Monday, 30 June 2008

Where Microsoft (and the software industry) is going (and why they won't like it when they get there) PART 3

Why is computer software so unintuitive? How many times will we be asked by our computer if something is OK when it is not at all OK? Why do I have to search for the memory stick I just put into the USB port. Why does my wireless connection tell me its busy trying to connect to somewhere useless when I am trying to tell it to go to the right place to connect?

Why does my pictures folder suddenly disappear? Why are their folders at all? Why is the model for a computer screen the desktop? How long have desktops been around? People got along for 100,000 years before there were desktops. Why is that the right idea? There were always people who wanted to talk to you, and things you needed to remember to do, and threats to be dealt with, and goals to be accomplished. Why isn’t that basic human agenda the paradigm for computers and not the desktop and the sharing of folders and files? The caveman didn’t have folders or files, but he sure had issues to deal with that are fundamentally the same ones that we deal with today.

Starting with the assumption that humans have basically the same mental apparatus today that they had thousands of years ago, let’s think about how the caveman might have designed a computer screen, since it is fairly obvious that today’s software designers are out of touch with how people actually think and operate on a daily basis.

Cave men didn’t use folders and they wouldn’t have known how to label them if they had lots of them. We can’t ever find where we put a file we need because files and labels didn’t exist for cave men. They do exist for software designers however. Why?

Programmers misunderstand the world in a profound way. They copy the metaphor of a desktop as if that metaphor was a basic human concept. Since desktops, paper, folders and such haven’t been around that long, the question is: what indexing scheme did cave men use? How could the caveman’s indexing scheme be harnessed to make our lives on a computer easier?

Does the mind have folders? It seems obvious that it does not. The mind must have some way of storing information that makes it easy to find. And, it is obvious that whatever means the mind has, was the same means that the mind of the cave man employed. Or, to put this another way, programmers would make easier to use software if they understood how the cave man’s mind stored information.

Do we have to dig up some petrified cave man brains to figure this out? Of course not, our own brains are the same. But examining our brains will not help. We are interested in the nature of information, as our ancestors saw it, not in the structure of meat.

Cave Men did not Point and Click

Neither did they drag and drop. This seems a silly point, but it isn’t. When a person approaches a sentient entity they expect that entity to have some goals of its own, and some knowledge of who they are and what the interaction is likely to be.

Computers are seen by their users as sentient, but somewhere along the way the user comes to the conclusion that stupid would be a better choice of adjectives. But, why are computers stupid? Simply put, there are three reasons.

1. Folders

Cave men don’t use folders. Computers do. People try to use folders but this means they need a filing system. Cave men had filing systems. Without them they would never find prior experiences to help them process current experiences and we know they would have had to be able to do just that in order to survive for tens of thousands of years. Those filing systems were not alphabetical, sorted by date, or sorted by size. How they worked and continue to work in modern man is a very important question.

2. The Lack of Expectation

Cave men had expectations about what would happen next. When these expectations failed, they tried to modify them so they would be smarter next time. One thing cave men expected was that those they interacted with also had expectations. They expected that others knew what they might want and it made interactions easier and faster.

Computers seem to have no idea who is using them. They don’t know that I am writing this, why I might be doing so, and what I might want to do next. Tomorrow, when I start again, the best the computer will be able to tell me was what I did most recently. This may have been reading e-mail or checking what was on TV at night, so this may not be very useful to me. Why doesn’t the computer know more about me? A cave man expects that it does.

3. The Missing Goal and Plan Structure

Of course it isn’t just me. People have clear goals and plans to achieve those goals, and they are, for the most part, well known types of plans and goals. Shouldn’t a computer have enough domain knowledge of the domains its owner works in to be helpful in knowing what to do next? Shouldn’t it know more about the user’s domain than the user does in most cases? Cave men knew about the available plans and goals in their world. Computers that cave men can easily use would know what there user was trying to accomplish, how he accomplished it the last time he tried and would suggest doing it that way again unless the user had a better idea.

In the era of the cave man, it is safe to assume, your average person didn’t know all that many people. So, conversation was personal. People didn’t seek help or advice from people they didn’t know. This matters because when people seek advice they usually imagine that the information they receive has somehow been tailored for them and their particular situation.

Socrates remarked that he was against books because they would say the same thing to everyone regardless who was reading them and without the possibility of interruption. He knew that the mind of the cave man needs information that is given with him in mind.

When you ask a stranger for directions, do they know how fast you walk, or how good your sight is, or what landmarks you know, or how hungry you are? All these factors would help someone give good advice. Instead we get generic advice. In the world of cave men there probably was not all that much generic advice, so we expect to get advice suitable for us, but it usually isn’t.

This is why travel agencies, and in particular, travel web sites, are so difficult to use. What do these agents know about you besides how much money you want to spend and where you say you want to go. You may not even know where you want to go. Perhaps you heard about a place on television or in a magazine that looked interesting. But, of course, that information was absorbed as if it were meant for you, because cave men think that way, despite the fact that the author doesn’t know you at all.

A Caveman Example

Andrew has a family sailing boat. His family has been using it since the kids were young. His son Paul want to use the boat now that he is 22 and an up and coming geopolitical analyst working at his first job at a major consulting firm. But Andrew does not see his son as a yacht owner since he doesn’t have the funds to maintain this hobby. He prefers to see him rent a yacht. So he lets his son use it if he can rent it and sustain the expenses. Paul has his first guests on board. He cooks a nice meal for the guests that evening and when he is finished he feels like he just finished running “desert storm”.

He ponders the problem and realizes that part of the problem was opening hatches and getting stuff out of storage including the second can of tomato paste, a water bottle and cooking wine out of the bilges via 2 different hatches. One choice is to plan everything and bring it to the kitchen ahead, in which case he is stepping over mustard jars while cooking and he has to ignore the guests in case he loses concentration and messes up dinner.

The second choice is a bigger boat.

The third choice is to get his sister to bring the stuff from the bilges, and possibly help in the cooking. For this he will have to replace the hired hand. This choice seems better since his sister has been sailing in the boat since she was 3 years old, she can assist in mooring, sailing, cooking etc, and she can fit in the crew quarters with Paul.

Now let’s transfer this plan to the world of software. To work in an intense space-restricted environment, Paul can try to plan every move and practice this for years to get it right, knowing exactly where everything is and having thought of all contingencies.

Or he can have an expert assistant.

If the choice isn’t obvious, add to this that Paul’s charter guests are the most important people in his life and they are very chatty. Does Paul want to be the perfectly organized yacht captain (which would require years of practice? Does he want to ignore the opportunities to take advantage of social/career opportunities while using the boat? Does he want to be thinking of cooking and boating contingencies all day? Wouldn’t it be better to hire his sister as an assistant who is also a yachting expert in this particular boat and cares about him accomplishing his goals?

Now imagine that the sister was actually a good piece of software. Software does not take up space or take vacations. A service oriented expert service would costs no more than trying to configure and learn how to use a software product that knew nothing about your boat, but was intended to do everything for everybody.

Or, to put this another way, cave men knew how to use expert assistants to help them in the hunt or in war. They knew better than to try to configure a general purpose newcomer to the tribe to go into battle.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Where Microsoft (and the software industry) is going (and why they won't like it when they get there) PART 2

Not so long ago I was hired to speak to, and consult with, a company whose name I will not mention but whose name is well known. They are a rather recent player in the software industry but one that has done very well by the standards of Wall Street. Its founder has become quite wealthy from the one size fits all strategy. So, when I criticize this strategy for software, be assured that I am well aware that many folks have become rich because of it.

Naturally Microsoft is one of this company’s main competitors. This alone tells you quite a bit about what this company sells. If Microsoft does it, then it is generic. In other words, this company sells a software platform that helps you manage a process that all companies have to manage. I am putting it this way because, that is my point. The big players in the software industry always sell software that any company could use in principle. This is the route to mega-bucks. It is also the route to lousy software.

This is the dichotomy: one size fits all versus serious work to get the software to know your world. It is easy to see who is winning and why. It is also easy to see that this state of affairs cannot continue.


Why this methodology has won is clear. It has been promoted by every player in the software business and by the financial backers of those companies. Google is also a one size fits all business. (You don’t notice them building special search engines for shipping now do you? Shipping search engines might return, for example, for searches on engine room, something other than the Engine Room Bar in Houston as its first choice.)

Why this methodology will lose is also clear. There comes a point where one size fits all software hits the wall. Let me explain.

Let’s suppose you were selling software for sales. What you put in it? My instinct and, the instinct of most people from the part of the software industry that I come from, would first ask the question: what do sales people need help in doing? In fact, I did build programs to help sales people do their jobs better on a number of occasions. Any reader of this would not be familiar with them. Why not? Because they came from the know your world philosophy of software development.

One of those programs helped people who sold ads for the Yellow Pages sell better. What did that software need to do? It needed to tell a salesperson who was about to call on a doctor how to talk to him and what previous experiences the company had had with respect to Yellow Page ads and doctors. And then it had to do the same with florists, and real estate companies, all of whom behave differently from one another. Real work went into that project.

Another program we built helped salesmen from a very big hardware company sell a consulting service they were having trouble selling by showing examples (and interviews) of people who were successful. The success stories were told just in time as a salesperson needed to hear them to counter objections they were hearing, all in a simulation.

To put this another way, these programs knew about sales.

But that is not the way to make mega-bucks in software. There is a small market for knowledge of how to sell Yellow Page ads. There is a much bigger market for managing sales and essentially replacing the secretary to the salesperson to keep appointments, record events, and help the sales manager track it all. So that is where the investment has been and that is where Microsoft and others compete.

But this state of affairs cannot continue.

Why not?

Because companies that sell platforms have reached a limit. Where is the content? The hope is that the content will be provided by others. These companies are moving towards selling platforms that allow others to provide the content. That is really what Facebook and MySpace are about. But the people on those platforms aren’t doing the serious work in content that I talked about in part 1 of this piece.

Serious work on getting serious content into the software will differentiate the winners from the losers going forward in the software industry.

You can’t just have a platform as a service. You need a brilliant platform to be your service. Knowing all about sales doesn’t just mean coordinating sales, it means helping you make more sales. This is the challenge for the next generation of software.

But that’s too hard isn’t it? Not only is it not too hard, it is what will be happening in the next generation of platforms as a service.

The wisdom of a sales organization isn't in its numbers. It's not in the names of its customers and prospects. Rather, it's in the experiences of its salespeople – the deals they've won and lost, the strategies they've employed, the clever things they've done, and the mistakes they've made. None of these things are currently captured in software companies buy to manage sales. To address the competition the salesman needs just in time information and seriously good performance support to keep the salesman from losing focus, and confidence.

And, this is true in shipping as well as every other industry. The software must change. Right now the model promulgated by the money people behind the software industry is the norm. It makes us think a platform will work for any purpose. This is just wrong.

Content will be king. By this I don’t mean movies or entertainment. I mean software that knows what you are doing and why and can help because it knows more about what you do every day than your secretary does.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Where Microsoft (and the software industry) is going (and why they won't like it when they get there) PART 1

There are two paradigms being offered in software:

a. The Microsoft/warehouse paradigm where there is a warehouse of applications and data for the user to configure and turn into something useful.

b. The service oriented approach where an assistant is configured to do something useful.

Microsoft has been offering software, for as long as there has been a Microsoft, that works for nearly everybody. They didn’t always build that software. Most of the time, in fact, Microsoft bought companies that had chosen to specialize in one thing (operating systems, word processing, presentations, spreadsheets, and so on.) Then, they figured the right way to make money on these products and the rest is history.

There is an implicit assumption of what it takes to make it in the software business, with this vision, if one can call a acquisition of specific software products a vision) of the what will work in the software industry as a business strategy. The implicit assumption is this: one size fits all. Or, in other words, all businesses are alike in their software needs. (The sad things is how many people now believe this nonsense.)

I was confronted with this one size fits all vision in the early 80’s when it was first coming into the software world. Until then, there were plenty of players who were inventing cool software. There were many word processing systems to choose from for example, and VisiCalc, Lotus and others applications were being developed by independent companies with a point of view about good and useful software. But, lurking ready to pounce, were the Venture Capitalists.

The VC’s had a point of view, one that made lots of sense to them given their general get rich quick attitude towards business. I worked in Artificial Intelligence (AI) at that time. (I was the Chairman of the Computer Science Department at Yale.) VCs were in and out of Yale in the early 80’s, looking for the next big thing.

AI was in their sights and they visited every AI lab in the world, trying to commercialize intelligent software. At that time, AI was dominated by Expert Systems, which were a set of rules meant to imitate the behavior of experts at finding oil, or medical diagnosis, or stock market analysis. There were some very nice expert systems that had been painstakingly built by AI experts in university labs. The VCs wanted to commercialize this process and so they began to finance the construction of various expert systems shells.

These shells were meant to be sold to companies who would then employ them to build their own expert systems for internal or external use. In other words, the idea was to take the AI people out of the AI process thus allowing for a one size fits all tool to be a commercial success. The problem is that the AI people were the key to AI. AI people were doing something that is quite difficult: they were interviewing and attempting to model the thinking of, real human experts. This was serious work.

But in the VC model, that serious work could be done by anyone in any company, as long as they had the right expert systems shell. I begged the VCs to consider a different model, but they wouldn’t. I ran a panel at the yearly AI conference hoping to energize the AI community to fight this trend, but there was money in everyone’s eyes. I predicted (accurately) the coming of AI winter, when AI would be a bad word and funding would dry up.

But really, the VCs were not to blame. Over time what has happened is that we have all come to believe in the idea that was really being sold to us by everyone involved in the software industry: software should be for everybody. This is another way of saying that it is the job of the user to customize software not the job of the software industry. (This idea is the bedrock upon which Microsoft was built.)

Every time someone tries to build some specific, knowledge-based software, they must compete with an army of Microsoft salespeople who claim that the generic software that Microsoft offers will work anywhere for anybody.

The expert system shells worked anywhere for anybody too, but in the hands of anybody, they didn’t do very much of interest and AI failed as an industry.

Ask yourself who is offering software to the shipping industry? What do they know about shipping? Would software for shipping be different if it were designed by shipping people? I bet software designed by shipping people wouldn’t have a box to push to press OK after telling you that there was a fire on board.

Eventually, an assistant will exist for every person on earth in every enterprise. This assistant will be developed and configured by the software service providers - thousands of them. Who develops the underlying platform is no longer the user’s problem it is the service provider’s problem.

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Story Database: How we really make decisions

Knowledge is comprised of stories. We watch television, go to movies, read books, and have conversations in which we exchange stories, because the mind is basically a database of stories. Stories have been exchanged since caveman days. Our mental apparatus is based on them. Numbers are much more recent idea. The mind is not set up for them, which is why mathematics is taught in school in every year.

Curiously, although we love to tell stories, it is rare that we learn from other peoples’ stories. Why do we tell stories if others will not remember them? The answer is that we like to hear ourselves talk, and actually, we learn a lot from hearing ourselves talk. So we (pretend to) listen to others to get them to listen to us. We are not consciously pretending, but we also are not really gaining much from what we hear.

One wonders why we don’t realize that no one really is listening to us. Except that in the end, it doesn’t matter if the listener is really listening or remembering what has been said. If people like talking, let them talk. If sometimes you can resonate to a story that someone else tells you and become in some way different because of this experience, well that’s nice to know. It gives us hope that not all of our stories will fall on deaf ears. But really gaining from someone else’s story is the exception, not the rule. This is because there are so many conditions required of the story we are hearing to make it memorable, e.g., it has to relate to something we know and care about, it has to be surprising in some way or change what we thought before in some way, etc.

Our knowledge base is composed of our own stories. It really doesn’t matter that much if others profit from hearing our stories. We profit from telling them because we solidify what we know. Each time we tell stories, we teach ourselves the point of the stories. The more stories we experience that share the same point, the more we can glean a larger lesson about the point itself, apart from the specific memories that illustrate it. In this way, when we tell stories, we create for ourselves lessons about our own views.

We profit from others’ stories when they are told “just in time” – at a moment when we are ready to compare them to the stories that define us, to perhaps become more sophisticated about what we know. When you deeply care about what is being said, you can ponder a story you have heard and make it your own. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen very much of the time.

In order to comprehend, learn from, and remember what you hear, you have to already think something about what you are being told, you have to care about it, and it has to cause you to revisit what you thought you knew, and modify your thought.

This tells us something about how we make decisions. In the popular imagination, people ponder all the variables, weigh the factors, analyze the numbers, and come to a conclusion. The reality is quite different.

In fact what we do, when faced with the need to make a decision is we try to think of what story we already know that matches the situation we are in. We recall the decisions made in that story and how they turned out, and then we decide on that basis. In other words, we tell ourselves a story and see if we already know that one and how it ended.

In business, we are supposed to comprehend and learn from the stories that are being told to us. In school people talk and no one listens, as is normative in everyday listening. But when we behave that way in business, people get upset, so business people learn to appear to be paying attention. They look at the numbers seriously and try to ask financial analysis questions. But those are never the real questions.

Children don’t learn when their parents tell them things. Why not? The reason is simple: they don’t hear what you are saying to them. They are thinking about their own stories. Business people are just better at faking it.

All humans behave this way. They are absorbed in, or trying to, construct their own stories. When they succeed at this they tell them to others to see if they sound right. This is why, when something important happens to us we must tell somebody. We need to comprehend it and we need to solidify that memory for later recall. So we talk.

People remember stories that are well told, and that are centered on ideas the listeners either know well or want to know well. Stories told in numbers are never well told, because people don’t think in numbers. People think about goals, plans, expectation failures, explanations, and goal conflicts. If you don’t talk in that language, you will not be understood. Movies makers know this. Most business people do not.

People remember experiences they have been a part of. And, a good story teller makes listeners become part of an experience. They make you feel that you are there. A good businessman learns to tell stories that will be heard. These stories must relate well to stories his listeners already know. The listener is simply constructing his own stories. He matches his new constructions to stories he already has and makes decisions. Numbers are a very small part of this process. Recognizing one’s own past successes and failures, stored as part of one’s own story database, is the key issue in the process of decision making in business. Everything else is window dressing.

Where does knowledge reside?

This is a funny question. When we ask it of people, the obvious answer is: in your head.

But what if we ask it of an enterprise? The obvious answer is still in the head, but in this case, we mean in the collective heads of the individuals who work in the enterprise.

This does indeed seem obvious. Except to many people it is not at all obvious. Who are these people?

1. Librarians
2. People who sell Knowledge Management systems
3. Regulators
4. International Standards organizations

These people believe that knowledge resides in documents. Librarians tend to like the book kind of document and KM system vendors tend to like electronic documents.
Regulators and Standards creators often don’t care about the form of the document they offer but they care that it be posted somewhere, available somewhere, or followed at certain times.

For this latter group, knowledge usually takes the form of coherent statements about what someone should do at a given time. For the first group, knowledge is a coherently stated set of ideas that can be digested by the recipient whenever they are interested in receiving them.

So one thing that stands out as a difference between the knowledge that resides in our heads and the knowledge that exists in written form is coherency. A second difference is the explicit understanding of what exactly is known.

Human knowledge, when it has not been written down, is difficult to get your arms around. What do you know about every day activities like going to the store or fixing something that breaks? We know how to do these things, but if we were to attempt to write down the explicit steps that we follow, we might have a hard time doing it. We might leave out some steps or make some assumptions about what is obvious. (For example, do we write down turn key in ignition to the right one eight turn or do we just say start car?) We know what to do, but there are many steps that are implicit and wired into our minds in such a way that we do them without thinking about them.

And then there are check lists.

Much of the knowledge of what to do in shipping exists in the form of checklists. To an insider, someone who has lived and breathed shipping, this seems entirely reasonable. To anyone who has flown on an airplane this seems entirely reasonable. You really don’t want to forget a step when starting the plane for example, so check lists seem like a pretty good idea. But like many good ideas, especially ones that have been around a long time, there are serious flaws that could easily be remedied.

First, let me say, that as an outsider to shipping, I can find no fault with many of the check lists that currently exist. Just like the check lists for starting a plane, many of them should be carefully followed for safe operations. The reason that there is no problem with the majority of them has to do with the kind of knowledge that a good check list embodies.

Good check lists, one that make sense to have around, embody detailed procedures that need to be done in a certain order that goes beyond natural logic.

What do I mean by natural logic?

Human beings are naturally logical. They do not have to study logic in a math class to understand, for example, that when they drop something they should try to both listen and see where it might have gone and then get their bodies lower to the ground to pick it up. They could follow a check list for this, but they don’t have to because they learn to do all this when they are very small. Similarly, when entering a room, they do not need to follow the check list that checks to see if door is open, then opens it and then closes it again. In fact, many people forget the “close it again” part. So, if that were critical for safety, perhaps a check list would be in order. Natural logic ensures that the door will be checked for being in an open state and then opened if it is found to be in a closed state. Here again, this is learned at very young age. But natural logic does not dictate closing the door again after you, which is why people forget and why a check list could matter under certain conditions.

Opposed to natural logic is man-made logic and legal logic. Man-made logic dictates that the door be closed again for reasons of safety or loss of heat or whatever man-made reason there might be. Legal logic dictates a fine if the door isn’t closed again (perhaps it is an emergency door or a door to a vault.) Legal logic says, in effect, you could do this your way and not ours but you’d be in big trouble with the authorities. Man-made logic says you could do this, but someone is likely to be annoyed with you (kind of like how leaving the seat up in a toilet in some marriages annoys the wife.) Natural logic simply doesn’t allow you to get through doors without opening them.

Now back to check lists. With these three logical tools in hand we can look at, for example, the man overboard checklist. I found that check list to be very funny when I was aboard a ship recently while the mariners on board didn’t see the humor at all.

Why did I find it funny?

The first step on the check list as I recall was to throw a lifebuoy with a light overboard to mark the spot. The second item on the check list was to make a Williamson turn as I recall. There were many other procedures on the check list. On the check list were all the procedures that came from man-made logic. What was not on the check list, were all the procedures that came from natural logic. These include making sure that there actually is a man overboard. Asking who is overboard and where he was last seen and sending someone to look for him just in case there was mistake are not on the check list. Natural logic forces us to do these things without being told to. The problem here is the interaction between natural logic and man-made logic. I expected to see “Look for Louie” as number one on the list. It actually wasn’t on the list that at all. Should this be done first, before the light throwing or second before the Williamson turn? The real answer is simultaneously. Some people have to turn the ship. Others can look for Louie. The check list covers the man-made logic and not the natural logic. This didn’t seem funny to the mariners because they have long ago stopped expecting natural logic to appear on the check lists. Check lists are just about man-made logic.

This would be all right if check lists were always ordered lists reflecting step-by-step procedures. In that case, you might forget a step and something would fail to work properly. In actual fact, many check lists are not ordered lists at all and this presents a big problem. Let me explain.

Natural logic has both a physical and a social component. You can’t go through a door that isn’t open because it can’t be done physically. You can’t fail to pay for your meal in a restaurant because it can’t be done socially. Both of these issues can be more easily understood using the idea of a script. A script is a mental construct that we all carry with us, to tell us that eating comes after ordering in a restaurant, or that fastening one’s seat belt comes after sitting down in an airplane. They are sets of procedures that we have learned from a very young age that guide our actions step-by-step in both the physical and the social world. We use scripts unconsciously, but we are well aware when they have been violated. We wear clothing because the getting dressed script is something we do, without conscious thought, every day. We notice it right away if someone violates that script.

Natural logic has two aspects, one physical and one social. But, in both cases, this kind of logic represents procedures to be followed in a step-by-step fashion. We learn each step in the context of the one that follows it. This is very basic to what it means to be human. We follow procedures we have learned and practiced all our lives quite naturally. And, we are very good at connecting the third step to the second, but horrible at remembering steps out of order. To realize that this is the case try to sing a song you know but start at the third line without silently singing about the first two. This is nearly impossible to do because we learn steps in terms of the steps that precede them.

Now back to check lists.

When check lists are procedural in nature, when every line naturally follows the line preceding it, they are much easier to learn and much easier to follow even if we never actually learn them, because we are set up to do that sort of thing when we use natural logic. Man-made logic that follows the rhythm of natural logic is relatively easy to follow and is often easy to learn.

Of course, in that case, the check list might not be needed at all, and if regulated, the regulation will seem quite annoying. Check lists, in principle, are to remind you of what you can easily forget. Check lists need to include only things that are really easy to forget and that have no logical temporal order. Otherwise, a check list will bee seen to be annoying.

Consider this one, for U.S. Military spouses:

Get automobile key (and spares)
__________ Get garage key (and spares), if applicable
__________ Have oil changed, new oil and air filter installed, and car lubricated; know the mileage reading when the oil should be changed next
__________ Make sure all fluid levels are up to normal (oil, transmission fluid, brake and steering fluid, water); know how to check and fill them yourself (if needed) and what gasoline to use
__________ Make sure all vital equipment is in good condition and working order (including brakes, tires, battery, belts, hoses, headlights/high and low beams, tail lights, brake lights, turn signals)
__________ Review your insurance policy to make sure it provides adequate coverage (liability, medical, uninsured motorist, damage to your car and others); know the renewal date, cost of renewal, who to contact to renew the policy (name, address, and telephone number)
__________ Investigate a road service policy (if desired) to provide assistance with flat tires, towing, stalled engine, being locked out of your car, and other emergencies; know what your policy covers, when it expires and has to be renewed, cost of renewal, who to contact to renew (name, address, and telephone number); know what to do if you don’t have this coverage and one of these events happens
__________ Look into the renewal of state and on-post vehicle registration (year, cost, where to go, what to do)
__________ Check your state driver’s license expiration date, cost to renew, where to go, what to do
__________ Check your annual state automotive safety check, if required (when it expires, cost to renew, where to go, and anything that may have to be repaired or replaced to pass this inspection)
__________ Take possession of automotive papers (car registration, safety inspection, tire warranties, battery guarantee, insurance policy and certificate of insurance, road service card); know where they are, what they mean, how to use them
__________ Learn where to go, who to see or call when you have problems with the automobile (routine maintenance, auto repair, tires, oil changes, and lubrication)
__________ Learn what alternative transportation is available (on post, car pools, taxis, city buses, friends

Spouse’s Checklist—Page 2

__________ Prepare a list of automotive “do’s and don’ts” and hints on car care

And this is just the automotive part.

What is wrong here? The good news is that this check list is meant to be a one time affair. Check lists that are about tasks that rarely occur are not unreasonable to have. Human memory naturally consolidates actions that occur in the same way time after time into unconscious scripts that can be mindlessly followed. We are very good at doing the same thing in the same way again and again. But when something is to be done for the first time. or in any case, not very often, there is no problem with having a little help. Unless of course, that help is really annoying, like this list.

Prepare a list of automotive “do’s and don’ts” and hints on car care

Really? Who exactly would do that?

So, here is what I will call the check list conundrum, which is this:

if you list every step someone should do and put it on a check list you will pretty well ensure that some of the steps will be skipped. Why is this the case? Here are some reasons. If a check list contains…they will stop relying on the check list

1. a step that is obvious
2. a step that is so annoying no one would do it
3. a step that is incomprehensible
4. a step that normal people never do
5. a step that flies in the face of common practice
6. a step that must be explained to novices but is natural for experts
7. steps that do not form a natural sequence
8. steps that are too low level
9. steps that are too high level
10. steps that are done almost never that have been made part of an everyday check list

Now let’s back to the issue of where knowledge resides. When we say that something is obvious we are saying that knowledge about that naturally resides in the head of a person and not in the enterprise. If you issue a memo about it , that memo will be ignored. People don’t like to be told about what is obvious to them.

Obvious knowledge can only reside in people’s heads.

But what if the consequences of failing to do what is obvious to do are potentially catastrophic? Checklists perform the function of reminding people of obvious knowledge when the failure to use that knowledge is potentially catastrophic. Knowing the difference between potentially catastrophic obvious knowledge and obvious knowledge horrific when forgotten is the difference between constructing checklists or posters or other warnings that are paid attention to constructing those that will be ignored.

If the knowledge is annoying where does it reside? Clearly, annoying knowledge about proper procedures that prudent people would always do, belongs to the enterprise. The question is, how to properly get annoying knowledge to people when they need it, or more accurately, when they will pay attention to it.

Annoying knowledge belongs to the enterprise.

The answer to this depends on just how annoying the knowledge is and exactly why it is annoying. Safety knowledge, for example, is annoying but important. But, it is not always important to everybody. For example, when cooking turn of the burner after use is knowledge that would be annoying to hear every time you used a burner, would be tuned out by someone seeing a poster about it, and would be really good to hear about when the burner was on for too long. This safety knowledge is both obvious and annoying, so it needs to be told but no one will listen. Another conundrum. It is this conundrum that both causes checklists to exist and simultaneously causes them to be ignored.

Incomprehensible knowledge, of course, belongs to the enterprise (since it could hardly be in anyone’s head.) What makes knowledge incomprehensible? This is an important question. Here is part of Bride’s checklist for flowers that is incomprehensible to me:

Bride's Bouquet - Boutonnieres

Pew Bows -Throw Away Bouquet
Centerpieces -
Bridesmaids Bouquets -
Aisle Runner
Centerpieces -
Alter Arrangements
Archway -

This list is probably not incomprehensible to most Bride’s. Obviously comprehensibility is a relative affair. But checklists, warnings, posters etc, are read by everyone. Those who fid them incomprehensible will ignore them What to do about this is a serious issue.

Incomprehensibility is a relative concept.

Assessing what is normal behavior and what is extraordinary behavior is a key issue in knowledge management. When we produce written documents, like this one, we are nearly always assuming a fictional reader who knows none of what we are about to say. However, if they really know nothing what we are writing is incomprehensible, so they had better know something about the issue. The writer’s job is to update their knowledge, or cause them to look at something in a new way – to change their mind about something or help them with something. That something, the writer assumes, is in their field of interest to learn more about. This is just as true of technical and scientific writing as it is of magazine article about Britney Spears’ latest exploits.

Thus, documents are, in principle, updates on knowledge, and thus need to address assumptions about the norm and push on. This is why the following item on the military moving checklist from the Us Army is simply nuts:

Get copies of the past five years’ state and federal income tax returns and everything needed for the next filing, including due dates and who to contact for assistance in preparing the returns

If I were married to someone who brought five years of tax returns with her on a trip of any kind I would file for divorce. This is not normal behavior. Writers have to assume normal behavior on the part of their readers or they will be ignored. This is the same for a Spring Cleaning checklist I found which included this as one of the steps:

Dust and clean the ceiling fan.
You may need to use a gentle cleanser like Murphy's Oil Soap. Take down any light fixtures and gently wash and dry them before replacing.

Right. I will be doing that after I get five years of tax returns.

My point is simply this. It is all well and good to suggest things for people to do – that can be a suggestion memo that one could read at one’s leisure. But if you want a checklist or other printed safety guide to be followed, it had better be written with the assumption that the reader is normal.

Friday, 21 March 2008

For KM, just say "no" to search engines

Any KM system must have the ability to cope with new information in a reasonable way, so that new input causes adjustments in the system. A dynamic KM system is altered in some way by every experience it processes. A KM system that does not get smarter as a result of the absorption of new information is unlikely to be very useful. In addition, any good KM system must be capable of finding what it has in it. This seems to go without saying, but the issue of what information should be found at any given moment can be quite a problem. A good KM system finds stuff you weren’t expecting to find, that you didn’t ask for, in part because you didn’t know it was there, but is nevertheless relevant.

In the modern era, we have become used to relying upon search engines to find what we need. Effective use of engines like Google causes users to learn certain search habits that work in Google. We know, for example, that Google contains documents written in English using the kinds of vocabulary people normally use when they write documents of the type we are looking for. Because we have gotten good at figuring out what words to type into Google, it is natural to assume that when we want something written in a manual for shipping, we will find what we need and Google will work fine. Of course, we immediately realize upon thinking this that we cannot actually use Google at all.

Let’s think about this for a bit. Imagine that we wanted to search the web using Google to find information we know to be in a ship’s manual. To see how this would work I took some stuff from a ship’s manuals and searched the web using Google. Here is the first page of what I found searching for:

Bridge procedure in bad weather

Kenora Daily Miner and News, Kenora, ON
Richards scores as Canada dominates, Date: 2004-12-31. 1966. Weather anchors this Top 10 list, Date: 2004-12-31. 1967. Glad to see the back of a bad year search_results.php/story.php?id=135971 - 639k -
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STCW Home - Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping ...
17 When deciding the composition of the watch on the bridge, which may include ... .9 any potentially adverse conditions resulting from bad weather, ice, - 66k -
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January 2001 ePoly Briefs
Campus-Closing Procedures for Bad Weather Time to Start Your Fitness Resolution -- Aerobic and Taekwon-Do Classes Offered Call for Alumni Award Nominations ebriefs_archive2001/JanBriefs.cfm - 29k -
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CS Manual Shipboard Procedures
At times, bad weather, loss of equipment, or ship breakdowns may make it necessary to ... This is done by the bridge watch, without action needed by you. cs/chief_scientist/procedures.html - 25k -
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NIOSH FACE Program: Wyoming Case Report 92WY013 CDC/NIOSH
Ranch workers should be trained in bad-weather procedures when they are hired for outside work. While lightning deaths are fairly rare, more people in the - 13k -
Cached - Similar pages - Girder engineering failure cited
the second, parallel girder, but bad weather set in and they were unable to ... has dramatically changed its bridge erection procedures since the accident. - 58k - Cached - Similar pages

Current Doctrine Submarines (USF-25(A)) - Chapter 2
All operations of the procedure of rigging for diving have been checked by one ... Cut bridge watches short in bad weather. Don't neglect greasing top side - 40k - Cached - Similar pages

WHOI : Oceanus : Adventure in the Labrador Sea
While the sea-state wasn't as bad as one might imagine based on the ... One memorable example of the foul-weather deck procedure occurred during our first do?id=2359&archives=true - 34k - Cached - Similar pages

GOATS'02 Diary
Port all day due to bad weather in Framura. Caribou assembly completed. ... and Galetti connected our network on the bridge and in the programmer's room. - 28k - Cached - Similar pages

New bridge at Kincardine
The bridge remains the furthest-downstream all-weather crossing of the Forth, and acts as a diversionary route during bad weather for vehicles restricted - 24k - Cached - Similar pages

There is nothing surprising here for users of Google. Some pages that were found do indeed produce information on the subject requested. Google users have learned to ignore irrelevant stuff – like the Denver Post article on building bridges - and focus on relevant stuff like the article that comes from a site run by the U.S. Navy on shipping history.

So, we can imagine that Google, if it only searched on the manuals on board a ship and not on everything on the web, would do just fine. But, let’s look harder.

The next thing I searched for was:

Changing over the watch Community Blog
In fact, this time last year, Cat 4 Hurricane Dennis was over Cuba, ... Even if it doesn't, watch out for vicious rip currents and heavy coastal rain in the - 50k - Jul 8, 2006 -
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WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Guerillas watch over LA’s ...
Guerillas watch over LA’s gated communities Regine Debatty. QuickChanges see all posts in this category. In Los Angeles, Heavy Trash, a coalition of - 17k - Cached - Similar pages

GMA Celebrating Charlie GMA Weekend Moms Make It Work Eat ...
The debate rages over whether mothers belong home or in the workplace. ... Watch chef Licairac's Havana Central recipe for Mariscada, Cuban seafood stew. guide?category=GMA&subcategory=&id=1288217 - 52k - Cached - Similar pages

ADMINISTRIVIA We've started a gradual change from our domain to and you'll see links changing over time. - 26k - Cached - Similar pages

ILE C/C++ Programmer's Guide - Contents
Example Of Setting a Watch Condition · Displaying Active Watches · Chapter 13. Stepping Through Programs · Stepping Over Programs v6r0/topic/ - 67k - Cached - Similar pages

Changing patterns in our viewing habits
Changing patterns in our viewing habits. CHILDREN are watch- ing less ... But women watch a half hour more than men. Women over 55 watch the most TV, mathguys/articles/1999/990224a3.htm - 4k - Cached - Similar pages

eFilmCritic Festival Coverage: The Internet's Most Expansive Film ...
Chances of the World Changing, The ... Over the Hedge * ... Neighborhood Watch · Nightmare (2006) · Orlan, carnal art · Pony Trouble · Psychopathia Sexualis - 117k - Cached - Similar pages

Havoc With Google Accounts
Search Engine Watch Blog: Click For Home Page ... Also, since changing AdWords over also changed AdSense to use Google Accounts -- as the wizard made - 71k - Cached - Similar pages

What is the World Doing?
... browsing the internet browsing the web browsin , touching myself over pictures ... browsing , surfing the net while waiting to watch the add_person.php?click=1&action=no - 332k - Cached - Similar pages

Archives: Story
Business Watch. Curves. Jackie Franich, along with co-manager Grace Grilze, actually use the ... Working in a circle and changing machines on a schedule, 2004/04/02/local_news/news68.txt - 20k - Cached - Similar pages

Uh oh. There is nothing here that is relevant at all. Why is that? The problem is due to the issue of ambiguity and commonality in search terms. Bridge is a common word and it does indeed refer to things outside of shipping, but bridge procedures is a phrase that refers primarily to shipping. Not so with watch. This word may mean something specific in shipping but it means so many other things in everyday English that Google never sees the shipping meaning.

But this would all be better if we weren’t searching the web and were just searching a shipping companies manuals wouldn’t it? Here are some of the uses of watch in a ship’s manual:

The gangway or accommodation ladder shall be watched…

A close watch shall be kept to prevent dangerous situations…

Officer in charge of the deck watch shall ensure that cargo is stowed…

Master shall ensure that all Officers on duty keep a close watch for damage to insulating material…

The problem is that the word watch is ambiguous on a ship too. In addition once company communications are included in items to be searched, as they must be since new information would be posted to a KMS every day in shipping, the problems intensify. What if someone wants someone to watch out for ptomaine, or rough seas, or somebody’s mental health? What if someone lost a watch?

Simply put, keyword searches work when the key words can only have one meaning, like Cambodia or hydraulic.

Let’s consider one more Google search on a term from a ship’s manual:

Restricted Visibility

When operating at night, or other times of restricted visibility, the required navigation ... During times of restricted visibility such as smoke or fog, - 31k - Cached - Similar pages

Nautical Know How - Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility
under conditions of restricted visibility. ... restricted in ability to maneuver, a vessel constrained by her draft, a sailing vessel, a vessel engaged - 12k -
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Rule 19: Conduct of Vessels in restricted visibility
(b) Every vessel shall proceed at a safe speed adapted to the prevailing circumstances and conditions of restricted visibility. A power-driven vessel shall - 20k -
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Rule 35: Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility
In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows: - 25k -
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Restricted Visibility
RESTRICTED VISIBILITY Conduct of Vessels in Restricted Visibility, Rule 20C, of both Inland and International Rules states that the lights prescribed by the 14067/css/14067_145.htm - 26k -
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Sound Signals In Restricted Visibility
Sound Signals In Restricted Visibility The sound signals for restricted visibility required by International and Inland Rules are very similar. - 28k -
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Sec. 2035. Sound signals in restricted visibility (Rule 35)
In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows: (a) Power-driven vessels usc/ttl33/ch34/subchI/ptD/sec2035.html - 6k -
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Sec. 2019. Conduct of vessels in restricted visibility (Rule 19)
(a) Vessels to which rule applies This Rule applies to vessels not in sight of one another when navigating in or near an area of restricted visibility. usc/ttl33/ch34/subchI/ptB/subptiii/sec2019.html - 4k -
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US CODE: Title 33,2035. Sound signals in restricted visibility ...
In or near an area of restricted visibility, whether by day or night, the signals prescribed in this Rule shall be used as follows: uscode33/usc_sec_33_00002035----000-.html - 15k -
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Title:, MINIMIZE THE HAZARD OF RESTRICTED VISIBILITY IN FOG - WITH DISCUSSION. Accession Number:, 00222185. Record Type:, Component - 9k -
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This one looks pretty good actually. Everything is actually about boating. So, it seems it would be possible to find all the mentions of restricted visibility in a manual or e-mails in a shipping company’s materials. What then is the problem?

The problem is that it is possible to write about restricted visibility without using the words restricted or visibility. While this phrase is usually used in manuals, a captain who talks about how he couldn’t see or a weather report that talks about fog are talking about the same issue, but Google wouldn’t know that.

What then is the right thing to do? Can a search engine be adapted to work on all written materials for shipping in a way that works?

Not a keyword based search engine – no. Keyword search works when you don’t care if you get a lot of extraneous documents as long as you get one that helps you answer some question you had. In shipping you need exactly the right document at the right time and you may not know exactly what to ask for, especially when what you are looking for is a report of a recent event or policy not formalized in a manual.

So, is it hopeless? No. The solution lies not with the search engine but with the structure and organization of the material being searched. If the relevant e-mails and reports about restricted visibility have been put in the right place despite their use of different vocabulary it is possible to find them if one is using a search engine that is based on the concepts in shipping (like what to do in conditions of restricted visibility) without worrying if the right vocabulary was used. The proper placement is a key issue here and one that can be solved by the computer itself if an intelligent KMS is being used.

One way to understand what concepts can be searched for in a KM for shipping, is to consider how experts on various aspects of shipping get reminded. Why does one event in shipping cause them to be reminded of another?

Reminding is the result of the similar categorization of new material in relation to material that has already been processed. Reminding in a KM is about the organization of the KM after all. The following types of reminding must occur in a properly organized KM system (hence KMS).

Reminding based upon event expectations

In a KMS that uses roles and tasks to describe actions there is an implicit assumption that given an action, it is reasonable to expect another particular action to follow.

Any knowledge structure used in a KMS must contain predictions and expectations about the normal flow of events in standardized situations. Whenever an expectation derived from that structure fails, its failure must be marked. Problems on board a ship must be stored with respect to the action sequence in which they took place.

Goal-based reminding

New information is not necessarily only about events that have taken place. We may not only want to know what happened but why it happened. This would certainly be true of bad events. If a fire occurs, we need to know not only when and where it took place but what the cause was. The KMS must know that fires are not only unexpected – they are bad, in order to handle this properly. Thus, we must track goals.

Issues such as Goal-Blockage, Goal-Failure, Goal-Replacement, and Goal-Competition are all reasons to remember an event and play a key role on categorizing a new event that one is processing. Fog is, after all, something associated with goal-blockage. Something else that blocked the same goal (seeing where you are going) we would need to be classified as a similar event. It isn’t the words fog or restricted visibility that we think about when we attempt to understand a situation but the goal (seeing where you are going) that is being blocked that causes us concern. If goal-blockage is what people think about, then it must be a key organizing issue in a KMS. One key question to ask then is: what are the goals associated with various tasks aboard ship and in what way can they be blocked? Clearly there are many answers to such a question. Those answers form the basis of the organization of a KMS for shipping.

It follows that if goals are being tracked, then so are the plans created to achieve those goals. Failure to execute a plan and the reasons for that failure would also be concepts that serve to organize a KMS.

Reminding can take place in terms of high level structural patterns that cut across a sequence of events, as opposed to the reminding that we have been discussing thus far--reminding that occurs at particular points in the processing of individual events. This kind of reminding occurs when a pattern of events, as analyzed in broad, goal-related terms, is detected and found to be similar to a previously perceived pattern from another context.

My favorite example of this phenomenon occurs in one that can occur while watching a play or movie. If you have seen Romeo and Juliet and are watching West Side Story for the first time, it is highly likely that at some point in the middle of West Side Story you will notice that it is the Romeo and Juliet story in a modern-day New York, with music. But in this example, everything is superficially different. The city is New York, there is gang warfare, there are songs. To see West Side Story as an instance of Romeo and Juliet one must not only be processing the normal complement of scripts and goals. One must also be, in a sense, summarizing the overall goals, the events of their actions, the interpersonal relationships that are affected, and the eventual outcome of the entire situation.

Such thematic organization occurs quite frequently and also need to be present in a KMS. What are the themes for shipping? They are the same as exist everywhere else in life. Themes are about life. In Romeo and Juliet the theme is warring families blocking an alliance between the children of those families. It is easy to imagine that the same thing has occurred in a shipping context as well.

Our problem therefore is to find the organizing principles in a domain and utilize them in a KMS that organizes the information in that domain. These organizing principles will certainly be about goals and the ways in which they can be satisfied or blocked and the plans that are used to execute those goals. They will also be about larger overarching themes that organize multiple goals.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

e-mail sucks

I can remember when I first got e-mail. It was long before any of my readers (I dare say) got e-mail, somewhere around 1971. E-mail (it wasn’t called that then) had a profound effect on my staff. Instead of walking in and chatting when they had an issue, they sent e-mail. But, in 1971 sending e-mail wasn’t quite as simple as it is today. It took a lot of time and only worked every now and then. They would sit for hours trying to make an e-mail go through instead of simply knocking on my door.

In the early days, you only got e-mail from people you knew.
Life was simple. Only computer scientists and military people had access to the ARPANET, which conveyed e-mail, so it was a small world. Computer scientists arranged lunch and sent each other papers. Life was simple. E-mail was grand.

Then suddenly, things started to change. First it was people who had access to all the e-mail addresses that existed at the time who felt the obligation to tell everyone what they thought about everything. Then it was people looking for a place to live or a bicycle to sell that just had to let everyone know about it.

Now everyone has e-mail. Spammers, your employees, your neighbors, business folks you want to talk to, and many people who you don’t want to talk to. For people who work in large enterprises, e-mail is out of hand. There are some important messages. It is just hard to find them when you get a few hundred a day. And then it is hard to find the ones you saved, on another day when you need to find them again. There are just so many of them. Storing them by sender doesn’t work when the same sender sends you zillions and subject headers are usually useless.

What to do?

Stop using e-mail.

Please, give me a few more paragraphs, before you stop reading because you think you are dealing with the ravings of a madman.

Amazingly enough, businesses ran quite effectively before there was e-mail. They also ran before there were computers. Nowadays both thoughts seem impossible. A lot of business simply has to be run by computer. Purchasing for example. Business sell that way, they buy that way, and nothing will stop this electronic replacement for the old method. On the other hand, business deals, and agreements although they may be mediated by e-mails and documents produced on a computer, are still pretty much face to face (or telephone) affairs. Why is this? E-bay exists after all. Why can’t business deals be handled by e-bay?

The reason is simple enough to understand. We need to trust the people we are dealing with and this means we need to know them. E-bay won’t do except for simple purchases.

Actually computers don’t work that well for anything that is very important. Really important folks in a business have secretaries to screen their calls and to handle their appointments. A good secretary knows whom her boss wants to see or talk to and whom he doesn’t. And the secretary knows the priorities of who ranks over whom in significance for her boss.

So, why can’t a computer do the secretary’s job? Why do secretaries still exist? E-mail makes it seem as if they should no longer exist. Far less people have them these days in part because there is e-mail and everyone has a computer. Nevertheless, we all would rather have a good secretary. Why is that?

A key element of a good secretary’s job is coordination. A secretary who simply arranges appointments for her boss without understanding the priorities of requests; or which meetings should have multiple attendees and who they should be; or how to limit wasting time with travel that is unimportant or badly arranged; or which are the urgent issues in the business are at a given time; cannot be very effective.

And, e-mail understands none of this.

So, you get hundreds of messages because your e-mail isn’t as bright as even the dullest secretary.

What is needed is a replacement for e-mail. And, it must be as good as a good secretary.

The good news is this can be done.

Of course the question is how it can be done. The obvious answer is wrong.

The obvious answer, one that AI people have talked about for decades, is building a computer that simulates and therefore is as smart as, your secretary. This will not happen any time soon. Your secretary knows a lot of stuff. She probably knows what you like to eat and how things are with your wife and kids, and who in the company really doesn’t like you and what people are saying behind your back. So forget that. There is no reason to, nor any real hope for, simulating all the human, everyday, knowledge that a secretary has.

Fortunately, we do not have to simulate a secretary to fix the e-mail problem in large enterprises.

Why not?

Because, in a large enterprise people do not typically act as free agents. Real people, when they are not playing a role, simply do what they want to do. So, they could be writing an e-mail to their friends about anything, about their mood, or about what they plan to do on Saturday night, or about a random thought they just had. Not so in a large enterprise. In business, people are careful to do what their job specifies that they should be doing. They might send a personal message as well, but that is not my point. A lot of what they are writing about is what they should be writing about, what they are obligated by the nature of their job to be writing about. Furthermore they are writing to precisely those people who need to know about the issues the writer is communicating, often because there is some action the recipients will need to take as a result of having read the e-mail. Or at least that is what should be going on. Seen that way, e-mail is not a free form exercise but part of a very routine set of processes that fit together in very specific way within the enterprise.

This is good news.

It is good news because some e-mails are more important than others. A computer can gauge an e-mail’s importance correctly if that computer has a model of what is important in an enterprise. Your e-mail program does not know that an e-mail about bad weather or crewing problems is urgent for someone in the shipping business. Nor does it know who is tracking what and who needs to know what. E-mail relies on the idea that the sender knows all that and that urgency can be marked by simply saying something is urgent. But if everything is marked urgent or if people who need to know are left out of a mailing, there is a problem. Further if an e-mail should have caused its recipient to put an action on his to do list but it didn’t because he spilled his coffee while reading it, something may not get done later on down the line. None of this has to happen if the message system that an enterprise employs is based on a detailed process model of how information flows, to whom and why, and what goals that information is meant to relate to in the enterprise. In other words, a complete model of the enterprise must be the basis of all message traffic. That model is what we rely upon the secretary to have. Of course, the secretary may not actually have that model or may have a defective or out of date model.

Business communication in a complex enterprise needs a detailed model of who does what in the enterprise and each person’s particular role in every critical situation. This is not only possible -- it is mission critical.

How can this be done?

By understanding and detailing everyone’s role and the tasks associated with that role, all tied to the goals that those tasks are meant to satisfy. Add in a goal calculus that makes clear what goals supercede what other goals in given circumstances and you have a model of the enterprise. Then, an e-mail sent by a person is not sent by that person but by that role and the subject is not whatever the sender said the subject was, the subject is how what the sender is about to communicate will affect a given process in the enterprise in the context of the satisfaction of a given goal.

Do you know what everyone in your company is doing and why they are doing it? Then stop allowing them to write whatever they want to whomever they want and start making sure that e-mails are part of the design of how things work, and how coordination happens. Don’t let e-mail do what it was never meant to do, namely make your enterprise function well. E-mail was simply not invented for that purpose.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Knowledge Management For Real People

Knowledge Management (KM) means different things to different people.

Based on its experience and on the existing large body of knowledge management literature, the team decided that knowledge management software should provide virtual “places” where users can organize information, services, and tools to support their particular needs, while at the same time maintaining and updating information in a more general context.

Or, in other words, Lotus thinks KM is the creation of a communal library. This notion of KM as the construction of a communal library is made clearer by a recent IBM publication touting something Satyam developed for the petroleum industry called Spandan, which is “a complete knowledge management (KM) portal built from several IBM Lotus and IBM WebSphere software products.”

Spandan consolidates all the knowledge in the R&D organization into a central knowledge repository, organized in a taxonomy that makes sense to everyone," says Agrawal. "It captures lessons learned and best practices as they're created or refined. It enables users to quickly find both explicit knowledge, such as knowledge in documents, and tacit knowledge, such as knowledge in discussion threads or in an expert's mind through a single unified search. And it combines all these functions with collaboration features, such as instant messaging and teaming, that help people work together in context with knowledge.

Of course, there is a problem with communal libraries, ones that are created by the users of a system or the knowledge workers in a company. Not everyone wants to contribute to them. In fact, not everyone wants to even bother using them. Companies often have to resort to forcing people to use them and to contribute to them.

Satyam proudly announced its solution for this:

Satyam configured Spandan to automatically award knowledge-points, or "K-points," to scientists as they contributed to the system, and to tally and publish K-points for each scientist at the end of every quarter. Maybe more important, Satyam preloaded the system with knowledge and data that was most important to the scientists. "We populated the repository with the previous five years of project reports, technical data sheets, tour reports and all documents types they identified as the ones they consulted most," says Agrawal. "This made them start using it, and once they saw how useful it was to be able to find important information quickly, they were motivated to add more."

Their message is clear. If you make people use a collaborative library they will. (And otherwise they aren’t likely to.) Personally I haven’t been in a library, virtual or real, in twenty years. Guess I wasn’t offered enough K-points.

(Of course some people do contribute to communal encyclopedias like Wikipedia. But it is a really small proportion of the community does so.)

What is the real issue in KM? This is easy to answer.

Libraries are about your attempts to find information outside your normal activities. Well-indexed libraries make information easier (though often not easy) to find.

In life, the bulk of information finds you in the course of your every day activities, when you interact with other people in the enterprise, or when a colleague needs your help on a problem. Or, most importantly … when you are reminded of something you have already experienced. There are two points to be made here.

1. People do not usually seek information – it seeks them.
2. When people do seek information, their greatest source of information is themselves and they find what they need without actually having to try.

Any KM system that hopes to work in a real world where people act like people and not like members of a community where they have to play their part in order to get K-points needs to be built around the following principles:

1. Information finds the user by knowing what the user is doing and therefore knowing what information the user might need.
2. Users do not ever try to add information into the KMS. Their work is naturally part of the KMS and is added automatically.
3. The KMS knows what it knows and is getting smarter all the time.

For people who work in the real world, the key issues must find them in their natural environment without expect them to start searching for them.

It takes special circumstances to get people to contribute to the library. Here it is, again from the cited IBM article:

But like most expert communities, the oil company's R&D scientists were reluctant at first, and saw knowledge sharing as a potential threat. "The scientists were worried that contributing and sharing knowledge would lessen their importance in the organization," Agrawal says. "For example, if one scientist was the exclusive expert in a certain area, and a question in that area came from the Parliament or the Ministry of Petroleum, that person got his or her chance to shine and to feel important. Our challenge was to convince them that they became more important by contributing, rather than hoarding."

Scientists in any industry are not even remotely like people who work on real life everyday jobs. Scientists publish papers about original ideas and they worry that those ideas will be stolen. People with more normal jobs worry about doing their jobs properly and receive information and work within the bounds of e-mail and an enterprise software system. They do not expect to do research in a library like a scientist would. And, they may not even know when they need more information, while it might be very important for the enterprise if they did. These are very dissimilar worlds.

Any KMS for the normal world of work must understand and have a detailed model of the world in which that work is taking place. If the knowledge to be managed is shipping knowledge, then the KM system must know about shipping in detail so that it doesn’t even for a second think that a bridge procedure refers to a card game, and it cares about weather information if and only if a ship it cares about might encounter that weather. A KM for shipping needs to know about issues about particular ships, and ships like those ships, and what to do about similar issues when they happen in new circumstances. In short a KM for shipping must serve as a corporate memory that knows more than any one individual might know. It must track what is going on in daily events and relate what is going on at the moment to what has gone on in the past to see if it can help manage goal conflicts and hence manage risk.

In order to use such a KMS, the system must use indices that find knowledge that are intuitive. But, what is intuitive in one line of work is not intuitive in another. For shipping the system must speak shipping language and use shipping concepts to index shipping information. Any system that did not d o this would be about as useful as hiring a librarian who specialized in English literature to catalogue you companies knowledge.

In a KMS that uses roles and tasks to describe actions there is an implicit assumption that given an action, it is reasonable to expect another particular action to follow.

The organizational principles of a KMS for real life tasks must contain predictions and expectations about the normal flow of events in standard situations. Whenever an expectation derived from that structure fails, its failure must be marked. Problems must be stored with respect to the action sequence in which they took place. Real world corporate processes are not like science. These processes are predictable and understood. The question is not how to manage document flow but how to manage processes for opportunity and for risk. KM for industry is not KM for scientists.

The problem for KM in the corporate world therefore, is to make use of the organizing principles in a work situation and utilize them in a KMS that organizes the information in that domain. These organizing principles will certainly be about roles and tasks and the goals associated with them. The ways in which goals can be satisfied or blocked and the plans that are used to execute those goals must be the cornerstone of any KMS.

[1] The Lotus Knowledge Discovery System: Tools and experiences
W. Pohs G. Pinder C. Dougherty M. White, IBM SYSTEMS JOURNAL, VOL 40, NO 4, 2001

[2] Satyam’s IBM Lotus KM Solution helps petroleum company fight change with knowledge, (IBM publication on the web)