Metrics Need Context

I made a mistake the other day.  As I was leaving for work, I checked the weather report to see how warmly I needed to dress.  The forecast said 40 Fahrenheit.  So, my brain went through the following fairly logical steps:

  1. On the Fahrenheit scale, freezing occurs at 32 degrees.
  2. Today’s temperature is only 8 measly degrees above freezing.
  3. Therefore, it is practically freezing and I should dress warmly to avoid practically freezing myself.

So I put on my winter coat and walked out the door.  Moments later, it was clear that I had misunderstood the data.  I saw people walking in light jackets and, in a couple of slightly crazy cases, in shirtsleeves.  Where did I go wrong?  While 40 is fairly close to freezing, in New York City in January it can feel balmy — especially if it comes on the heels of a cold snap.  If you doubt this, think about how you  dress in the autumn in New York City as the temperature is plummeting towards winter.  Warmly, right?  To be specific, would you wear a sweater if it were 50 degrees Fahrenheit in September?  Yes, most probably.  Now think about a 50 degree day in March.  In New York City, you’re likely to see folks wearing shorts and T-shirts.

What is critical to this analysis is knowing that we’re talking about New York City rather than Miami AND we’re talking about specific times of year.  Both elements of context have a huge impact on how we interpret the bald data of temperature.  It is no different when thinking about the metrics you’ve so carefully collected (I hope!) to help understand the efficacy of your Enterprise 2.0 or knowledge management project.   Knowing that activity levels have risen may be interesting, but knowing that happened against a backdrop of falling business levels makes for interesting analysis.  What’s going on?  Why?  The metrics by themselves don’t tell the complete story.  They need faithful, honest interpreters who can place them in their correct context and draw appropriate conclusions.  We need to be those faithful, honest interpreters.

By the way, it’s snowing heavily in New York City as I write. I’ll be dressing warmly.

[Photo Credit: Qiao-Da-Ye]


Don’t Always Rely on Instinct

The heartbreaking photos from Haiti are compelling. How can you not help? In fact, most folks I know have been looking for effective ways to help. And, as they look, many find their instincts clash with reality. For example, some feel compelled to get on the first available plane to Port-au-Prince and DO something. But what? Unless you are trained in medical or emergency services, what will you do? Others instinctively feel that giving things must be superior to merely giving money. But is that true? Not according to the Haitian Embassy (pictured above):

Embassy officials and relief organizers say while packaged good donations are welcome, the best way to help the earthquake victims is with monetary contributions to reputable relief agencies. They argue that the damage to Haiti’s infrastructure is so great that it’s hard to know when and how donated goods will actually make it to the ravaged island. [emphasis added]

Big-hearted people of goodwill feel instinctively that this can’t be right.  But are they right?  If the picture of the Haitian Embassy is any indication, the gifts in kind will pile up in the United States until there is a reliable means of transporting them to Haiti and delivering them to the people in need.  (Assuming, of course, that these things can even be delivered before cold, wind and rain destroy them in their makeshift storage areas outdoors.)  This is hardly ideal.  In fact, this is a terrible waste of the wonderful human impulse to help those in need.

So, the first step is to get comfortable with the idea that giving money is, in fact, the most effective way for most of us to respond to the disaster in Haiti.  Then, be careful not to give into the impulse to give blindly.  Texting a donation may seem trendy, but is it the best thing to do?  Be sure you give to a charity that guarantees to send nearly all of your donation to Haiti rather than spending too much of it on administrative costs. (For guidance on this, see Charity Navigator.  Their four-star charities have good track records.)   And, while you’re at it, see if your employer is willing to make a matching donation. In this way you double the impact of your contribution — thereby maximizing the assistance that can be provided.

Sometimes even our instincts for good lead us astray.  The only known antidote is to gather information with an open mind and critical eye.  And then, when the evidence requires, question our instincts.

[Photo Credit:  Jonas Hosmer]


Enterprise 2.0 Requires Overalls

If you’re looking for overnight success, forget about social media. Snake oil salesman who tell you it’s easy (or it’s like magic) are NOT telling you the truth. Social media success, like pretty much everything else in life, requires hard work — thoughtfully and consistently done.  A recent Mashable piece, 3 Things You Need to Know About Social Media Strategy, makes this clear with the following advice:

  • Everyone Must Work Together – This definitely is easier said than done.  If your corporate culture is based on competition and bureaucratic infighting rather than cooperation and collaboration, you’ll have an uphill battle.

A company that hasn’t learned to listen to its own employees, and encourage them to collaborate internally, is not likely to succeed in integrating social media tools into its marketing mix, no matter what agency or consultant they hire.

  • Top Management Must Be On Board – Although you hear about social media as a grassroots phenomenon on the internet, it is a different animal when it is grafted onto a corporate culture.  Very little happens within an organization without top level support.  They control the staffing, the communications channels and, above all, the budget.

If the direction doesn’t come from the very top, managers, who have myriad reasons to fear change, will hang on to the status quo.

  • Don’t Expect Overnight Success – There is no such thing as “turnkey social media.”  You can’t just buy a tool and expect a social media revolution within your organization.  The first thing to realize that it’s not about the tools.  In fact, identifying the tool is the last stage of the process.  The first step is to understand what modes of communication and collaboration would best further your corporate strategy. Then, find a social media tool that will facilitate that.  If all you are doing is implementing the latest fad tool, your social media efforts will flounder.  And, even if you deploy the right tool for your needs, you should expect that it will take from 18 months to 3 years to gain significant traction.  That’s not my definition of overnight success. Is it yours?

If you’ve been under the illusion that implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools behind the firewall or launching an external social media campaign is easy, think again.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to accomplish one or the other with little or no pain, please let us know how.  In fact,  if you’re for real, you could probably charge a pretty penny as a social media consultant.  For the rest of us mortals, pull on your overalls and get to work because Thomas Edison could have been talking about social media when he said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

[h/t to David Gurteen for pointing out the Mashable piece]


Mind the Gap

There’s something quite comforting in the voice that reminds me to “mind the gap” when I travel the London Underground. That recorded message has saved me from many a misstep. It’s a pity we knowledge managers don’t hear a similar recorded message before we communicate with senior management or front line workers. There is a knowledge gap between us and our non-KM colleagues that can make good communication challenging.  There are things we know about facilitating collaboration and expediting the flow of information that they may never think about.  Equally, there may be things about their work that are not obvious to us, even as we work to provide them with knowledge management support.  Under these conditions, it’s painfully easy to talk past each other.  And that can be fatal.

Before you go to “sell” a knowledge management project to senior management or front line workers, think about it from their perspective.  What do they care about?  What do they want to know?  What do they need to hear to better understand how your solution addresses their problem?  Once you are able to approach things from the perspective of the people your KM system is supposed to serve, then you’ll go some distance in eliminating the risk of miscommunication.  Until then, mind the gap.


KM Bribery

There have been some recent high profile investigations of bribery in the business world. Has anyone checked the knowledge management world? I’ve heard reports of cash rewards, gift cards and coveted electronics offered by various KM departments to induce knowledge workers to participate in KM systems. In what way are these not bribes?

Here’s the sad part, while greasing the palm of a corrupt official may win a piece of business, bribing a knowledge worker to do anything except rote work rarely works.  I’ve linked below to a David Gurteen video on KM Incentives and a Daniel Pink video on Motivation, both of which explain some of the problems with offering incentives.  According to Dan Pink, knowledge workers find that extrinsic motivators (like cash rewards and gifts) tend to narrow their focus, limit their creativity and increase the pressure.  Rewards discourage risk taking.  In other words, extrinsic motivators create precisely the kind of conditions least conducive for creative, expansive, innovative work.  David Gurteen raises some additional issues relating to incentives for KM participation:

  • By offering an incentive for KM work, you imply that this work is a burden — an extra chore that no sane person would undertake without coercion or incentive.  Is this really the message you wish to convey?  Or, worse still, is this the reality of your KM program?
  • KM incentives change human behavior, training people to participate in a KM system only when bribed, rather than participating because it is the right thing to do.  He cites Alfie Kohn (author of Punished by Rewards) who believes that rewards can destroy the intrinsic motivation to do a job well or to do the right thing.  (See summary by Justin Podur.)
  • External motivators tend to encourage people to game the system.  Since they are being asked to do something they don’t really want to do, sensible people will try to do as little of it as possible for the maximum gain.  This leads to participation peaks near the deadline for tallying credit or forming alliances to rig the outcomes.

If KM incentives have little more than short-term value, then what should a wise knowledge manager focus on?  Focus on the elephant that has been standing quietly in the corner during this whole discussion:  you have to prove the value of your KM system.  If knowledge workers don’t believe that a system is valuable, then they will have little internal motivation to participate, and any external motivators offered will produce only grudging cooperation.  At the end of the day, effective people don’t really want to waste time.  If we can’t prove the value of our KM systems, then we are asking them to waste their time.  Under these conditions, offering an incentive is little more than providing a tranquilizer to ease the pain.

Daniel Pink’s Video

David Gurteen’s Video

[Photo Credit: jessicafm — using candy and toys to induce cooperation during a haircut]


How Failure Leads to Epiphany

Jonah Lehrer has written a thought-provoking piece on why we too often miss the great opportunities presented by failure. In Accept Defeat:  The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, he explains how our brains purport to “help” us by screening out information that doesn’t fit with what we believe we know.  Here’s how he describes it:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Ignoring failure can occasionally be a sanity-preserving, efficiency-enhancing approach to life.  However, when we ignore repeated failure, we may in fact be ignoring the only feasible explanation on the horizon.  Realizing this and acting on it requires strength of mind, openness, and a certain measure of humility.  It requires a true empiricist’s approach to life.

So how do we turn perceived failure around?  How do we find an epiphany amongst the rubble of unwanted test results?  Jonah Lehrer has the the following advice:

Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

When it comes to implementing Enterprise 2.0 tools, there’s no substitute for constant experimentation.  And, there’s no way to avoid disappointments as you struggle to find what works best in your organization.  That said, don’t be too quick to discard your apparent failures.  When viewed with an open mind, they may point the way to success.  By following Jonah Lehrer’s advice, you may be able to find a breakthrough — an Epiphany.


Here is some additional reading on Failure:

[Hat tip to Dan Pink for pointing out this article.]

[Photo Credit: wenzday01]


A Season for Giving

If you are a traditionalist you’ll know that January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Western Church, is the day for giving up and giving away. It is the day to give up your Christmas finery, packing it away until next December. It also is the Day of the Three Kings, when people give away gifts to commemorate the gifts offered by the kings. In Louisiana, today is the beginning of the Mardi Gras season — a time of fun and frivolity before the somberness of Lent.

A favorite food during this period of celebration in Louisiana is the King Cake.  For those of you who haven’t sampled this delicacy before, Wikipedia provides the following description:

In southern U.S.A., the tradition was brought to the area by colonists from France and Spain. King cake parties in New Orleans are documented back to the eighteenth century.It has become customary in the New Orleans culture that whoever finds the trinket must provide the next king cake.The king cake of the New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition comes in a number of styles. The most simple, said to be the most traditional, is a ring of twisted bread similar to that used in brioche topped with icing or sugar, usually colored purple, green, and gold (the traditional Carnival colors) with food coloring. Some varieties have filling inside, the most common being cream cheese followed by praline. Popular bakeries such as Gambino’s, Haydel, and Randazzo, feature original recipes and types of king cakes.

The King Cake is a wonderful metaphor for pragmatic knowledge management.  Just yesterday I thanked a colleague for his contribution to one of our knowledge management systems and in response he told me that his team had been able to complete their project in record time because another colleague had made an earlier helpful contribution to the same knowledge management system.  In other words, the first contribution was the trinket in the King Cake.  The lawyer who found it then stepped up to make a contribution of his own.  When things work this way, knowledge sharing increases exponentially and knowledge managers have to spend less time helping skeptical lawyers understand “what’s in it for me.”

Best wishes for a great season of Epiphany.  I hope you and your colleagues enter into the generous spirit of the season.


The Value of Checklists

Let’s start with the premise that you’re fantastic. In fact, you’re well-trained, experienced and routinely exhibit good judgment. So, do you need a checklist? Ask a pilot or a surgeon.  Surgeon Atul Gawande did exactly that and learned some interesting — and sobering — things.  In a recent interview, he discussed his latest book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, which recounts his exploration of the value of checklists.  Time and again, he found that checklists were an effective antidote to ignorance, uncertainty and complexity.  He and his team developed a two-minute checklist that covered some basics for surgery (e.g., do we have enough blood and antibiotics?), as well as some basics for good teamwork (e.g., does everyone in the Operating Room know the name of each person in the room?).  They then tested these lists in eight different hospitals.  The results were stunning.  For example, when they took the time to make introductions, they had a 35% decline in deaths and complications related to surgery.

Creating checklists for routine procedures makes sense.  They allow you to act quickly and confidently.  Creating checklists for complex situations are even more important since these are precisely the times when you are most beset by uncertainty and may not even know what you don’t know.  In these cases, it’s helpful to have a checklist that can help pin down facts and eliminate areas of concern.

After the trial period in eight hospitals, 80% of the surgeons involved said they would continue to use the checklist.  Interestingly, 20% remained resistant.  They believed that the checklists were a waste of time and didn’t add value. However, when asked if you were having an operation, would you want your surgeon to use the checklist, 94% of those resisters said they would.

So why are professionals resistant to checklists?  Atul Gawande thinks that this is because experts have a hard time admitting their own fallibility.  There are also experts (be they lawyers or knowledge managers) who approach their work as “artistes.”  Therefore, they believe their creative outflow cannot be reduced to a dry checklist.  Finally, there are the thousands of us who race through our days just struggling to get things done.  In the press of business, it is hard to take the time to stop and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  It’s harder still to take the time to document it.  Tragically, when an error or accident happens, we are forced to stop and think about what went wrong.  Under those circumstances, the analysis is charged, value-laden and painful for all concerned.

Is there a two-minute checklist you could develop this week that might help strengthen your work flow or work product?  If so, can you afford not to make the investment of time required to create that checklist?

[Photo Credit:  Adam Sacco]