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]

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Why KM Needs Good Design

If you don’t believe design matters, read this post, buy a can of Altoids and reconsider. I heard a great story at lunch on Sunday of a presentation made by Claudia Kotchka, Proctor & Gamble’s design and innovation maven, who explained what made Altoids great. And then, to drive the point home, showed her audience what would result if the green eye shade guys designed Altoids. Once they removed the tin (too expensive) and the paper (unnecessary), they ended up with something Claudia Kotchka calls “Proctoids.” The packaging was “a box made of cheap white plastic from P&G’s baby-wipe containers.” Very appealing. In fact, according to one report, “[w]ith uniform beige ovals jammed into the container, fewer colors on the lid, and no paper, Proctoids taste like Altoids, but they look as appealing as a pile of horse pills.” Unfortunately, people aren’t as willing to pay the 400% premium for unappealing horse pills in a plastic case as they are for the pleasure they get from opening that Altoids tin.

Now, let’s think about knowledge management systems as if they were P&G consumer products. What would your intranet look like if Claudia Kotchka was in charge of its design? What about your blogs and wikis? Your document management system? Not sure? Well, here’s the test: Would the lawyers in your law firm pay a 400% premium to use your KM system? If not, you should consider applying Claudia Kotchka’s design principles as reported by Chas Martin at Innovativeye:

1. Make it user centric through a deep understanding of user habits [and] need – physical and emotional.

2. Make it collaborative. Never work alone. There is no one right answer, so it’s not cheating to share information. A mix of skills are essential. (See Ten Faces of Innovation)

3. Challenge Mental Models. Ask different questions. The problem will look different, requiring a different type of solution.

4. Abductive. Start with prototype solution and test it. Learn backwards and logic the way to explain the result.

5. Experimental. Designers prototype with visual and tangible models. It’s easier to discuss something you can see. Prototyping starts the dialogue. It’s not the solutions, but [the] first of a continuous series [of] possible solutions. The second version can be radically different.

Good design is about problem solving, making things work better, and finding new opportunities. According to Tom Armitage, web developer at Headshift, “Design is not how it looks.” A.G. Lafley, the CEO of P&G, understood this when he asked Claudia Kotchka to incorporate design into P&B’s approach to business. In his words: “The goal is to transform the company from a place that’s good at selling `more goop, better’ into one whose products infuse delight into customers’ lives.”

Are your customers as happy as P&G’s? If not, make sure you incorporate the principles of good design at the planning stages of any KM implementation to ensure an end-product that works beautifully and delights your users.

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A Place for Every Thing

There is an old adage: “A place for every thing and every thing in its place.” And yet, if you’ve ever shared space with another human being, you know how hard it can be to (i) identify that one place and (ii) get everyone to put each thing in its “proper” place. (As I write, I’m staring at a bottle of dish washing liquid that always ends up on the “wrong” side of the kitchen sink, despite my best efforts!)

So why is it we think we can do better in our law firm knowledge management programs? The reality is that people often define the “proper place” for content differently. You only have to look at the variations in social bookmarking to see this. So, for example, instead of creating a rigid top-down taxonomy that imposes a regime of a single place for each thing (and then devoting the necessary resources on enforcement), why not spend your energy creating systems that allow users to organize the content as they see fit? After all, the point is to enable their easy use of the content — it really isn’t about ensuring that they find and use that content only in particular places.

At the end of the day, the purpose of the adage of one thing/one place is to eliminate options so that that you always know where to find your keys, your wallet, your cellphone, etc.  With the advanced search tools available today, we don’t need to worry about this quite the same way when it comes to electronic content. So instead of enforcing a single way of doing things, meet your users where they are. I guarantee they’ll be happier  — and then so will you.

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The Mysteries of Human Behavior


Let me introduce you to My Little Pony Scootaloo. According to the manufacturer, “SCOOTALOO pony loves to play games and be outside. She’s always on the go to meet and play outdoors with all her pony friends!” The suggested retail price for this toy is US$4.99.

To be honest, My Little Pony is not something I’ve spent any time thinking about before, but last Saturday night I couldn’t avoid thinking about it as I watched a My Little Pony toy just like the one pictured get auctioned to the audience at the current Broadway revival of Equus. After the curtain call, the cast asked the audience to bid on the toy in order to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. By the time the bidding ended, they had raised US$800. That’s impressive considering the prize normally sold for US$4.99.

What accounts for this incredible increase? You can find chapter and verse online about the psychology of auctions. Were the folks who bid on the toy completely irrational? Some (like Seth Godin) would say yes. However, that isn’t the complete answer. What I observed that evening was an audience that got caught up in the excitement of the show, the unscripted interaction with the cast, and the perceived value of the prize. It should be noted that the perceived value likely had less to do with the great work Broadway Care/Equity Fights AIDS does and more to do with the fact that members of the cast (including Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, Richard Griffiths (History Boys) and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager)) had autographed the toy.

People don’t always act rationally. However, people do tend to react predictably — if you know enough about human nature. When implementing a knowledge management program don’t assume that people will always do the right thing or even the sensible thing. People usually just do the thing they’ve always done. But they can be swayed by powerful countervailing forces. So while you’re drawing up your neat, logical plans on paper, make sure you spend a little time thinking about human psychology, documented user behavior, and key elements of your law firm’s organizational culture. That way you can plan for the way the very real people in your law firm are most likely to react. And, if a countervailing force is needed, you can dedicate the necessary time and effort to arranging it. To be clear, this is less about offering incentives (which according to many do not work), than it is a warning that perfect paper plans that assume rational user behavior rarely result in flawless implementations. Above all, you need to account for the messy and sometimes mysterious behavior of the users you are trying to help.

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The Pantyhose Fallacy and the Reality of Pants

In my earlier post today, KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy, I begged the indulgence of my male readers with the following words: “Stick with me, gentlemen. I’m sure there’s a male equivalent to this that I haven’t thought of yet.” Well there is an equivalent (or near equivalent) that is instructive: pants.

Traditionally, better quality men’s trousers have been sold in the following manner: they are ready to wear except for the fact that the hem is unfinished so that each wearer can tailor their pant legs to suit their individual preferences. This is a great example of the new operating principle I proposed in my prior post with respect to how we should deploy knowledge management tools in the 21st century:

Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs.

This will require a new kind of discipline from knowledge managers and their IT colleagues. Rather than looking for an application that merely meets the expectations of the lowest common denominator of users, we’ll need to look for intelligently-engineered apps that do the basics well but that can be tweaked by users to meet their (reasonable) needs. The trick here is to find software that permits this kind of tailoring, yet does not require a great deal of money, training, time or IT intervention to accomplish the modifications. In other words, wiki-like simplicity and Facebook-like flexibility.

Here endeth my disquisition on knowledge management and clothing — at least for now!

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KM and the Pantyhose Fallacy

The Pantyhose* Fallacy may not yet be a term of art in knowledge management and information technology, but I can guarantee that you already understand its underlying principle. [Stick with me, gentlemen. I’m sure there’s a male equivalent to this that I haven’t thought of yet.] Here’s the Pantyhose Fallacy: for years retailers have sold us a bill of goods — that it is possible for people of varying sizes and shapes to wear an article of clothing sold in a single size. They call it “one size fits all.” The sad truth is that the one size fits badly and doesn’t remotely fit all.

In the world of knowledge management, vendors have led us to bland, standardized implementations of tools that barely meet the needs of users. Perhaps we were unduly influenced by the big legal publishers who insisted we do it their way or not at all, but far too many KM efforts have forced square pegs into round holes. The imagined benefits of standardization caused us to overlook the real benefits of judicious customization to meet the needs of individual users. And now, those users are rebelling. Forget the rigid top-down taxonomy. They want to tag and organize content on the fly. Forget about limiting them to a small collection of recommended content. They want easy ways of identifying, segregating and then sharing their own “favorites.” Forget about hermetically sealing employees behind the firewall. They want to be able to mix and match the best of internal and external content as the spirit moves or the circumstances dictate.

The challenge for KM is to give up the imagined security of rigid standardization and adopt more flexible means of meeting user needs. This challenge moves KM personnel out of the role of prison warden and into the role of companion and facilitator. Facing this challenge requires switching from anodyne mega projects to deploying technology that is capable and robust enough at the core to permit users to lightly tinker with its functionality around the fringes without requiring a team of IT experts. Following this path, you should end up with tools that perform their basic functions reliably and well, while allowing individual users to tailor those tools to meet their immediate needs. Although we’ve been told that few users actually take the time to customize or edit, I wonder if this will change as more users begin to use flexible internet apps in their leisure time, and thereby learn the value of customizing tools to meet personal preferences and maximize personal expression.

But, even if you’re not entirely sure about the 21st century trends for technology, remember that 20th century example of pantyhose: One size almost never fits all.

[*A note to readers outside North America: pantyhose is also known as tights in many parts of the English-speaking world.]

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Working with the Smartest Lawyers in the World

Where do the smartest lawyers in the world work?  If Seth Godin is to be believed, each law firm knowledge manager could say “the smartest lawyers in the world work at my firm.”  In his post, All customers are smarter than average, he reports that people regularly rate themselves as “less racist than average, smarter than average, more generous than average.”  He goes further and posits that if asked, each company’s customers would consider themselves “righter than average.”

Even if you believe that the reports he cites are just another instance of “lies, damned lies and statistics,” how do you respond to the information that the folks you work with consider themselves smarter than the average bear?  What if they compound their enviable omniscience with a claim to being more infallible than everyone else — including you?  If this is how humans behave time and time again, then you’d be crazy to take at face value internal surveys in which the users of your knowledge management system self-report on their abilities and expectations.  After all, it appears that either we don’t know ourselves very well or we’re not willing to let anyone else know that there may be some foundation to our insecurities.  In light of these human tendencies, a knowledge manager would be wise to seek more objective confirmation of the self-reporting.  For example, reviewing search queries can tell you a lot about what people are looking for and how good they are at searching.  Reviewing help desk requests lets you know when and where users find themselves in trouble.  Similarly, usage metrics can tell you whether lawyers actually are trying to use your KM system and which content items seem to be used the most.  
These human tendencies of self-delusion can also have an impact on how we plan new knowledge management tools.  For example, if we take at face value what we’re told about the lawyers in our firm being smarter than the average lawyer, then we might make the mistake of creating a system that requires a user with greater technical facility (or tolerance) than the average user.  And, given that those lawyers (like most customers) think they are “righter than average,” any advice you get from them regarding how a KM system should operate would need to be cross-checked before using that guidance in your planning and implementation.  Finally, given what we are learning about the unreliability of self-reporting, we’d be wise not to fall into the trap of getting so caught up in planning the perfect knowledge management system in terms of user functionality that we forget to bake into that proposed system objective means of monitoring the actual (as opposed to reported) use and usefulness of the system.  
But as I write this, I can hear each of you saying to yourselves, “Of course, all of her comments apply to her firm and not mine — since the smartest lawyers in the world really do work at my firm!”
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What are People Searching For?

What are people searching for and where are they looking? That’s the question asked and answered in a thought-provoking article in the March 2008 issue of KMWorld. While working with an admittedly small sample, the survey yielded some interesting findings:

– 62% of respondents said that they first search the Internet before searching more specialized resources such as their own company’s website or intranet
– while 13% of the time the respondents said they were searching for information about their own companies, they began their search on their company intranet only 2% of the time
– respondents tended to ask their colleagues for help before they tried their company intranet
– business users spend a lot of time searching for information at work (approximately 9.5 hours per week)
– knowledge workers tend to search using general indices like Google and Yahoo rather than specialized web sites or search engines

The picture that emerges is troubling:

– companies aren’t doing a good job of making their intranets the first choice for company information
– despite the hours spent searching, many knowledge workers are not searching efficiently
– knowledge workers don’t seem to understand the inherent weakness of general web search engines like Google and Yahoo when it comes to finding specialized, high-value content
– searchers tend not to use content aggregators, specialized vertical search sites or topical sites to find data

For knowledge management, these findings pose some real challenges. In many companies, it’s the knowledge management group that’s responsible for the intranet. The findings of this survey are a real indictment of the job we’re doing. So what must we do differently to make our intranets the first choice research resource for our colleagues? It might be worth asking them.

And while we’re talking with them, we should investigate why it is they are using sub-optimal search methods. Is it a lack of awareness about how search engines like Google and Yahoo work? Do they simply not understand that high-value content can get buried in the Web, but will tend to be more visible on specialized web sites? According to the author of this article, people in the online industry know that “the `good stuff’ gets hidden if it is thrown into the larger web grab bag. And very often, it isn’t even in the grab bag because it isn’t indexed.” Clearly the average knowledge worker doesn’t know this or they wouldn’t be using the grab bag search engine.

Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the author notes that there are some signs of progress in the growing recognition of the value of finding high-quality information rather than merely relevant information. As a result, there is renewed interest in recommendation engines, contextual search and vertical search sites. These are “tools that will tell [knowledge workers] what they need to pay attention to in the pile” of information they face. In this age of overload, this sounds like a step in the right direction.

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Chocolates and Roses

Chocolates and roses are traditional Valentine’s Day gifts. And they are given for what purpose? The cynic might say behavior modification. Unfortunately, while chocolates and roses may facilitate a pleasant evening, they rarely bring about lasting changes in behavior. Something else is required.

Knowledge management by its very nature leads to behavioral changes. Good knowledge management does this so subtly that the user doesn’t put up much of a fight. Bad knowledge management requires more obvious pressure to counter the user’s natural resistance.

So what tools are popular in most organizations?

– Fear — “Do this or else ….”
– Nagging — “I know you really don’t want to do it, but I’m going to bug you until you do it. “
– Begging — “Please, please contribute content or we’ll have an empty portal.”
– Bribes — “We’ll give a Starbucks card to the user that contributes the most content to the portal.”

And which of these tools work? Not one of them is entirely successful over the long term. If used together, the only predictable result is that the knowledge manager will be disliked within the organization. Over the next few days, I’d like to look at other methods that have a better chance of achieving long-lasting behavioral changes. Stay tuned.

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Forget "User-Friendly"

How many times has a software vendor promised you that an application is “user-friendly”? And how many times have you been disappointed when you’ve discovered after launch that the application causes either user indifference or downright hostility?

So what’s the problem with “user-friendly”? This standard is too low. It means that the software vendor thinks you’ll be able to shove the application down the throats of your users without too much resistance. Is this how you want to spend your professional life?

What should the standard be? User-enticing. User-loved. How different life would be if the knowledge management applications we created and provided were so attuned to the needs and wants of users, so well-designed to fit seamlessly into their business processes and lives, that the users fell in love with the applications. This may seem like a pipe dream, but aren’t you tired of spending your time creating sensible systems that people won’t use or only use grudgingly? Aren’t you disheartened by the damage inflicted on your systems by the Workaround Wars?

It might be worth spending a little time thinking about what elevates an application from “friendly” to “loved.” There’s plenty of precedent. How many times have you been asked why your new application isn’t as “user-friendly” as Google or Amazon.com? Online retailers have had a serious monetary incentive in creating sticky websites that draw the user in and keep the user at their site. What makes them so successful? Are any of those techniques transferable to your KM system? Think about it. The answers might surprise you.

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