Seeing is Understanding

2014-11-09 19.46.06 What is 9? To some it is a large number, to others insignificant. In some circumstances, it means a great deal. In others, it may be virtually irrelevant.

What do I mean? Consider the following, quite different uses of the number:

  • 9 grains of sand
  • 9 miles
  • 9 lives (relevant primarily for cats, of course)
  • 9 on the Richter scale

Once I provide a little context, then you begin to understand the true meaning of the number.

In our numbers-obsessed world, it is easy to forget that a number is an abstract idea. It rarely is as exact as we would like to believe. Further this abstract nature means that what I understand when I see a particular number may not be exactly what you understand. Our understanding of numbers can be shaped by our own context and experience. For example, a healthy profit for one company may be a rounding error for another. Because of this, we need to go the extra mile to ensure that the numbers we use and the way we present them convey the intended meaning.

This is where data visualization steps in.

I was very fortunate to be in London last November. There I experienced first-hand the power of data visualization done right.  It was on November 9, 2014. I emerged from the Tower Hill tube station into the dark Sunday evening to find hundreds of people silently looking at the floodlit Tower of London. Or, more precisely, looking at the moat around the Tower.  In that moat were 888,246 bright red poppies.  The flow of poppies began at a Tower window, spilled down the outer wall and then filled the moat entirely.

At one level, it was really quite simple: the people were looking at a public art installation conceived by Paul Cummins and Tim Piper entitled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. The artists created it by planting in the moat one red ceramic poppy for every British or colonial life lost during the First World War. It was an incredible way to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War.

The effect of so many poppies was to create a vibrant river of red (or of blood?) in the moat.  When I saw the magnitude of this river, I experienced almost physically the impact of that much blood and that many lives lost. The number 888,246 was now much less abstract for me. And the experience of that loss of abstraction was unforgettable.

This is the power of effective data visualization. Its impact can be profound.

With the recent hype regarding Big Data, it is easy to forget that the point of collecting and analyzing large quantities of data is to give birth to insight and, ultimately, impact. Even the analysis and presentation of smaller sets of data should be done with the goal of provoking insight and impact.

Whether you are making a report, designing a financial dashboard or creating a public art installation, the way you present your numbers can be either obfuscating or enlightening. It can result in confusion or in greater clarity. Data visualization done right can help you get your core message across in a way that simply typing a number on a page cannot.

Seeing is understanding. Do not underestimate the value and sheer power of data visualization. Thankfully, the creators of the poppies at the Tower of London did not and I, for one, am truly grateful.

[Photo Credit: V. Mary Abraham]

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.com.

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Do the Impossible

Apple_gray_logoToday I had the good fortune to speak with George Blankenship at Fund Forum International 2015. In his long and storied career he has been a key customer experience architect at Gap, Apple, Microsoft and, most recently, Tesla Motors. During his presentations today, he took his audience inside Apple and Tesla to look at the ways of working and, more importantly, the ways of thinking that have made both of these companies such groundbreakers.

Blankenship was recruited from Gap by Steve Jobs to help Apple launch its retail stores. Until that time, Apple products were sold by people who were not Apple employees in places that were not owned or managed by Apple.  Before designing what became the phenomenally successful Apple retail approach, Blankenship went out into the field to observe their potential customer in the wild.  He discovered that most customers came into computer shops knowing that they wanted to buy any computer except an Apple computer.  To their mind, Apple computers were for oddballs, not for regular people. So the first challenge was to help customers actually get to know the real Apple and, along the way, develop an understanding of how an Apple computer might in reality be a good choice for them. To do this, Blankenship and his team decided to “ambush” potential customers in their natural habitat at times when they were not thinking about buying computers.  This meant creating stores in malls that might catch their attention as they walked by on their intended errand to another store.

As they came to know their potential customers, Apple came to understand better than the customer what would delight the customer. As a result, they were able to create products and services that customers did not even know they wanted.

How did they create this want? According to Blankenship, it was because of Apple’s strict fidelity to four key principles:

  • innovation
  • design
  • simplicity
  • the ownership experience

Having designed great products, the next challenge was to actually reach the customer.  For Blankenship, reaching the retail customer is easy if you do four things:

  • design great space
  • hire great people
  • treat them well
  • turn them loose on the public

Even if you do not aspire to overturn Apple’s dominant position in retail, you can learn lessons from Apple about how it rigorously develops its products and services, cultivates its staff and delights its customers.  You can also learn from Apple’s incredible focus and resolve. In Blankenship’s words, “Don’t let anyone get in your way when you know that the thing you are doing is the right thing to do.”

Blankenship left us with the following challenge:  “Things always seem impossible…until someone does it.”  Apple has redefined the retail experience, the mobile experience, the music experience, the babysitting experience.  Someday someone will redefine the funds industry or the legal industry. Will that someone be Apple or you?

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Happy Year of the Ruminant

Lundy_sheep_(head_detail)East Asians have just celebrated the lunar new year. While all of them use the Chinese character “yang” to name the animal symbol of the year, some translate yang differently. In Chinese, yang could mean goat, sheep or ram. We’re told that it’s likely that the ancient meaning in China was goat. The Vietnamese also translate it as goat. Meanwhile, the Tibetans call this the year of the female wood sheep. (This one was new to me — I’d never heard of wood sheep before.)

While there may be controversy regarding the specific translation of yang, there is no dispute that sheep, goats and rams are all ruminants:

ru·mi·nant
noun
  1. an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
  2. a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.
adjective
  1. of or belonging to ruminants.

As I read the definition, I wondered if yang should be the symbol of knowledge management? We KMers are neither even-toed nor ungulate. However, there is a measure of cud chewing and regurgitation that we encourage in the interest of  knowledge sharing and reuse. Even more importantly, we should be contemplative people. As much as we need to be action-oriented, we also provide an enormous service to our organizations by regularly taking a step back to think deeply about what is going on and how it could be better.

A recent working paper published by the Harvard Business School reported that there was markedly increased productivity in organizations that adopted one simple daily practice: at the end of each day employees asked themselves “what worked well today and why did it work so well?” They then took a few minutes to journal their findings. The results were impressive:

The researchers put new employees into groups where people either reflected on their days or didn’t. In the reflection group, employees were given a paper journal and asked to spend 15 minutes at the end of their workdays writing about what went well that day, which they did for 10 days.

The result: The journaling employees had 22.8% higher performance than the control group.

 

I mentioned this study earlier in the year because it made a big impression while driving home the following points to me:

  1. Although it is sensible to have a to-do list that keeps us on track, we must not get so busy doing that we no longer have a clear understanding of what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
  2. Keeping ourselves oriented towards improvement and innovation requires consistent work. The work of daily reflection helps us to see where innovation is possible and where improvement has been achieved.
  3. Daily accountability is the secret to making each day count and making the next day better.
  4. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to work less and think more, the ruminant approach ultimately yields more rewarding work and superior results.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been experimenting with various reflection/journaling approaches to try to find the one that allows me to build on this daily practice. In this brief period I have already seen some remarkable improvement in my productivity.

In this year of the sheep/goat/ram, take a leaf from their book and spend a bit more time chewing the cud. And, once you’ve done that, write down the results of your reflection. As you reflect and write, you will find yourself incorporating your learning into your daily work. According to the HBS study, this will improve your processes and productivity. That’s not a bad outcome for 15 brief minutes of reflection and writing each day.

May you have a wonderfully happy AND productive year of the ruminant!

 

[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]

 

 

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Infinite Energy KM

cat-98359_1920We know that a cat always lands on its feet. We also know that a slice of toast always lands buttered side down. So what happens when you attach a slice of toast (buttered side up, of course) to the back of a cat and then toss both out the window?  Does the cat land on its feet or is it completely overcome by the force of the buttered bread? This puzzle is known as the buttered cat paradox and has spawned a host of interesting and sometimes comical responses. For my money, the folks at Flying Horse came up with the best answer: the tension between landing on feet versus landing buttered side down causes the cat to spin. This results in the infinite energy generator. Brilliant!

What does this have to do with law firm knowledge management?

In 2006, Chris Boyd and Ron Friedmann wrote an article advocating that law firm knowledge management professionals spend their time and energy in a more effective way. Their article, Powering a KM Windmill, recommended that we move away from KM activities that are heavily dependent on human effort (i.e., treadmill activities) and focus instead on KM activities that derive their energy from existing firm processes (i.e., windmill activities):

A practical and achievable way to maximize KM results is to capitalize on existing law firm information flows and business processes. By doing so, a firm can get the greatest possible “K” returns for a reasonable “M” effort. Think of a windmill rather than a treadmill. Whereas a treadmill keeps turning only via human effort (analogous to PSLs) or dedicated power from a generator (analogous to KM-specific software), a windmill relies on dependable winds (analogous to work flows and processes that exist independent of KM requirements).

Boyd and Friedmann were building on an earlier article by Dan Felean in which he laid out a slightly different treadmill / windmill dichotomy:

Knowledge management will not thrive as a separate process. Most KM experts now predict that KM will soon lose its separate identity, as it becomes embedded or “baked” within existing work systems. Mario D’Amico, chief technology strategist at PensEra Knowledge Technologies, describes this “knowledge funneling” approach as resembling a windmill rather than a treadmill. “Instead of constantly prodding the user to contribute tremendous effort (the treadmill), we must attach or embed the means for contribution and usage within existing lawyer work processes, so knowledge is funneled naturally from work,” he says. “By blending KM contribution and consumption with the daily attorney workflow, the process can gain more participation and become self-sustaining, propelled by natural processes–like a windmill.”

In either case, the focus was on spending your time and energy wisely in pursuit of your knowledge management goals.

Of course, all of this got me thinking. Clearly, being tied to a treadmill is a modern equivalent to being a galley slave. But is the windmill the right answer? While a windmill may be easier than a treadmill for the humans involved, how do you produce results on days that are not windy? Wouldn’t it in fact be better to create a system that was more like a watermill? The beauty of the water-powered wheel is that it will turn as long as the water is flowing. In most cases, this flow will be constant and steady — unlike the wind in many locales. Yet, even in this case, constant energy is not guaranteed. Someone could construct a dam upstream. Or a drought could cause the water to dry up.

Enter the buttered cat paradox. If you watch the Flying Horse video below, you’ll see how they created an infinite energy generator by putting the buttered cat paradox to work. Without a doubt, an infinite energy generator is far superior to a treadmill, windmill or watermill.

The question KM professionals should ask themselves with respect to every project is this:  are we setting up a process that relies on brute force (treadmill); periodic external energy (windmill); or near constant external energy, barring intervention upstream or climate change (watermill)? Or have we set up a system that will of its own accord create the energy necessary to make it self-perpetuating? If we can design projects that are self-perpetuating, then we will have found our KM equivalent of the infinite energy generator.

In a pinch, however, you could always use a buttered cat.

 

[Photo credit: Katzenspeilzeug]

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When Technologists are Challenged by Technology #ILTA13

ILTA13 It’s my good fortune to be attending the International Legal Technology Association’s 2013 Conference. The conference takes place this year at the Caesar’s Palace resort in Las Vegas. For a relative Las Vegas novice like me, everything here is a little larger than life — including the prices of food and drink. However, today’s main challenge was not expensive coffee. Rather, it was the WiFi.

Clay Gibney, ILTA’s unfailingly helpful IT Director, just sent a note to all attendees letting them know that his team and the hotel’s engineers are hard at work to improve the WiFi available in the conference areas. Since the ILTA conference focus is on education, I should not have been surprised by the fact that his email was itself highly educational as far as I was concerned. For example, I learned that the Hotspot/ MiFi devices of the few can disrupt the WiFi of the many. I also learned that, even in 2013, the best safety net is arriving to conference with a personal data account courtesy of AT&T, Verizon or one of the other telecommunications providers.

In my case, I had data accounts on my iPhone and on my iPad, but my thumbs just weren’t up to the task of rapid data entry. I had been planning to be super efficient by using the excellent keyboard that is part of my laptop. Unfortunately, my laptop could not reliably connect to the WiFi. For someone who spends most of her time at conferences tweeting up a storm, this day has been challenging. That said, there were several people who had more productive thumbs and were able to tweet a fair amount today. You can find their tweets under the hashtag #ILTA13. I hope to be among them tomorrow.

 

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