The Paralysis of Choice

I’ve been staring at WordPress themes for hours on end and am going cross-eyed.  There are just too many choices.  The problem is that I’ve been laboring under the foolish notion that somewhere out there is the perfect WordPress theme for me.  Dumb!

The reality is that in blogging (as with many* things), all we need is a good enough choice.  The hunt for the perfect choice is just another way of delaying the need to make a commitment.  No matter what you’ve heard, we now know that there is really no guarantee that if you hunt longer you’ll find perfection.  In fact, Barry Schwartz tells us in the Paradox of Choice that most of the time the only reward for the painstaking weighing of too many choices is  — too much stress.

Now think about how we approach knowledge management projects.  If we listen to the siren song of vendors, we all too often choose projects with big budgets and big expectations.  As a result, every decision is fraught because the price of failure is high.  After all, how do you tell the partners in your law firm that you’ve spent thousands of their dollars on a “good enough” (but definitely not perfect, and possibly not great) solution?

Somehow we have to change our mode of operating, moving away from big productions worthy of Cecil B. DeMille, and closer to an indy film created with a camcorder.  When the stakes are lower, we are less likely to succumb to the paralysis of choice.  And then, a solution that is “good enough” suddenly becomes … perfect.

* Just for the record, nothing I’ve written here should be construed to apply to the choice of a significant other — especially if that person is reading this  blog!

[Photo credit:  Gregor Rohrig, Creative Commons License]

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Blinded by the Light

It’s amazing how long a person can agonize about making a change — stumbling around in the dark, trying to find the path forward.  For me, it literally took months.  Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I tried polling my friends on  Twitter.  The question was simple:  Should I stay or should I go?  Within minutes, the answers came flying back and they were nearly unanimous — Go!

Go where?  To WordPress.  (And you thought I was agonizing over something truly earth shattering, right?  But think about it for a minute.  My question is just a proxy for a lot of tough decisions we face daily.  It’s the process of working through the question that I want to focus on here.)  The reality is that when you’ve made an investment in something, it’s hard to turn your back on your sunk costs and start over again.  In fact, the real question for me was:  Do I stay where I’m comfortable or do I take a risk and move?

As you can see, I’ve moved.  But the thing that tipped the balance for me was identifying the issues that were holding me back:  fear of the unknown and fear of failure.  Once I named them, I literally was blinded by the light.  I’ve been writing for some time about the importance of change and, especially, about the importance of feeling free to fail in order to learn and grow.  In fact, I’m on record for saying that failure is a critical prerequisite of innovation.  So now, having seen the light, I have to put on my sunglasses and walk the walk.

I’m up to my eyebrows in change and just a hair’s breadth away from disaster.  But as I work through this particular set of experiments and changes, I’ll be documenting my lessons as they become clear to me.  After all, as long as we’re learning,  we can’t call the experience a loss.  And, we certainly can’t call it failure.

(Photo Credit:  Little Ricky, Creative Commons License)

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Great Canadian Content

Growing up in Canada, we were the “beneficiaries” of Canadian Content, a government policy designed to ensure we had enough exposure to homegrown culture that we didn’t succumb to the allure of those cultural hegemonists south of the 49th parallel. When I first moved south of the 49th, it was hard to find overtly Canadian content (although media watchers will know that there are a surprisingly large number of Canadians active in US media.) Today, however, we have access to lots of great Canadian content — not because of government regulation, but because of the excellence of the content and the open nature of the internet.

To celebrate that excellence, our blogging colleagues in Canada have instituted the Canadian Law Blog Awards, or CLawBies. The creator of the CLawBies, Steve Matthews (the terrific Vancouver Law Librarian and founder of Stem Legal), has implemented an innovative nomination process this year with the goal of fostering “some audience sharing & link-based infrastructure between members of the Canadian law blog community.”

In deciding which blogs I would nominate, I was interested to discover that in every case I read these blogs because they are consistently good rather than because they are Canadian. (The fact that they are Canadian is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.) Here are the Canadian blogs I’ve enjoyed in the past year:

Connie Crosby — I read Connie’s blog regularly and follow her on Twitter. Her background in law libraries and social networking gives her insight into those knowledge management issues that keep me occupied. Above all, how can you not pay attention to a great “Info Diva”?

Law21 — Jordan Furlong’s blog is a must-read for anyone thinking hard about intelligent ways to practice law. And, even if you’re not, he’s such a good writer that I’d recommend you read him anyhow!

Slaw — This is a category-busting blog: a community effort that covers a wide range of legal and cultural topics. There’s always something of interest and, due to the number of contributors, there is always something new.

Finally, I do want to thank Steve Matthews personally. He has been a terrific supporter of legal blogging on either side of the 49th parallel. Steve’s efforts to promote individual bloggers and legal blogging generally are marked with the kind of personal generosity that makes the blawgosphere such a rewarding place for those of us interested in good conversation and community. Thanks, Steve!

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An Early Holiday Gift from Dennis Kennedy

Our family has a strict rule (guaranteed to drive children crazy): first send the thank you note and then enjoy the gift. In this case, however, the gift arrived electronically and put an immediate smile on my face. In fact, I’ve been enjoying Dennis Kennedy’s gift for hours and this note of thanks is a little tardy.

And what was the gift? Dennis Kennedy was kind enough to include Above and Beyond KM on his 2008 list of notable blogs, also known as Dennis Kennedy’s 2008 Law-related Blogging Awards (The Blawggies). I was surprised and delighted to find myself in the company of some terrific bloggers. I invite you to spend a little time with the blawgs and blawggers Dennis called out for recognition. The list covers a wide range of law-related subjects and provides lots of thought-provoking reading.

All of this starts with Dennis, one of the pioneers of legal blogging. I was reading his writing before I even realized what a blog was. He has set a high standard not only for great content and longevity in this business but, most of all, for generosity.

So, thank you Dennis Kennedy!

With best wishes for the Holidays,
Mary

***********

And, because I couldn’t resist, here’s an excerpt from my post on April 15 in which I quote Dennis Kennedy:

In the inimitable words of Dennis Kennedy: “I have no doubt that Tom Mighell has mentioned many more new legal blogs than the number of blogs that have links back to his blog. He’s a saint I’m not quite that saintly.” Dennis makes this observation in the course of a post entitled “What are the Most Common Mistakes a New Legal Blogger Makes,” in which he reminds bloggers who are lucky enough to be mentioned by a more established blogger that they should not be delinquent in thanking the experienced blogger.

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Choosing Among 31 Flavors

There is a particular kind of paralysis that can overtake a person standing in front of an ice cream shop counter, trying to choose among 31 (or more) flavors of ice cream. Sometimes you end up choosing vanilla just because it seems impossible to make a single choice from all the available options. That’s how I felt when Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog asked me to send him my favorite blog posts. We’re fortunate that there are so many folks who have interesting and intelligent things to say about knowledge management, social media, human behavior and all the other topics I like to follow. So nominating some for his consideration was a pleasure. But then came the difficult part: which of my own blog posts did I like the best?

(Cookies `n Cream? Heath Bar Crunch? Mint Chocolate Chip? Butter Pecan? Help!)

So here’s what I did. I looked at the blog posts my readers seemed to like the most (based on site traffic reports and comments received) and then I thought about the posts I particularly enjoyed writing. Here’s the list I came up with today:

Is Your KM Department Serving Fish?

The Problem with Low-Hanging Fruit

Overcoming Hurdles to Web 2.0

Is Your Knowledge Management Strategic?

Why KM Needs Good Design

KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy

Putting Blinders on to Enhance Productivity

Just One Thing

If you asked me tomorrow, I might come up with a different list. But, for today, this is my multi-scoop alternative to plain vanilla.

Be sure to check back with 3Geeks and a Law Blog. They’re planning to publish today the list of all the recommended blog posts. I’m looking forward to reading them.

[photo courtesy of ulterior epicure under a Creative Commons license]

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Ask a Simple Question

It all started with some folks in Australia that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting: Laurel Papworth, Kate Carruthers and James Dellow. Each of them asked a simple question: How do you decide how/what/when to blog? James tagged Samuel Driessen, John Tropea and Jack Vinson. And then Samuel tagged me.

So how do I decide how/what/when to blog?

The HOW of blogging is relatively easy — at my iMac with a cup of something caffeinated nearby; multiple drafts until I get the content and tone right; and then a firedrill as I publish, discover the inevitable typo, fix it and republish.

The WHEN of blogging used to be early in the morning. However, as I’ve discovered more readers in other time zones, I’ve learned it makes more sense to write and publish at night. This means that by the time I’ve poured my morning cup of caffeine, my friends and readers elsewhere have left comments on my blog to continue the conversation. It’s a great way to start the day.

Closely related to WHEN is HOW OFTEN I blog. Over time, I’ve steadily built up the pace of my blogging from once or twice each week to once each weekday. Since I don’t blog from the office, posting multiple times during the day really isn’t practical. To be honest, publishing even once each weekday is pretty demanding and I don’t know if it is truly sustainable over the long term. Time will tell.

WHAT I blog about is really the hardest question to answer. I started out with a fairly clear focus: dealing with the non-technology elements of knowledge management that often end up being overlooked, even though they are so critical to KM success. What I soon discovered is that this focus encompasses a fairly wide territory. Deciding which section of that territory to explore on any given day is largely dictated by chance: What did I read or hear that sparked my curiosity? What have I been thinking about that could benefit from the rigor of writing? What issue has been troubling me and won’t give me peace until I’ve wrestled with it in writing? What question would I like to put into the blogosphere in order to have the benefit of the many thoughtful points of view provided by my favorite bloggers?

While I draw on my own experience and the experience of friends and colleagues, I tend not to blog about the personal. And, despite the considerable temptations provided by the US election cycle, I’ve refrained from discussing politics and religion. Money and gender do come up from time to time, but I’m only human.

And, while I’m doing this, I try to stay true to myself. A dear family friend recently told me that my blog posts sounded so much like me that reading my blog was like having a conversation with me. I was pleased to hear this since it has always seemed to me that authenticity of tone is critical in the blogosphere where so many of our relationships are virtual.

Enough about me. Who is next?

Early in October, I had the great pleasure of serving on a terrific panel on the topic of Blogging as Knowledge Management. Doug Cornelius convened the group and the other panelists were Bill Ives and Jack Vinson. Jack has already participated in this meme, so I’d like to draw in Doug and Bill and ask them to answer the question. In addition, I’d like to tag some bloggers I haven’t yet been fortunate enough to meet in person, but whose posts I always read. They never fail to be thoughtful and thought-provoking. So, here are the bloggers to whom I’d like to issue an invitation to participate:

Doug Cornelius (KM Space)
Jordan Furlong (Law21)
Mark Gould (Enlightened Tradition)
Bill Ives (Portals and KM)
Patrick Lambe (Green Chameleon)

Thanks, Samuel, for providing today’s blog post topic. All I’ve been able to do is offer a provisional answer. I expect it’s something I’ll come back to and answer differently from time to time.

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Knowledge Management Blogs

Who needs caffeine on a Saturday morning if you can have a Knowledge Jolt instead? I was about to put the kettle on this morning and stopped to check my Google Reader. That’s where I found Jack Vinson‘s post, A Study of KM bloggers, in which he reports on a recent “explorative study” by Pumacy Technologies that analyzes metrics on a variety of knowledge management blogs.

Looking at the month of August, they considered frequency of posting, number of comments, Google page rank and Alexa rankings. (There may be other criteria as well, but we’ll have to wait for Pumacy Technologies to explain further.) In any event, they’ve provided a list of over 50 KM blogs, sorted by blog activity.

Since I’m always interested in finding new KM blogs to add to my personal reading mix, I decided to click through to take a look at the blogs Pumacy Technologies identified. For regular KM blog consumers, most of the names on the blog list will not be surprising. Some of the best and most active commentators in this discipline are on that list. For example, Jack’s blog shows up as #11. What surprised me was that Above and Beyond KM was on the list as well as #15!

A closer look revealed that some good KM blogs were not on the list. While we don’t have a complete explanation of the study criteria from Pumacy Technologies, a quick review of the list indicates that they seemed to be tracking blogs that cover knowledge management generally as opposed to highly specialized knowledge management blogs.

In any event, do take a look at the list. You’ll find some well-known, well-established KM bloggers there. However, you’re also bound to discover a few new KM bloggers who have interesting things to say. So explore the list, read the blogs and join the conversation.

Above and Beyond KM began on January 21, 2008. Thanks to Pumacy for giving me this great way to celebrate 8 months of blogging.

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Encouraged Blogging

The comments to my earlier post, What Have You Learned, indicate that it would be worth pushing the conversation further to see if there is a middle path between the completely mandatory approach (i.e., blog … OR ELSE!) and the completely voluntary approach (i.e., blog only if it makes you feel good). John Tropea suggests that the best approach is to increase participation through example rather than coercion:

I think the key is to get a few dedicated willing people to do personal blogs. Keep going at it till a success story happens. … It has to happen naturally and virally, people have to want to do it…I think a bottom-up approach is best.

He then goes on to cite a success story on Kevin Jones‘ blog, Engaged Learning, in which one employee’s blog post helps another locate invaluable assistance and save the enterprise time, effort and expense. Obviously, as these successes are documented, the enterprise will get more invested in promoting blogging. But what about those reluctant employees who don’t see themselves as bloggers? As John rightly observed: “…it’s not going to be for everyone, some people are just not inclined to blog.”

Meanwhile, Mark Gould points to some helpful examples at Jive Software where blogging was required in relatively nonthreatening ways and this led to some positive results for the individuals involved and the enterprise generally. In the case of the mandatory new hire blog, it helped build community within the enterprise and introduced blogging to folks who had never had the chance to try it before. (Never underestimate the power of the fear of the unknown technology. Sometimes, just knowing that you have no choice about pressing forward helps you tackle the task. It is only afterward that you realize how the value of the exercise outweighed the imagined worries.)

Karyn Romeis provided a link to an interesting summary of the pro-blogging and anti-blogging points of view. The article quotes David Gurteen, whose explanation regarding resistance to blogging is recounted as follows:

Gurteen says a lack of understanding attributes to the masses that are yet to be persuaded. “They’re not understanding it and not wanting to understand it. They’re the people that say, whose got time to read those?”

Gurteen presents three different scenarios: “Those that see it, get it, love it and adopt it. Those that never, ever get it and see blogs as vanity tools and the group in the middle that are sitting on the fence and aren’t sure.” The ratio, says Gurteen, between those groups is very different.

Perhaps mandated blogging would help the agnostic and indifferent get over the hump. As for the terminally resistant, I’m not yet ready to venture a solution for dealing with them.

Finally, Mick Leyden points to what may be the fundamental flaw in the entire discussion: namely, that we’ve smothered blogging with the label social media. Here’s what Mick had to say:

As I read your post I found myself wondering if are we doing ourselves a disservice to describe the blog as a ‘social media’ tool in this context? … So the question is, is a blog classified as social media simply because it is a blog or because of how the blog is used?

This is a question worthy of a separate post. Stay tuned.

In a related blog post, Mick coins the phrase “encouraged” blogging. I like this one. It seems to capture the middle path: blogging isn’t just for those who feel like it, but equally, failure to blog need not necessarily result in summary termination (or execution). Rather, you bring social pressure to bear within the organization so that most understand that blogging is expected, if not absolutely required. In the event individuals really truly can’t (or won’t) participate in this fashion, hopefully they can find other effective means of contributing to their organization’s knowledge base and sense of community.

Encouraged Blogging — this sounds like an approach that could yield dividends within an organization. And, it might be the elegant middle path needed between the purely voluntary blogging and the mandatory blogging points of view.

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What Have You Learned?

It is with great trepidation that I gingerly re-open a can of worms that I inadvertently opened a couple of weeks ago. The blog flurry around mandating use within an organization of social media, generally, and blogging, specifically, was one I didn’t anticipate, but did find extremely educational and (after a while) a little exhausting.

So what encouraged me to overcome my reluctance about jumping back into the fray? A thoughtful post by Mick Leyden entitled, Is that a Tumbleweed. He too was drawn to the potential benefits of mandating blogging, but his approach is nicely-nuanced and bears repeating. Here are some snippets:

Initially I supported the idea and promoted it within our team. I reckon there is a lot of value in encouraging your team to put an hour a week aside to blog about their successes, challenges and random issues from the week.

…if we look at it as part of a personal learning strategy I see immense value in regular reflection for an individual’s practice….

He makes an important point that I want to endorse. Personal reflection is critical to the growth of every person and every learning organization. However, it is in the nature of most of us to be “human doings” rather than “human beings.” ** It is a rare person who stops regularly to review what has happened and why. In the context of social media and knowledge management, those folks willing to reflect spend their leisure time burning the midnight oil to write blog posts or contribute to wikis. They do it for the psychic rewards.

Those of us too busy doing stuff to stop to reflect sometimes just need to be given the time and space for reflection. Too often, that happens only when someone or something interrupts you long enough to stop the perpetual motion. What if that someone were management?

But what happens when the reflection is “forced” by an employer? Here’s what Mick Leyden (citing Karyn Romeis) has to say on that issue:

To come back to the point, you have to ask, is an individual going to gain the value from a reflective experience if they feel they are being forced to do it? This is where we come back to Karyn’s story, if we force adoption of a learning tool the learning experience will be tainted and the maximum value is unlikely to be obtained. More advisable, yet more difficult is – you guessed it – articulate the value to be obtained from the experience and make time available to the team to take up the opportunity.

So here’s my stab at (re)framing the proposal:

Ask each employee or employee group to use social media tools to record what they have learned each week.

This seems like a legitimate request for management to make. If employees have learned something, this request will encourage them to record that information where it can be shared and used by others. If they are given the time to reflect and the tools to record their reflections but don’t have anything to record, that’s an important indication to management. Are folks engaged in mindless activity that does not promote learning and growth for the organization? Are they failing to see opportunities for business process or work product improvement because they don’t stop long enough to really think about what they are doing? Does management need to take a closer look at the organizational culture that permits this approach?

As I said in an earlier post, work sometimes involves lots of things we wouldn’t otherwise choose to do (e.g., time tickets in law firms). That’s why it’s called work. And, our employers pay us to cooperate and produce. Social media tools are not sacred. Once they are imported into an organization they undergo changes as they adapt to a more constrained enviroment. At bottom, they are a means to a business end. This may seem far too hard-nosed to social media purists, so I apologize for being blunt.

I close by quoting the comment I left on Mick Leyden’s blog:

Mick: Thanks for advancing the conversation in such a constructive manner. It’s hard when a tool used initially for primarily social purposes is moved within a corporate environment. There inevitably is a restriction of freedom that comes with that transition. While I understand and sympathize with the social media purists, I’m also cognizant of the needs of the organizations that adopt these tools.

Your post has caused me to think further about this. I’ll be back blogging about it shortly. This topic seems a little like a visit to the dentist — not always fun, but definitely necessary.

Now I’m off to arm myself with a little laughing gas before the next round of conversation on this topic.

[**Credit goes to Deborah Twigg for pointing out to me the distinctions between a human being and a human doing.]

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Unsociable Uses of Social Media

There’s been lots of negative reaction here and elsewhere in the blogosphere to the notion of mandatory blogging. (See the comments from Patrick Lambe and Doug Cornelius to my earlier posts, Knowledge Management Made Easier and Knowledge Management Made Mandatory. Also see Doug’s post, Making Blogging Mandatory for Knowledge Management.) And, I’m not without sympathy. Nonetheless, I feel strangely compelled to play devil’s advocate a little longer.

We’re already seeing the mandatory use of social media tools within enterprises. For example, project leaders have begun insisting that team members provide project status reports via a wiki. Members of their project team don’t have a choice — they have to use the wiki to record the pertinent information. Similarly, there have been determined efforts to replace most e-mail communication within a group by the mandatory use of a wiki.

This is the thin edge of the wedge. Social media provides useful tools and businesses are going to want to promote the use of these tools for the sake of efficiency within the organization. And, given the nature of bureaucracies within most organizations, if the social media tools are being used for mission critical purposes, that use will be mandatory rather than optional. This is where business use parts company with the extra-curricular use of social media tools.

While it would be lovely to have the use of these tools be perfectly voluntary, how do you get the level of participation you need to meet business goals? What if you’re dealing with a mission critical matter? Are you willing to rely solely on the input of volunteers? What if the folks with the relevant information aren’t inclined to participate?

Years ago, the Doonesbury cartoon strip portrayed President George H.W. Bush as an ineffectual invisible entity who had an active “evil twin” named Skippy. It may well be that the purely voluntary form of social media also has an “evil twin” (at least as far as social computing purists are concerned), and that twin is the particular form of social media deployed within enterprises. We may not like all the ways that businesses put these tools to work, but at least they are beginning to use the tools. And, if they get anxious enough about their investment in these tools they will make use of the tools mandatory. This is how it ever has been and ever will be.

There, I think I’ve nearly exhausted my compulsion to play devil’s advocate on this topic.

So now, let me end by observing that when this conversation started heating up in the blogosphere, I was under the impression that my major crime was that I had unwittingly gored a sacred cow. What I seemed to be hearing at the outset was that while the mandatory use of wikis within an organization was acceptable, the mandatory use of blogs was not. This puzzled me. Was it just that bloggers were extra protective of their particular social media tool?

As the conversation evolved, however, it became clearer that the better basis for objecting was not the mandatory use of these tools per se, but rather the placement of these tools outside the regular work flow. (For an extremely helpful explanation of this concept, see Mark Gould‘s post, Going with the flow, and the accompanying comments.) So, to riff on Tim Leberecht’s proposal, if blogs were used by a project team to capture written conversations among themselves on a specific theme in an organized fashion, most of the blogging naysayers should concede that this is an acceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is “in-the-flow.” However, if blogs were used as diaries to be filled out at the end of each day, for example, this would be an unacceptable form of mandatory blogging because it is “above-the-flow” and is, therefore, an added burden that does violence to social computing principles.

For knowledge managers, the key is to deploy these tools initially so that they are in-the-flow. This should allow a rich repository of information to grow organically without any additional effort on the part of the knowledge workers. However, the contrarian in me says that there is still a place for social media tools above-the-flow. As Mark Gould observed, that’s where users step back from their day-to-day tasks to reflect and codify what they have learned. With that reflection comes an even richer source of information that is so valuable within a KM system.

Social media nirvana is one where each of us is free to choose our respective level of engagement. That type of freedom rarely exists within any organized structures. Why did we think it would be different when social media entered the workplace?

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