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It turns out touchy feely does matter

March 30, 2010

In today’s NYTimes, David Brooks wrote an OpEd piece in which he asks the question, “Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?”

He then goes on to describe recent research into happiness that shows that although the US is much richer than it was 50 years ago, overall happiness has not increased accordingly. Likewise, even though income inequality has increased dramatically in that same time period, happiness has remained unchanged.

The reason? It turns out social ties are what mediate personal happiness, not wealth. And apparently we have a strong communitarian bent in the US that enables us to maintain social ties with neighbors and institutions despite television and Twitter.

Brooks finishes up saying:

Most governments release a ton of data on economic trends but not enough on trust and other social conditions. In short, modern societies have developed vast institutions oriented around the things that are easy to count, not around the things that matter most.

It struck me that that is more than a little similar to what I see behind many decisions that take place in companies as they wrestle with nebulous concepts like knowledge management and employee engagement. In their efforts to stimulate more collaboration that could lead to increased innovation and productivity, companies time and again default to focusing on things that are measurable. This results in overlooking or giving short shrift to the things that would actually make a difference.

It’s much easier to build a database and ask people to go in and add their lessons learned or best practices, than it is to figure out how to redesign the workplace and the work that is done there in a way that would foster relationship building, leading to more collaboration. I can measure how many entries are in a database, and I can allocate budget for its construction and maintenance.

Changing the workplace, or thinking about how work is organized is difficult. And it’s not obvious how to measure it. And it could cost a lot of money and downtime. Too touchy feely.

And then there’s culture – the management hierarchy, deference to authority, fear of retribution in speaking up, lack of trust among colleagues who are in competition with one another for the next promotion. All serve to undermine the basic stuff of happiness, which it turns out would be of great benefit to companies, not to mention society as a whole.

So get busy rolling out that Sharepoint. Make sure you keep track of how much you’re spending on the software licenses and servers, and bring it in under budget.

Just don’t be surprised if you don’t see any change in your employee engagement scores on next year’s survey. Or any noticable uptick on your P&L.

The stuff that’s most important – increasing social capital and fostering collaboration – isn’t easy to bring about or measure. But it sure can make a real difference. Read the rest of this entry »

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The evolution of knowledge management and the Technology Eras hypothesis

March 26, 2010
  • or When Will Companies Finally Get It?

  • The other day a member of a web group I’m in asked, somewhat rhetorically, when we thought the US Fed would incorporate knowledge management into its official work agreements and policies the way it had information management (thank you, Albert S). His question arose from a discussion about how difficult it is to get mainstream buy in for KM as a legitimate body of concepts and practices in mature enterprises.

    This is a great question, prompting me to draft up for the first time a hypothesis I’ve mulled around for a decade or longer. So here goes.

    I believe one approach to detecting when KM will going “mainstream” is based on my own Hypothesis of Technology Eras. It goes like this:

    Upon the dawn of a new technology era the first application of the new technology is the optimization of the one that preceded it.

    For instance, when we moved from the agrarian to the industrial age, one of the first things that happened was industrialization of farming, leading to massive improvements in farm productivity. Ditto for the transition from the industrial age to the information age. IT was applied to manufacturing (and farming) in a series of successive waves to optimize it, resulting, again, in massive gains in productivity.

    KM is a bit trickier, or what comes after the information age for that matter. One way to tackle this question is to divide the Information Age up into a few smaller epochs or eras: you could identify the MIS era (<1993, pre-web), Web 1.0 era (1993-2006ish?), Web 2.0 (social media era, 2006 – present), Web 3.0 (mashup era, 2010/11?- ?).

    I’d locate KM’s true genesis within the Web1.0 era, even though Peter Drucker foresaw it several years earlier. Those of us who started practicing it then had a lot of trouble with the mainstream, and many mature enterprises used the principles to optimize information/document management (which emerged in the MIS era that preceded it). As the Social Media/Web 2.0 era picks up steam and has become mainstream in business, KM seems to be hitting its ascendancy as a legitimate body of knowledge and concepts. Perhaps we are now in the real KM era – social media being the last puzzle piece that was needed to make it truly viable at an enterprise scale. If that be true, then one could posit that as Web3.0 gains widespread traction one of the early uses of it will be to turbo-charge real KM in large enterprises that have so far only embraced limited or point-solution implementations.

    When will KM enter the slope of enlightenment?

    Gartner’s Hype Cycle ©2005 Gartner, Inc

    When will KM enter the slope of enlightenment?

    Of course all of this is pretty speculative, and even to me feels a bit forced. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see where things go next – after social media gets over the top of the hype cycle (inflated expectations) and down into the more realistic stage of using it for what it can do to make things work better. Heck, maybe that’s when KM will see another lift – people will realize business use of social media is much more than just tools and tech. It’s systemic, enterprise-level implementation of whole new ways of working that support strategic intent. And to me, that’s where KM gets interesting.

    We shall see.

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    Social networking behind the firewall: E2.0 here we come

    January 30, 2010

    The current issue of The Economist (Jan 30, 2010) includes a special report on social networking. In it they present a well-researched and written (as usual) series of articles covering this latest phenomenon’s arc across the business and social landscape.

    As a verbal marketer I was particularly interested to see what they had to say about the degree to which business is embracing social networking tools, and how they are using them internally to foster or support employee productivity. As usual, they did not disappoint.

    One article, “Yammering away at the office,” examined the “astonishing amount of time being wasted on investigating the amount of time being wasted on social networks.” It turns out that one research firm concluded that an outright ban of Facebook use in American companies would improve workplace productivity by 1.5%. Confidence intervals, anyone?

    The article goes on to cite the benefits social networking offers to knowledge workers in terms of finding information needed to do their jobs, as well as the work arounds they can easily resort to if they find themselves working for a company that discourages such practices.

    On the main the tenor of the article is quite supportive of the business use of social networking tools “inside the firewall”. And this is where I think things can get interesting, if not challenging.

    First,there is a question of what to use E2.0 applications and tools for, or even whether such a prescription should be made. Consider the promise of groupware applications like Lotus Notes. The brand promise was that enterprise-wide deployments of groupware would foster, indeed create, enterprise-wide collaboration. Unfortunately this was not the case and ultimately many large Notes deployments devolved into being used solely for email, and then, due to their uncompetitive cost structure, being ripped out and replaced with a competitor’s software.

    E2.0 apps like Yammer are not quite analagous on this front – they function as promised right out of the box, unlike Notes which turned out to be more of an application development environment. On the other hand, for companies with thousands of employees performing a complex assortment of jobs and tasks, it may not be immediately clear which group would benefit most from E2.0 apps, nor which apps in particular.

    Then there is the cultural dimension.  Even if a likely group is identified for an E2.0 pilot rollout there is no guarantee that the deployed tools will be used for their anticipated purposes, or at all.

    And maybe this is where a shift in thinking would be helpful. Maybe rather than spend too much time and handwringing trying to minimize the risk of failure of an E2.0 pilot firms need to simply trust their instincts on whether it is the type of application for them, and if it is, roll it out and see what happens.

    This would require that a firm’s leaders ignore all the hype and casual chatter about how great E2.0 is. It would require them to look at their businesses as objectively as possible and evaluate whether there are any obvious areas where E2.0 functionality could feasibly support the work being done there. And to also evaluate whether their culture is one that has the level of trust and open communication upon which the widespread uptake and use of these systems is so dependent.

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    iPad – Good name? Bad Name?

    January 28, 2010

    I must be a naming guru because two days ago I was talking with a friend of mine who asked me what name I thought would be attached to Apple’s new tablet when it was announced yesterday and, after a good three minutes of discussion and analysis, I came up with iPad (ok, me and just about every journalist pundit on the planet). Check please…

    The name was so obvious even before launch, it would be difficult to imagine calling this new product anything else. The question I’ve been musing on since it was announced is whether this is, in fact, a good name (regardless of the merits of the product, which is a whole ‘nother discussion).

    iPad – Pros

    a) positions the product well within Apple’s lineup of other mobile devices – iPhone, iPod; as distinct from its other product lines (e.g., Powerbook, desktop computing, etc.)

    b) is better than, for instance, iBook – as it encompasses a wider range of functionality than just downloading and reading books (cf Nook, Kindle positioning).

    c) Apple seems to pretty much own i[Anything], in much the same way BMW has come to own car models 3xx, 5xx, 6xx and 7xx. Not literally own, perhaps, but at least in terms of mindshare. (BMW’s iDrive not withstanding… good thing Apple doesn’t make cars :-)

    d) In terms of phonology the a in iPad is spoken as a more nasally sound compared to the swallowed o in iPod, so ostensibly a listener would not misinterpret which product is being referred to in conversation.

    iPad – Cons

    a) After over a decade of use is the i[Product] naming schema getting tired? Given the perhaps tricky product niche the iPad inhabits, shouldn’t the name at least reflect something new and different, rather than just more of the same??

    b) Although the phonology of iPad may help it remain distinct from the iPod in terms of its sound, from a cognitive standpoint I wonder whether owners of both (or anyone else) will unintentionally interchange the two names in conversation, especially given their similar user interfaces and functionality sets.

    c) And speaking of phonology, I personally do not like the way iPad sounds, nor do I like saying it. The short ‘a’ sound makes it sound bland and dull; and my face has to work too hard to get the word out, unlike the soft, cruisy sound iPod makes. Maybe I’m just lazy.

    d) And then there is the editor’s nightmare – which device did my writer intend to refer to?

    Conclusion

    The iPad name leverages well Apple’s huge brand equity that it has built around its highly successful iPod and iPhone products.  Apple’s use of the i[Product] naming schema dates back to the 1998 launch of the iMac G3. While this schema has significant association with Apple, it could be time to re-evaluate its currency, especially among Apple’s target demographic for these products. This last point could be especially critical in light of the ill-defined product niche the iPad is designed to fill. The introduction of the iPad may well turn out to be a missed opportunity for Apple to refresh its naming architecture with a successor to the i[Product] schema while providing a much needed boost in this new product’s market positioning.