to get anyone to read it. This imbalance leads me to believe that a couple of major changes need to take place in individual and organizational information environments.

One is the automated mining of textual and unstructured information. We’re finally getting a handle on how to get value from structured information. But most organizations don’t have a clue about how to mine blogs, emails, instant messages, presentations, and so forth. We don’t have time to look at all of this stuff to see if it’s interesting and relevant to us, so we will have to have systems that find the good content and serve it up or summarize it for us. It is individuals that read and take action on unstructured information, so we need to address this issue at the individual level.

Some of this mining will be automatically intuited by an intelligent system based on stuff we’ve looked at in the past, and perhaps on how we’ve rated it. But, of course, we’ve been hearing for a number of years that such “machine learning” will improve our lives. Thus far and for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have to help our computers with some personal interventions. In particular, we’re going to have to get better at specifying what information we care about.

Most of us are pretty haphazard about what information we need and want to see. We click mindlessly through the blogosphere. We read whatever free magazines publishers are willing to send us. We read whatever emails appear in our inboxes or on our Blackberry screens. One prominent GE executive admitted to me—without much sheepishness—that the only articles he reads are those that other people attach to his email messages. This is not a well-designed personal information environment!

Someday it will all be better. I’ll be able to say to a computer something like the following:

- I like and want to read/hear/view content about the Boston Red Sox, analytical competition, attempts to improve the performance of knowledge work, case studies about knowledge management, process management initiatives that employ IT, Julie Bowen (a somewhat obscure but lovely actress) and so forth.

- I don’t want to receive stuff about dining hall schedules at Babson College, regular meetings that I have never attended in the past, marketing messages from IT vendors, movies that are badly reviewed, hockey, Britney Spears, and so forth.

Of course, it’s the “and so forth” that kills us. We know some things we definitely like and don’t like, but we’re always afraid that we’re missing something important, and we’re afraid to rule out sources and topics because there just might be something valuable there. I’m hoping that technology will help us out in this regard—noting that you haven’t looked at the last 42 RSS feeds from a particular blog, so maybe you should stop pretending to be interested in it—or that you seem to be clicking on a lot of sites about real estate in Palo Alto, so should I feed you more of that? Between all of us working a little harder at figuring out what we want, and a bit of help from intelligent software, we’ll eventually get to an attention-preserving environment that still keeps us well-informed.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 12:21 AM | Permalink | TrackBacks (0)

December 26, 2005

Was Drucker Wrong?

OK, I will confess that this entire posting was originally motivated by self-interest: I checked the Amazon sales rank for my book Thinking for a Living, and found that it had fallen over the past few days from the respectable levels it occupied for the first couple of months it was out. Most authors, of course, are semi-obsessed by their Amazon rankings; I get less so with each book I write.

But the apparent fact that my tome is not going to compete with Who Moved My Cheese at the top of the best-seller lists made me wonder just how important it really is to make knowledge workers more productive and effective.

I also had a chat a few days ago with a Wall Street Journal reporter who is researching an article on knowledge worker productivity. He asked me if the subject is important. I said yes, and mouthed the old Peter Drucker chestnut that “making knowledge work productive is the greatest economic challenge of this century.” He asked, “Well, was Drucker wrong?”

Mon dieu! How could he possibly ask such a question, particularly since the great man only passed a few weeks ago?

In order to quickly deflect such a heresy, I spewed out a few more clichés, such as “Knowledge workers are the key to growth and innovation in their organizations,” and “Unless our knowledge workers are the most productive and effective on earth, their jobs will flow to the parts of the world where they do it better.”

Then he asked the killer question. “Are companies doing anything about this?” Again, I spouted the names of a few companies that have actually attempted to make life better for their knowledge workers: Intel, Capital One, Novartis, Cisco…OK, it’s a pretty short list. If improving knowledge worker productivity is so important, why aren’t more companies doing something about it?

There are some good reasons, i.e.:
1. It’s hard.
2. It takes a fair amount of up-front investment.
3. Knowledge workers, like Greta Garbo, like to be left alone.

But these seem insufficient as rationales for doing little or nothing to make knowledge workers more successful at work (other than providing them with their very own legal copy of Microsoft Office, a PC, and a telephone with voice mail). I am frankly puzzled why more of this isn’t happening. If you know the answer, you will be giving me (and the world) a great holiday present if you feel generous enough to share it.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 05:16 PM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (2)

December 21, 2005

Think You’re Thinking Outside the Box? Sorry.

There are a lot of business-language clichés I’d be happy never to hear again. I don’t care for the phrases that confuse people with computer technology (“Let’s talk about that off-line.” “I don’t have the bandwidth to take that on.”). Or the tendency to use a ponderous phrase when one straightforward word will do (saying “in the July timeframe” instead of “in July”). Or those ugly “-ize” verbs (“incentivize;” “operationalize;” “productize”).

But maybe my least favorite phrase is “think outside the box.” It bothers me partly because I’ve heard it used 11,580 times in the past 10 years. (I’m exaggerating, but I’ve heard it a lot.) Also because people who talk about “thinking outside the box” never will. If they could, they wouldn’t use a tired cliché to talk about originality. When advertisers parody a phrase (“Think outside the bun”), it’s time to move on.

What does any of this have to do with organizational knowledge? Well, a lot of knowledge sharing happens through language that not only communicates a certain quantity of information about something but that intrigues, inspires, and tells you that the speaker is thoughtful, knowledgeable, and alert. Good knowledge-sharing language generates energy and thoughtfulness. The dead language of clichés that you’ve heard a hundred times before puts people’s minds to sleep (and sometimes their bodies, too).

So what’s the take-away? Net-net, implementing cliché avoidance 24/7 is a win-win for speakers and listeners alike. If you disagree, let’s take it up off-line, when I’ve got some more bandwidth.

Posted by Don Cohen at 12:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBacks (1)

December 14, 2005

Knowledge Needed; Access Denied

I recently spent an hour or so talking about the value of personal networks as sources of knowledge with a group of sixty project managers. During the discussion, I described various uses of the technique (formerly known as “social network analysis”) that Rob Cross of the University of Virginia now calls “organizational network analysis.”

We were not in a setting where it made sense to do a network analysis (and I don’t have enough experience to do one well), but I wanted people to think about their own networks. Taking a cue from some of Rob’s categories, I asked them to jot down the names of people they went to for knowledge and information, people they went to for advice, people who added energy to their networks and people who sucked energy out of them. And I asked them to list people who were inaccessible but had knowledge they needed to do their work. It was a valuable exercise; I recommend it.

This last category generated the most discussion. About a third of the sixty project managers said, Yes, there were people who had important knowledge they were unable to get access to when they needed it. I asked them how many of those inaccessible people were their supervisors or others above them in the hierarchy.

The answer won’t surprise you: all of them.

They told stories that are probably familiar to anyone who has worked in a large organization: projects suffered from the absence of vital information on budgets or changes in direction that only unavailable bosses possessed; they needed but couldn’t get the opinion of an experienced senior manager on a critical element of the work; they needed an approval but couldn’t get on their leaders’ calendars. Emails requesting a meeting or information went unanswered.

The result: projects ground to a halt or drifted off in what eventually proved to be the wrong direction.

We’re not talking about finding time for a long meeting; in most cases, people needed only ten minutes or so of their bosses’ attention, and still couldn’t get it. One project manager said he dealt with the dilemma by coming to work early and standing outside the boss’s office to waylay him before he retreated behind the protective barrier of his secretary.

Sometimes work place design helps avoid this problem. Senior managers in open offices near people who work for them (rather than on mahogany row behind a phalanx of executive assistants) can be available for these quick, essential exchanges. A (very) few leaders set aside “office hours” for just such interactions.

But the difficulties remain. If you have stories of similar problems or good ideas for solving them, let me know.

Posted by Don Cohen at 01:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (0)

November 28, 2005

Personal Knowledge Management

Most interventions to improve performance in business are at the organizational or process level, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can also improve individual capabilities. Ultimately, knowledge worker performance comes down to the behaviors of individual knowledge workers. If we improve their individual abilities to create, acquire, process and use knowledge, we are likely to improve the performance of the processes they work on, and the organizations they work for.

Individual knowledge work improvement initiatives have two attributes. One, they are directly focused on improving performance of knowledge worker employees as individuals, not as members of a larger group. A CRM program for customer service workers doesn’t qualify, because a number of people in that function would use it, and the system is not (or at least rarely) customized to individual needs. Secondly, individually-oriented initiatives are targeted at improving some skill or capability, rather than instituting a new process. Once again, giving knowledge workers a new piece of hardware or software—say, a personal digital assistant or cell phone—wouldn’t qualify, but teaching them how to use these devices effectively would.

I became persuaded of the virtues of improving knowledge worker capabilities at the personal level when working with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon. As you may know, the SEI is famous for its “Capability Maturity Model,” an assessment tool for software engineering processes. It evaluates firms or business units on their overall approaches to software development. But Watts Humphrey, the developer of the CMM, had another key insight. He realized that it was taking too long for many organizations to move up through five stages of the CMM, and began to think about what might accelerate the process. He concluded that if organizations were to develop team and individual-level capabilities in addition to those at the organizational level, they would probably improve much faster.

SEI’s research has borne out this hypothesis. Companies employing the “personal software process” and the “team software process” have been known to move from the lowest to highest levels of software development maturity in about a year—versus an average of close to ten years for this journey using only organization-level approaches.

Just as in software development, there are generic knowledge worker skills that almost everyone employs, and could benefit from improving. What do all knowledge workers do? They read and write, of course, and our educational systems do a pretty decent job of inculcating these skills. Even that doesn’t stop some assiduous knowledge workers from taking courses in speed reading, business writing, or the like. No doubt more of this should be done.

Knowledge workers also spend a lot of time in meetings. Most organizations, of course, don’t do a very good job at helping their employees run meetings effectively. A few, like Xerox, have organization-wide programs focused on maintaining a high quality of meetings. However, there are plenty of written materials and educational options for people who want to learn more about meeting management, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

Increasingly, however, knowledge workers also process information—on paper, in telephone conversations and voice messages, and electronically. This subject is much newer than reading, writing, and meeting, and there is relatively little information available about how to do it well, or how organizations can help their knowledge workers do it well. In my recent book Thinking for a Living, I report on three research efforts to better understand this subject. Two were undertaken by a group of companies seeking to understand information work; both corporate and individual-level research projects were undertaken by this group. The report from that project can be found here.

In the same chapter I also report on more detailed interviews of individuals who claim to be very effective in the own personal information and knowledge management. I think this is a fast-rising topic, and we will be hearing much more about it in the future.

Others who have written about it online include Dave Pollard, a former CKO from Ernst & Young and David Gurteen, a long-term web guy and blogger on KM.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 07:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (2)

November 22, 2005

Reflecting on KM-World...

Last week I spoke at the KM World conference in San Jose (California, not Costa Rica). It was an interesting conference for several reasons. One, there were lots of people there—maybe 300 or more, which is pretty clear evidence that KM is alive and well. Two, it was their tenth conference, which is something of a milestone for the conference and the field. Three, it was something of a “dog’s breakfast,” as Larry Prusak would say, in terms of content. There were sessions on intranets and blogging and streaming media and communities of practice—you name it, somebody was presenting on it. I suppose one could go all negative and say that this is evidence of a lack of focus for KM, but I think it’s actually pretty positive. We have an amazingly wide variety of tools today to work with. The key, of course, is to understand what tools correspond to what knowledge problems and issues, and to understand the work that your organization’s knowledge workers perform.

I spoke about my book Thinking for a Living and the various types of interventions that one can make into knowledge work. As I spoke I became even more convinced that improving the performance of knowledge workers is what knowledge management should be about. God knows, nobody else is addressing the issue, and with that focus knowledge managers could address a range of solutions that go beyond just technology. Somebody needs to be thinking, for example, about how knowledge workspaces affect knowledge work, and lobbying on behalf of knowledge workers with the facilities and real estate people. Somebody needs to look at what the “self service” movement in organizations—having knowledge workers do all their own administrative transactions—is doing for knowledge worker productivity. Somebody needs to be thinking about how knowledge workers manage their personal information and knowledge environments. Most of the technologies at the KM World conference were oriented to making knowledge work more productive anyway. I think we should step up to that responsibility in terms of technology and anything else that might help.

Posted by Tom Davenport at 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (0)

November 12, 2005

Farewell Peter Drucker

I see by today’s New York Times that the great Peter Drucker died yesterday at 95. All knowledge practitioners are in his debt as he was the very first theorist and writer to raise the issues of knowledge worker, knowledge productivity, and the entire subject of the role of knowledge in the economy with executives. Some economists and even sociologists had raised some of these points but none had even a fraction of Drucker’s clout and influence with management.

What is also interesting, though also very sad, is how just how little has changed in corporate practice in spite of Drucker’s polemics, philippics, rants and analyses. The Times mentions how he often stressed that firms need to look beyond profitability to remain healthy, how organizations need to see workers as assets not costs, that decision making needs to devolve to the workers who actually know what’s going on, and many other notions believed fervently by me and you but still rarely if at all practiced in large and medium sized firms.

With all the sales of his many books, his crystal clear prose, his immense learning, and his accessible style, did much change in American corporate practice because of him?

Posted by Larry Prusak at 11:52 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBacks (0)