Archive for Knowledge management

Can Human Sensors Contribute to Improving Search Technology?

Information Today fall meetings usually have me in the Enterprise Search Summit sessions but this year KM World was my focus. Social networking, social media and tools are clearly entering the mainstream of the enterprise domain as important means of intra-company communication, as many corporate case presentations revealed. But it was Dave Snowden’s Thursday keynote, Big Data vs. Human Data, which encouraged me because he conveyed a message of how we must synthesize good knowledge management practices out of both human and machine-based information. Set aside 52+ minutes and be prepared to be highly stimulated by his talk .

Snowden does the deep thinking and research on these topics; at present, my best option is to try to figure out how to apply concepts that he puts forth to my current work.

Having long tried to get enterprises to focus on what people need to do to make search work meaningfully in an organization, instead of a list of technology specifications, I welcome messages like Snowden’s. Martin White called for information specialists for search management roles earlier this year in a CMSWire piece. While it may be a stretch to call for “search specialists” to act as “human sensors,” it does merit consideration. Search specialists have a critical role to play in any enterprise where knowledge assets (content and human expertise), data retrieval and analysis , and understanding user needs must fit cohesively together to deliver a searchable corpus that really works for an organization. This is not typically an assignment for a single IT professional focused on installing software, hardware and network oversight.

One of the intangible capital assets defined by a recent start-up, Smarter-Companies, Inc., is human capital. Founder Mary Adams has devised a methodology to be used by a person she calls an Icountant. An Icountant establishes values for intangible capital and optimizing its use. Adam’s method is a new way of thinking about establishing asset value for organizations whose real worth has more to do with people and other intangibles than fixed assets like buildings and equipment.

Let’s consider the merit of assigning value to search specialists, those experts who can really make search technology work optimally for any given enterprise. How should we value them? For what competencies will we be assigning jobs to individuals who will own or manage search technology selection, implementation/tuning and administration?

Rather than defaulting to outside experts for an evaluation process, installation and basic training for a particular technology, we need internal people who are more astute about characteristics of and human needs of an organization. High value human sensors have deep experience in and knowledge of an enterprise; this knowledge would take the consultant off-the-street months or years to accrue. People with experience as searchers and researchers supporting the knowledge intensive units of a company, with library and information science training in electronic information retrieval methods must be on the front lines of search teams.

Knowledge of users, what searchable content is essential across all business units, and what is needed just for special cases is a human attribute that search teams must have. Consider the points in White’s article and the wisdom of placing humans in charge of algorithm-based solutions. What aptitudes and understanding will move the adoption of any technology forward? Then pick the humans with highly tuned sensitivity to what will or will not work for the technology selection and deployment situation at hand. Let them place search technology in the role of augmenting human work instead of making human workers slaves to technology adaptation.

If you are at the Gilbane Conference next week, and want to further this discussion, please look for me and let me know what you think. Session E7 will have a special focus on search, Strategic Imperatives for Enterprise Search to Succeed, a Panel Discussion. I will be moderating.

Leveraging Search in Small Enterprises

A mantra for a small firm or start-up in the 1970s when “Big Blue” was the standard for top notch sales and selling was we need to out-IBM the IBMers.

Search is just one aspect of being able to find what you need to leverage knowledge assets in your work, whether you are in a small firm, a part of a small group in a large organization or an individual consultant seeking to maximize the masses of content and information surrounding you in work.

My thoughts are inspired by the question asked by Andreas Gruber of Informations und Wissensmanagement in this recent post on Enterprise Search Engine Professionals, LinkedIn group. He posed a request for information stating: For enterprise search solutions for (very) small enterprises (10 to 200 employees), I find it hard to define success factors and it seems, that there are not many examples available. If you follow e.g. the critical success factors from the Martin White’s Enterprise Search book, most of them doesn’t seem to work for a small company – simply because none of them can/will investment in a search team etc.

The upcoming Enterprise Search Europe meeting (May 14-16, 2013) in London is one focus of my attention at present. Since Martin White is the Chairman and principal organizer, Andreas’ comments resonated immediately. Concurrently, I am working on a project for a university department, which probably falls in the category of “small enterprise”. The other relevant project on my desk is a book I am co-authoring on “practical KM” and we certainly aim to appeal to the individual practitioner or groups limited by capital resources. These areas of focus challenge me to respond to Andreas’ comments because I am certain they are top of mind for many and the excellent comments already at the posting show that others have good ideas about the topic, as well.

Intangible capital is particularly significant in many small firms, academia, and for independent consultants, like me. Intensive leveraging of knowledge in the form of expertise, relationships, and processes is imperative in these domains. Intangible capital, as a percent of most businesses currently surpasses tangible capital in value, according to Mary Adams founder of Smarter-Companies. Because intangible capital takes more thought and effort to identify, find or aggregate than hard assets, tools are needed to uncover, discover and pinpoint it.

Let’s take the example of expertise, an indisputable intangible asset of any professional services. For any firm, asking expert staff to put an explicit value on their knowledge, competencies or acumen for tackling the type of problem that you need to have solved may give you a sense of value but you need more. The firm or professional you want to hire must be able to back up its value by providing explicit evidence that they “know their stuff” and can produce. For you, search is a tool to lead you to public or published evidence. For the firm being asked to bid on your work, you want them to be able to produce additional evidence. Top quality firms do put both human and technology search resources to work to service existing projects and clients, and to provide evidence of their qualifications, when being asked to retrieve relevant work or references. Search tools and content management methods are diverse and range from modest to very expensive in scope but no firm can exist for long without technology to support the findability of its intangible capital.

To summarize, there are three principal ways that search pays off in the small-medium business (SMB) sector. Citing a few examples of each they are:

  • Finding expertise (people): potential client engagement principal or team member, answers to questions to fulfill a clients engagement, spurring development or an innovation initiative
  • Retrieving prior work: reuse of know-how in new engagements, discovery of ideas previously tabled, learning, documentation of products and processes, building a proposal, starting point for new work, protecting intellectual property for leverage, when patenting, or participating in mergers and acquisitions.
  • Creating the framework for efficiency: time and speed, reinforcing what you know, supporting PR, communications, knowledge base, portraying the scope of intellectual capital (if you are a target for acquisition), the extent of your partnerships that can expand your ability to deliver, creating new offerings (services) or products.

So, to conclude my comment on Andreas’ posting, I would assert that you can “out-IBM the IBMers” or any other large organization by employing search to leverage your knowledge, people and relationships in smart and efficient ways. Excellent content and search practices can probably reduce your total human overhead because even one or two content and search specialists plus the right technology can deliver significant efficiency in intangible asset utilization.

I hope to see conference attendees who come from that SMB community so we can continue this excellent discussion in London, next month. Ask me about how we “ate our own dog-food” (search tools) when I owned a small software firm in the early 1980s. The overhead was minimal compared to the savings in support headcount.

Coherence and Augmentation: KM-Search Connection

This space is not normally used to comment on knowledge management (KM), one of my areas of consulting, but a recent conference gives me an opening to connect the dots between KM and search. Dave Snowden and Tom Stewart always have worthy commentary on KM and as keynote speakers they did not disappoint at KMWorld. It may seem a stretch but by taking a few of their thoughts out of context, I can synthesize a relationship between KM and search.

KMWorld, Enterprise Search Summit, SharePoint Symposium and Taxonomy Boot Camp moved to Washington D.C. for the 2010 Fall Conference earlier this month. I attended to teach a workshop on building a semantic platform, and to participate in a panel discussion to wrap up the conference with two other analysts, Leslie Owen and Tony Byrne with Jane Dysart moderating.

Comments from the first and last keynote speakers of the conference inspired my final panel comments, counseling attendees to lead by thoughtfully leveraging technology only to enhance knowledge. But there were other snippets that prompt me to link search and KM.

Tom Stewart’s talk was entitled, Knowledge Driven Enterprises: Strategies & Future Focus, which he couched in the context of achieving a “coherent” winning organization. He explained that to reach the coherence destination requires understanding of different types of knowledge and how we need to behave for attaining each type (e.g. “knowable complicated “knowledge calls for experts and research; “emergent complex” knowledge calls for leadership and “sense-making.”).

Stewart describes successful organizations as those in which “the opportunities outside line up with the capabilities inside.” He explains that those “companies who do manage to reestablish focus around an aligned set of key capabilities” use their “intellectual capital” to identify their intangible assets,” human capability, structural capital, and customer capital. They build relationship capital from among these capabilities to create a coherent company. Although Stewart does not mention “search,” it is important to note that one means to identify intangible assets is well-executed enterprise search with associated analytical tools.

Dave Snowden also referenced “coherence,” (messy coherence), even as he spoke about how failures tend to be more teachable (memorable) than successes. If you follow Snowden, you know that he founded the Cognitive Edge and has developed a model for applying cognitive learning to help build resilient organizations. He has taught complexity analysis and sense-making for many years and his interest in human learning behaviors is deep.

To follow the entire thread of Snowden’s presentation on the “The Resilient Organization” follow this link. I was particularly impressed with his statement about the talk, “one of the most heart-felt I have given in recent years.” It was one of his best but two particular comments bring me to the connection between KM and search.

Dave talked about technology as “cognitive augmentation,” its only truly useful function. He also puts forth what he calls the “three Golden rules: Use of distributed cognition, wisdom but not foolishness of crowds; finely grained objects, information and organizational; and disintermediation, putting decision makers in direct contact with raw data.”

Taking these fragments of Snowden’s talk, a technique he seems to encourage, I put forth a synthesized view of how knowledge and search technologies need to be married for consequential gain.

We live and work in a highly chaotic information soup, one in which we are fed a steady diet of fragments (links, tweets, analyzed content) from which we are challenged as thinkers to derive coherence. The best knowledge practitioners will leverage this messiness by detecting weak signals and seek out more fragments, coupling them thoughtfully with “raw data” to synthesize new innovations, whether they be practices, inventions or policies. Managing shifting technologies, changing information inputs, and learning from failures (our own, our institution’s and others) contributes to building a resilient organization.

So where does “search” come in? Search is a human operation and begins with the workforce. Going back to Stewart who commented on the need to recognize different kinds of knowledge, I posit that different kinds of knowledge demand different kinds of search. This is precisely what so many “enterprise search” initiatives fail to deliver. Implementers fail to account for all the different kinds of search, search for facts, search for expertise, search for specific artifacts, search for trends, search for missing data, etc.

When Dave Snowden states that “all of your workforce is a human scanner,” this could also imply the need for multiple, co-occurring search initiatives. Just as each workforce member brings a different perspective and capability to sensory information gathering, so too must enterprise search be set up to accommodate all the different kinds of knowledge gathering. And when Snowden notes that “There are limits to semantic technologies: Language is constantly changing so there is a requirement for constant tuning to sustain the same level of good results,” he is reminding us that technology is only good for cognitive augmentation. Technology is not a “plug ‘n play,” install and reap magical cognitive insights. It requires constant tuning to adapt to new kinds of knowledge.

The point is one I have made before; it is the human connection, human scanner and human understanding of all the kinds of knowledge we need in order to bring coherence to an organization. The better we balance these human capabilities, the more resilient we’ll be and the better skilled at figuring out what kinds of search technologies really make sense for today, and tomorrow we had better be ready for another tool for new fragments and new knowledge synthesis.

Apples and Orangutans: Enterprise Search and Knowledge Management

This title by Mike Altendorf, in CIO Magazine, October 31, 2008, mystifies me, Search Will Outshine KM. I did a little poking around to discover who he is and found a similar statement by him back in September, Search is being implemented in enterprises as the new knowledge management and what’s coming down the line is the ability to mine the huge amount of untapped structured and unstructured data in the organisation.

Because I follow enterprise search for the Gilbane Group while maintaining a separate consulting practice in knowledge management, I am struggling with his conflation of the two terms or even the migration of one to the other. The search we talk about is a set of software technologies that retrieve content. I’m tired of the debate about the terminology “enterprise search” vs. “behind the firewall search.” I tell vendors and buyers that my focus is on software products supporting search executed within (or from outside looking in) the enterprise on content that originates from within the enterprise or that is collected by the enterprise. I don’t judge whether the product is for an exclusive domain, content type or audience, or whether it is deployed with the “intent” of finding and retrieving every last scrap of content lying around the enterprise. It never does nor will do the latter but if that is what an enterprise aspires to, theirs is a judgment call I might help them re-evaluate in consultation.

It is pretty clear that Mr. Altendorf is impressed with the potential for Fast and Microsoft so he knows they are firmly entrenched in the software business. But knowledge management (KM) is not now, nor has it ever been, a software product or even a suite of products. I will acknowledge that KM is a messy thing to talk about and the label means many things even to those of us who focus on it as a practice area. It clearly got derailed as a useful “discipline” of focus in the 90s when tool vendors decided to place their products into a new category called “knowledge management.”

It sounded so promising and useful, this idea of KM software that could just suck the brains out of experts and the business know-how of enterprises out of hidden and lurking content. We know better, we who try to refine the art of leveraging knowledge by assisting our clients with blending people and technology to establish workable business practices around knowledge assets. We bring together IT, business managers, librarians, content managers, taxonomists, archivists, and records managers to facilitate good communication among many types of stakeholders. We work to define how to apply behavioral business practices and tools to business problems. Understanding how a software product is helpful in processes, its potential applications, or to encourage usability standards are part of the knowledge manager’s toolkit. It is quite an art, the KM process of bringing tools together with knowledge assets (people and content) into a productive balance.

Search is one of the tools that can facilitate leveraging knowledge assets and help us find the experts who might share some “how-to” knowledge, but it is not, nor will it ever be a substitute for KM. You can check out these links to see how others line up on the definitions of KM: CIO introduction to KM and Wikipedia. Let’s not have the “KM is dead” discussion again!