Social Media’s Tower of Babel

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of the Tower of Babel.  This monument to human achievement and pride was to be built so tall as to reach the heavens.  It was never completed because the builders were unable to communicate properly with each other.  According to the Book of Genesis, it was through divine intervention that during the building of the tower the people involved began to speak in multiple languages and thus could no longer understand one another.  When they spoke, all they heard was noise.  On May 31, people in the Western church celebrated (and on June 7 the Eastern church will celebrate) the Feast of Pentecost, which remembers the day when through divine intervention people speaking multiple languages suddenly began to understand one another.  In other words, they went from making noise to making sense.

We are in danger of building a modern Tower of Babel via social media.  Thanks to social media, there is more information on the web than anyone can read or understand in a lifetime. Every day more and more people take up social computing and, in the process, proliferate comments, links and blogs.  The net effect is one of deafening noise.  Not only are we all speaking different languages, but we are all speaking at once.

The clamor of these interactions is enough to drive a person to consider opting out of social computing all together.  However, in so doing you choose personal peace over rich opportunities for learning, innovation and community.  So what will it take to help us make sense of the noise generated by social media? The better answer is to find ways of improving your personal (and ultimately our collective) sense-making.  Some of that happens naturally via social computing itself as fellow travelers sift through the information and pass on things of merit.  if you can tune into the voices of the right guides, you can follow the trail they blaze for you.  In time, each of us needs be a reliable guide to provide that filtering and refining function for others.

Social media is in its Tower of Babel moment.  I hope I’m around to see its Pentecost when we can celebrate the triumph of sense-making and then truly enjoy the rich resources social computing offers.

[Photo Credit:  Thomas Thomas, of a painting by Pieter Breugel the Elder]


Linear is Not Always Best

Our society has made a fetish of linear thinking. We’ve been trained to expect that A will lead to B, which in turn will lead to C. We breathe a sigh of relief whenever we experience what Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English describes as a “step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.”  All of this is deeply comforting — even when it is not entirely appropriate.

In the June 2009 issue of KMWorld Magazine, Dave Snowden recounts an experience from the beginning of his career in which he elected to design a new system in a manner that didn’t fit well within established design methods.  He was creating something that had never existed before and decided early on that IT’s usual linear approach wasn’t going to work.  In fairness, it sounds like he initially did try to conform.  However, once he set about to gather requirements he quickly discovered that

…few if any of the users had any idea of the capabilities of software.  As a result, if you asked them what they wanted, they told you what they currently did, or asked for automation of existing processes.  To use an adage of that time, `Users say they know what they want until they get it, and then they want something different.

Instead of IT’s traditional linear approach, he adopted an iterative method whereby he and his clients engaged in a more curvaceous  “co-evolutionary process” to develop the new system.  Drawing on his own substantive experience of the work his clients were trying to do, he approached the design effort in the following way:

…I could talk with the users in their own language; go away and develop a module with real data; and create reports, monitoring screens and other processes based on a synthesis of my knowledge, the stated needs of the client and my knowledge of the technology.  The application would work in novel ways, users would find new ways of working, and modifications would be agreed upon.  Over the course of a year, a powerful application emerged that was very different from anything that either the user or I could have defined.

In many ways, this is a textbook description of how to implement social media tools within the enterprise.  Work iteratively with your users, create opportunities to learn from each other and from the tool using a series of “safe-fail” experiments, stay in beta for as long as it takes to reflect user reality in your tool, and don’t be afraid to step off the straight and narrow path of linear thinking.  To be clear, this is not a recommendation that you abandon all logic in your design and implementation.  Rather, it is a reminder that there can be great beauty and greater rewards in following a more circuitous route.

[Photo Credit:  Headsqueeze]


Waste Not, Want Not

Current economic conditions have given birth to a new frugality in business. I saw that recently in my response to a request from a colleague who was looking for a new way to organize client materials. There was a time when that request would have triggered fun research into the coolest available technology. Instead, my initial reaction was to identify tools and resources the firm already owned that could be extended or repurposed to meet my colleague’s need.

Welcome to the era of Waste Not, Want Not.

For those of you who have been practising this discipline at home, take a look at the website  It’s a search engine that suggests recipes based on what you already have in your kitchen.  This is a dramatic departure from the more typical recipe search engine that inevitably generates a long shopping list of hard to find ingredients.  Identifying new and creative ways to use what we already have may be the lasting legacy of our current economic woes.  Perhaps knowledge management’s job is to mimic’s functionality, but within the enterprise — by helping the organization find and use creatively the resources it already has.

[Thanks to Nicole Black for pointing out]

[Photo Credit:  H is for Home]


Confessions of a Corporate Matchmaker

Regardless of official job descriptions and titles, one of the most important functions knowledge management performs is that of corporate matchmaker. The matches KM makes are often transitory, but can be very important in the moment. If you’re looking for advice, we find you an expert. If you’re looking for an example, we find you a precedent. If you’re looking for a community, we can put you in touch with like-minded people.  Occasionally we get it right and provide technology that allows you to do some of this for yourself.  But, inevitably, there will come a point at which you’ll need a person to help you locate and sort through your available choices.  That’s when it helps to have a knowledgeable matchmaker.

As the economy has worsened, there’s been some talk about eliminating “nice to have” functions such as KM.  Think again.  Without good matchmakers, it’s hard to have good matches.  Without good matches, it’s hard to have much productivity.


[Photo Credit:  Laura Appleyard]


Behaving Badly

I recently saw adults behaving very badly in God of Carnage.  And then courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera‘s iconic production of the Ring Cycle, I saw gods behaving badly, mortals behaving badly, giants behaving badly, dwarfs behaving badly … you get the picture.  All of this aberrant behavior started me wondering about how we factor user behavior into our knowledge management planning and deployments.  I suspect that most of us do our planning on the basis of archetypal users or personas.  With personas, we create imaginary users who embody a range of behavior, but often lack the particularity of individual users.  In the context of law firm knowledge management, we think of The Partner, The Associate, The Legal Secretary, The Administrator.  Of course, there isn’t a single person in the firm who acts exactly like one of these “users,” but that doesn’t stop us from relying on this fiction.  Unfortunately, the fact that our actual users aren’t quite like our design personas means that our planning may not properly take into account their daily behavior.

Now, all of this careful planning assumes that people will behave well (or at least rationally or predictably) most of the time.  But what happens when they behave badly?  You don’t think this happens?  What about the recalcitrant lawyer who simply will not fill out a profile page correctly in the document management system?  Or the person who routinely stores client-related e-mails in their Outlook folders without ensuring they are copied into the Firm’s record management system promptly?  After watching God of Carnage and Wagner’s masterpiece, I’m left wondering if we should do more planning based on the assumption that people will behave badly more often than not?

[Photo Credit:  kmevans]


The Road Not Taken

Those of us who chase knowledge for a living have learned the hard way that our target frequently is elusive and the available tools and methods are not always adequate. Despite this, we do strive to identify and follow the best route for achieving the knowledge management goals set by our firms.  In a prior post, Off-Route, Recalculate, I wrote about how the current economic situation was forcing those of us in law firm knowledge management to recalculate our KM routes.  I also noted how difficult this recalculation was in the absence of any available KM global positioning system (or GPS) capable of suggesting viable alternative routes.

In response, Mark Gould recounted in Direction-finding how truly helpful his own car satellite navigation system was, and suggested that we could provide a similar navigation service for our external and internal clients:

This conversation made me think about extending the metaphor in a slightly different direction. As lawyers, we can be compared to navigation assistance for clients. They are the ones who specify the ultimate destination, and lawyers (together with other advisors) suggest different routes to get there, and keep things on track if diversions are made (whether those diversions are necessary or frivolous). Within law firms, those supporting KM and other internal activities need to adopt a similar role. Admittedly, our advisory role can be very different from that of a GPS system — we can influence the decision about the destination itself as well as the route taken to get there — but ultimately we have to respect the client’s choice of destination. This means that our advice should not be tainted by regret that a different destination was not chosen or that the business prefers to use back-roads rather than pay the tolls on the autostrade.

I’m struck by Mark’s observation that while we can suggest routes, we are not ultimately responsible for the choices made by our clients.  Our job is to identify the viable alternatives, make a recommendation and then, once the client has made a choice, do our level best to ensure an optimal outcome for the client.  It really isn’t terribly productive to spend a lot of time and energy mourning the road not taken.  Admittedly, it’s hard to work enthusiastically knowing that we don’t entirely agree with the client’s choice, but I guess that’s why they call it work.

While we’ve probably come to the end of the useful applications of this metaphor, I thought I would close by drawing on the wisdom of Robert Frost.  As he noted with such insight, while we may not always fully understand the choices before us, we should not foreclose the possibilities inherent in the road less traveled by.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– “The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost

[Photo Credit: Joaaso]


The KM Solution?

In a recent meeting,  a vendor said with great enthusiasm, “Let me show you our KM solution.”  For a brief moment of intense joy, I actually thought I was about to experience KM enlightenment.

I should have known better.

After a bit of fanfare, he unveiled … a search engine.  Admittedly, it appeared to be a very fine search engine.  Nonetheless, if search and retrieval were the entire KM solution, most of us engaged in law firm knowledge management could have retired years ago.  The reality is that while good search and retrieval are important components of a law firm knowledge management program, they cannot fairly be described as the complete answer.

I know that and you know that.  When will the vendors figure it out?

[Photo Credit:  Sharon Pazner]


Off-Route, Recalculate

Over the weekend, I met a rather opinionated person.  (Although, perhaps it is overstating it a bit to use the word “person.”)  She was very insistent that we do things her way and really wasn’t open to a conversation about alternative approaches.  If we decided not to follow her advice, she’d repeat insistently, “off-route, recalculating, off-route, recalculating.”  As you’ve probably guessed, this “person” lived inside the car’s global positioning system.

As we plan and carry out our knowledge management efforts, it can be difficult to identify the correct route.  And, it can be unpleasant to be informed that we’re off-route and need to recalculate.  Many of us have taken the current economic situation as a call to recalculate our routes.  Unfortunately, given the extent of the economic turmoil, it can be hard to identify our alternatives and most of us are all too conscious of the pressure on us to get the route right.  Further, few of us have knowledge management GPS.  So what should we do?

We should be suspicious of anyone who purports to be able to provide specific advice, since the conditions in our various industries and within our own enterprises vary greatly.  However, there are some constants that we would do well to remember:

  • Achieving the greatest good for the greatest number has never been more important.  Don’t waste your time and resources on projects that have limited positive impact.
  • If you have the choice between a project that requires a great deal of KM maintenance and a project that allows the ultimate consumers of the information to maintain the system, choose the latter.  You’ll never have enough staff to provide adequate maintenance.
  • Even if you have a large, agile KM staff, it’s still better to choose projects that put end-users in touch with each other rather than projects that require KM intervention.
  • Focus on facilitating the easy exchange of current information rather than on archival efforts.

When you recalculate your route, be careful.  Choosing the right route could make all the difference.

[Photo Credit:  SonnyandSandy]