Knowledge Management


OVER MANY YEARS I have built up a practice of taking audio recordings of talks and discussions at meetings, then editing and processing them into MP3 files that can be placed on the Web for streaming or downloading. It has always seemed a shame to me that so many organisations attract excellent speakers, whose lecture is listened to by a few score people at most, when it is so easy to use a little technology and skill to keep their words ‘in orbit round the globe’, for years and years after.

As a member of the Specialist Groups community of the British Computer Society, much of my recording work has been done for BCS groups and branches. I also regularly record at meetings of the International Society for Knowledge Organization (UK chapter), and in 2009 we replicated thus more than half the presentations at their first ISKO-UK international two-day conference.

One of my most recent audio-recording projects, which came out to the great satisfaction of all concerned, was a highly dynamic presentation on ‘Conquering the Imposter Syndrome’, given by executive coach Deena Gornick to a joint meeting of BCSWomen and Women in Technology. I edited together the choice bits of presentation with some interview segments between Deena and Women in Technology’s Maggie Berry, and you can now listen to the result from the WiT Web site. Incidentally, my ability to make this recording relied heavily on the technical capabilities of my new Marantz digital recorder, which is what this blog post is really about!

I also create explanatory and documentary videos, and a good quality audio recorder is very useful in preparing the narration track. Somewhat similar is a ‘slidecast’, Slideshare.net’s term for an audio narrative synchronised to a set of slides on their online hosting service. I wrote about my experience of making one of these a while back on this blog.

From tape and disk to solid-state

Olympus DS50 audio recorder

I’ve used a variety of tape and disk based audio recording devices in the last 15 years, including four MiniDisc machines, but in the last three years I have switched to devices with solid-state memory for storage. To transfer a 45-minute recording from MiniDisc or DAT tape to a computer for editing takes 45 minutes; but with these new-style devices, the recording is laid down in memory as a WAV or WMA or MP3 file, and is transferred to the computer in seconds, which is already an advantage.

I wrote about my ‘slidecasting’ experiment at a time when my main system was a well-designed but bulky and increasingly unreliable HHB MiniDisc recorder; my solid-state device, which I actually used for the slidecast, was a little handheld Olympus DS-50 voice recorder (a superior dictaphone, if you like).

HHB MiniDisc recorder with Røde studio mic in foreground and Sennheiser shotgun mic below.

The advantage of the HHB (when it worked) was its ability to take input from two independent external microphones, providing them with ‘phantom power’ if the mic technology needed it. As for the Olympus DS-50, it is a remarkably effective device for its size, and I always carry it about with me; but it can use only its own microphones, and because its internal memory is fixed at one gigabyte, it has to make use of a compressed audio data format (WMA) internally.

How things change! Recently, flash memory has become much cheaper, more capacious, and capable of faster data transfers. Compact digital cameras and camcorders now typically use one or other flavour of the Secure Digital memory card (‘SD card’) for storage, and today there is a crop of audio recorders which take the high-capacity version (SDHC). That is also true of the Olympus successors to my DS-50, such as the LS-10 which has a full-size SDHC slot. (If you fill up a card while on an assignment, you can always pop in another.)

Because SDHC storage is so capacious and speedy, many digital audio recorders now record uncompressed audio with a fidelity which in the past was associated only with DAT tape or hard disk recorders. The Olympus LS-10, for example, can record 24-bit WAV stereo files with a sampling frequency of 96 kHz.

A year with Zoom

Zoom H4

Zoom H4 is a popular digital recorder amongst musicians

In January 2009, I was on the look-out for a solid-state digital recorder which would be able to ‘inherit’ the full set of microphones from my now-abandoned HHB MiniDisc machine. I have two Røde large-diaphragm studio condenser microphones, which deliver outstanding clarity when properly mounted and positioned, plus a Sennheiser ‘short shotgun’ microphone which is extremely directional, and is my typical choice for video work. I also have a Sennheiser Evolution e85 handheld dynamic mic which is more suited to reportage situations.

I took advice from a Soho shop for musicians, which in retrospect was a mistake. They convinced me that the Zoom H4 recorder was a world-beating favourite. I bought one (but not from them; Studiospares is always cheaper!) and started to experiment.

During 2009 I made many fine recordings with the Zoom H4: for example, the ISKO-UK conference series referred to above. I have never used the Zoom’s own built-in microphones, always plugging my own mics in via XLR shielded cabling. (The XLR cable format has a third pin to carry phantom power out to the mic, and the shielding prevents picking up radio interference from the local taxi company or, as is more likely these days, someone’s mobile phone hunting for a signal.)

Zoom H4 shortcomings

It wasn’t long before I discovered four annoying shortcomings of the Zoom H4:

  • Feeble pre-amps. This is why asking a music shop for advice was such a bad idea. The Zoom H4 is a great favourite with bands who want a convenient small device with which to record their practice sessions, and those guys are LOUD. They don’t need the microphone signal to be boosted much, whereas someone recording meetings really needs substantially greater pre-amplification of the incoming signal.
  • Greedy for power. The Zoom H4 can be powered from a pair of AA batteries, but it drains them very quickly, especially if you use NiMH rechargeables. That might be OK for recording four-minute songs, but not for two-hour meetings.
  • Dreadful interface. I have used the Zoom H4 in lectures as an example of the difference between ‘functionality’ and ‘usability’. Its fiddly switches and jog dial, and the tiny LCD display with anaemic backlighting, make it a real pain for an older and somewhat long-sighted person like me to work with.
  • Not built for ‘the field’. There’s no way to attach a carrying strap to the Zoom H4, it doesn’t sit securely on a table, and the build is rather fragile.

Using an AudioBuddy pre-amplifier to compensate for the poor pre-amps in the Zoom H4 itself

I was able to solve the first two problems (for example when recording for ISKO) by plugging my microphones into a separate portable ‘Audio Buddy’ pre-amplifier, and powering each of these devices from their power packs, plugged into mains power. Then I would take line-level input from the Audio Buddy into the audio recorder.

This set-up has the added benefit that the Audio Buddy has a separate, easily adjusted gain control knob for each input channel. My ‘ideal’ mic set-up for a lecture is to put a quality Røde condenser mic near the speaker, on the ‘main’ channel, and keep the short shotgun mic beside me (suspended in a Rycote hand-held shockmount) on the second channel. I keep the gain on the secondary channel turned down until I need the shotgun mic to pick up questions from the floor, or to re-inforce the primary audio if the speaker wanders away from the microphone.

So, I had a workable solution. But it was annoying to find that the Zoom H4 was, in effect, only usable when I had access to mains power, and it also necessitated dragging extra gear along to each meeting where I was invited to record.

Twice or thrice as nice: Marantz PMD661

These experiences prompted me to do my research more carefully this time, and to pay particular credence to the opinions of field recordists and radio journalists. My choice at the beginning of this year was a Marantz PMD661 recorder, and my experiences with this machine have all been positive so far.

Marantz PMD661 recorder, belt-mounted

Marantz PMD661, suspended from my belt with an Arno strap. The cable from my dynamic interview mic is plugged into the ‘bottom’ of the device, and I am adjusting the gain knob.

Compared to the Zoom, the Marantz is more than twice as expensive, twice the volume, and perhaps three times the weight; but even so, that’s quite compact, smaller and much lighter than a digital SLR camera. The Marantz is built substantially, and the control surfaces are laid out ergonomically for two main modes of use: horizontally, with the device set on a table, or suspended vertically on a shoulder-strap through the strong metal connection loops. Latterly I’ve been keeping an Arno buckle-strap through one of the loops, and clipping that to a carabiner on my belt.

On the broader control surface (the ‘top’ in horizontal use mode), there is a large legible OLED multifunction display, and coloured LEDs signal the recording status and the sound levels of the two recording channels: all very useful when recording in low light levels. The Record, Record-Pause and Stop buttons are all comfortably thumb-sized. The narrower control surface, which is the ‘top’ when you have the Marantz at your side, carries the quarter-inch jack socket for headphone monitoring, the headphone volume control, and concentric recording-level adjustment dials for the two channels. You can operate these by feel alone.

Sound in and out

Whichever way you use the Marantz PMD661, when its interface is oriented towards you, the XLR sockets are at the side facing away from you. I can understand why the Zoom is configured the other way round, but it doesn’t make for convenience in the field.

In addition to the XLR inputs, which can be set as ‘line’ or ‘mic’ or ‘mic with phantom power’, there is also a competent pair of inbuilt mics, a ‘digital in’ port (electrical S/PDIF), and a secondary ‘line-in’ port for a 3.5 mm stereo microjack. I use this last when recording from my DAB radio.

And here is the all-important news: the microphone pre-amps in the Marantz are excellent! They are so powerful that I have been able to bring my voice-coil dynamic interview mic back into use. I’m also able to use my favourite Beyer DT-100 monitoring headphones: the Marantz headphone amp is strong enough to overcome their 100-ohm resistance.

Unlike the Zoom H4, the Marantz PMD661 can output through an inbuilt stereo pair of speakers. They’re not wonderful, but if you want to review an interview with your interviewee, they’re dead handy.

Power with intelligence

As for the power situation, the Marantz takes four AA cells, either alkaline or NiMH (nickel-metal hydride). I use the new-style low self-discharge NiMH type, rated at 2300 mAh, and I can get more than two hours’ continuous recording (with phantom power) out of them. With alkalines, I’m good to go for over five hours free of mains power.

In the settings menus, you can tell the Marantz which of these power options you are using – a feature I’ve not seen on any other electronic device. The importance of this is that NiMH cells start delivering power at 1.4V, but rapidly drop to 1.25V at 10% discharge, then maintain that voltage for most of the discharge period. Many devices (e.g. my DAB radio) interpret this low-voltage reading from NiHM cells as a ‘these batteries are flat’ signal, which ain’t true. Good thinking, Marantz!

To record a conference ‘properly’, I’d still lug my Røde mic and mic stands, use mains power and even include the Audio Buddy in the loop; but now with the Marantz I have the additional capability (a) to ‘go walkabout’ at an event, which proved necessary for the Deena Gornick recording and (b) to keep a lightweight recording kit on me at all times, such as illustrated in the photos, in case something comes my way ‘serendipitously’.

Two takes on time

Finally, I must touch on one very peculiar ‘feature’ of the Zoom H4. One one or two occasions I have had a need to record the video of an event, but also capture the audio on a separate audio recorder (for example, one occasion when my filming position was at the very back of a lecture theatre and I wasn’t able to run a long cable from there to where I wanted the microphone to be).

When I tried that with the Zoom H4 as my audio recorder, I found that its ‘sense of time’ drifted away from that of the video camera, making it impossible to synchronise the two recordings. Checking on the Web, I find that this is a well-known and much criticised feature of the Zoom H4. Incidentally there is now a new Zoom recorder, the H4a, which has vastly improved interface and control surface; but whether this particular glitch is fixed or not, I don’t know.

Three days ago I was filming at a meeting in a London hotel, and for a slightly different reason this time I was again recording the audio separately, this time to the Marantz. I’m pleased to say that I was able to synchronise the audio to the video perfectly this time, using the Marantz audio and throwing away the camera audio. Another thumbs-up for the PMD661!

At a recent social media networking meeting I did hear accusations of unreliability directed against the Marantz. Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Or maybe the critic was referring to the predecessor, the PMD660, which did draw a lot of flak, for example for the ‘noisiness’ of its pre-amp circuits. The PMD661 is a substantially redesigned machine drawing on the lessons learned from its predecessor, which I guess reinforces the message that you are generally better off not buying Version One of anything!

Dave Snowden at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe at the BT Tower in London: 17 February 2009.

Dave Snowden at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe at the BT Tower in London: 17 February 2009. Photo Conrad Taylor.

33 YEARS AGO, I lived in a commune at Wick Court, a Jacobean manor house situated between Bath and Bristol, which was then the head office and conference centre of the Student Christian Movement. Another of the 17 or so communards was the SCM’s Chairman, Dave Snowden, a spare, bearded Welsh Marxist Catholic philosophy and physics graduate. Taking no prisoners in argument, and delighting in winding people up, Dave gave the impression of having slipped from another historical epoch, though whether it was from some future time, 1920s Russia or perhaps the Counter-Reformation was less easy to judge.

Our paths separated after Wick Court. Last summer I was again in the Bristol region, staying with my friend Bob Bater, who works in the area of knowledge management — a field I have strayed into from my lifelong interest in information design and communication. Bob told me about the work of a company called Cognitive Edge and its founder Dave Snowden, a description of whom sounded remarkably familiar. So when I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Dave Snowden at a Gurteen Knowledge Cafe event at the BT Tower in London, I made an effort to go along.

Quite apart from the joy of re-union (and some grand views of London from the revolving restaurant at the top of the tower), it was also fascinating to discover how Dave’s thinking and mine have been oscillating around some of the same attractors over the years. Mind you, he has made a great deal more use of them than I have, through his many consultancies with major enterprises, and even state security organisations.

The topic for the day’s Cafe session was How can we best keep employees engaged in their work, in the current economic climate? But Dave’s talk addressed a much wider set of issues around what organisations should do to adapt to a complex and crisis-ridden world — one in which the ‘lessons’ of the past are no longer a guide for future action, and ‘management by objectives’ doesn’t equip us with the agility and intelligence to respond to emergent threats and opportunities.

Paradigm shifts in management thinking

The word paradigm has many sloppy uses, but Dave deploys it strictly to mean a theoretical framework: very close to the use established by Thomas Kuhn in his book on the sociology of scientific knowledge, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. For a period of time, a paradigm dominates because it seems best to organise our thinking about the world; but then, a new approach that flies in the face of received wisdom and which is initially ridiculed gets taken up; and at a certain point, a ‘paradigm shift’ occurs and the former heresy becomes the dominant idea. The revolutions associated with Copernicus and Darwin are two such instances.

In the last 120 years, said Dave, two paradigms in succession have dominated management thinking. The first of these, dubbed Scientific Management (or ‘Taylorism’ after Frederick Winslow Taylor, its progenitor), focuses on the function of the business organisation and takes a command and control approach to the organisation of work. In this period, the emphases are on mass production, time and motion, automation and efficiency. The Machine is the model, and people are viewed as components of the system.

The second paradigm identified by Dave Snowden is Business Process Re-engineering, which took off in the 1990s. The belief in BPR is that one should look anew at the company’s objectives and define the outcomes or goals you want to achieve, the values or behaviours which you want your staff to adopt. Dave notes that this makes several assumptions, among them that you can pre-define your goals, and that one can rely on a form of causality in which results are repeatable, that the past is a guide to the future. The approach also relies on scalable and reliable technology (particularly information and communication technology) through which metrics can be gathered and control can be driven.

And now, said Dave, we are entering a third paradigm, which it was his job to explain. Rather than projecting an idealised future, this approach seeks to understand and manage the evolutionary potential of the present. It is people-focused, exploits mass collaboration and pervasive social computing, and relies on distributed rather than centralised cognition.

Dave also displayed for us a quote from Seneca:

The greatest loss of time is delay and expectation, which depend upon the future. We let go the present, which we have in our power, and look forward to that which depends upon chance, and so relinquish a certainty for an uncertainty.

Catastrophes, niches and predators

Dave argues that times of economic crisis also tend to coincide with paradigm shifts, the times when the previously dominant set of ideas appear weak and the opportunity arises for the new model to take hold. Focusing on evolutionary potential and emergent trends in the present is particularly beneficial in opening our attention to novel possibilities for ways of doing business.

An idea he borrows from evolutionary biology is ‘Dominant Predator Theory’. This holds that after a major disturbance of the ecology, there will be one predator species that will first make the move into the new niche, occupy it and dominate it. The speed with which the predator can move into this niche is key to its dominance; and agile companies will be the ones that emerge from the current crisis in best shape.

Systems and agents: three configurations

To understand how an organisation might exploit the third paradigm, Dave presented three system models: ordered, chaotic and complex. By ‘system’ he means networks that have coherence, though that need not imply sharp boundaries. ‘Agents’ are defined as anything which acts within a system. An agent could be an individual person, or a grouping; an idea can also be an agent, for example the myth-structures which largely determine how we make decisions within the communities and societies within which we live.

  • Ordered systems are ones in which the actions of agents are constrained by the system, making the behaviour of the agents predictable. Most management theory is predicated on this view of the organisation.
  • Chaotic systems are ones in which the agents are unconstrained and independent of each other. This is the domain of statistical analysis and probability. We have tended to assume that markets are chaotic; but this has been a simplistic view.
  • Complex systems are ones in which the agents are lightly constrained by the system, and through their mutual interactions with each other and with the system environment, the agents also modify the system. As a result, the system and its agents ‘co-evolve’. This, in fact, is a better model for understanding markets, and organisations.

Most people understand how to think about order and chaos, but understanding complexity requires a new mind-set. One property of complex dynamic systems is that patterns may take shape within them that can rapidly escalate if they find reinforcement. Many people know of the phrase ‘the butterfly effect’ to express how interactions between agents can sometime build rapidly into something that would have been hard to predict. The key to managing complex systems is therefore to attune to spotting emerging trends as early as you can, sometimes referred to as weak signal detection. If you have the means of detecting signals early, you can move to boost those that you view as positive, and dampen down those which are negative.

The childrens’ party metaphor

I don’t remember the younger Dave as a raconteur, but he’s certainly an accomplished one now. To explain the difference between the above three systems and how to manage them, he told a story about the rules around a birthday party for his 12-year-old son, and his 16-year-old daughter.

What would happen if you were prepared to model a 12-year-old’s party as a chaotic system? Anything could happen, including the house being reduced to ashes. What would an ‘ordered system’, ‘management by objectives’ approach look like? Dave span out a fantasy process starting with declaring the objectives for the party, pinning up motivational posters, writing a project plan with clear milestones at which progress would be measured against declared outcomes, starting the party with motivational video and Powerpoint, and after the party, reviewing the outcomes and updating the best-practice database. (That raised a laugh and ripple of applause.)

Far better to model the kids’ party as a complex system. You set boundaries (‘cross that and you’re dead!’) — but you keep them flexible, you see if you can stimulate the formation of ‘attractor mechanisms’ that will set up some good patterns, and you keep a weather-eye open for bad patterns that you will want to disrupt. Your aim is: to manage the emergence of beneficial coherence. And the benefits in business of adopting this process, Dave asserted, are that you get as dramatic an improvement as business process re-engineering ever got you, and at a low cost if you spot the patterns early and move appropriately.

Dave’s 16-year-old daughter’s party raised the stakes to a new level, as a previous incident involving a couple of friends and a bottle of vodka had given them cause to know. Here, the rules were more carefully set: who could be invited, what kind of alcohol etc. Shortly before the impending event, Dave was working with a well known client organisation in Langley, Va. USA, and sympathetic friends there loaned him an extensive array of surveillance equipment. With the house fully bugged, Dave and his wife stayed in their bedroom, tuned in, and only twice had to make forays so as to be on hand to disrupt possibly negative emergent patterns. ‘In a complex system, what counts is your weak signal detection,’ Dave explained.

Distributed cognition

Swindon’s Magic Roundabout

Swindon’s Magic Roundabout


Distributed Cognition is a key concept in Dave Snowden’ vision of the new way to manage radically networked organisations, and he explained it with reference to the so-called ‘Magic Roundabout’ in Swindon. I’ve been trying to get my head round it (according to Dave American visitors can’t get cars round it!), and my best way of conceptualising the roundabout is as a very compact ring road, with traffic in both directions, linked to five radial roads by a mini-roundabout at each junction.

The Magic Roundabout offloads onto drivers the decisions about how to interpret the traffic flows, when to go and to stop, which way to turn and so on. The roundabout has no traffic lights. That’s what distributed cognition is about: you rely on the intelligence of the agents in the system. Since it was introduced it has never jammed up.

When the Magic Roundabout was set up, the partitions within the roadways were set up on a temporary basis, movable on the basis of observations by policemen and road traffic engineers about how people reacted to them. And the moral that Dave drew from that was: ‘Move away from attempting failsafe design towards setting up safe-fail experimentation’. Because you cannot analyse the problem space fully in advance, and you have to be prepared to adjust systems interactively until you find that they work.

Putting distributed cognition to work

Within complex systems, for the organisation to become alerted to early weak signals of pattern formation, Dave argues that it is necessary to work with objects of fine granularity — be these objects organisational ones or informational ones.

As for the granularity of levels of human organisation at which distributed cognition works, we should also be aware of certain numerical thresholds: ‘Organisations work differently as 5 or less individuals, 15 or less, and 150 of less’. 150 is Dunbar’s number [Wikipedia ref], the limit on the number of ‘acquaints’ a normal person can maintain; it is also a typical kind of size for a military fighting unit such as a company, and W.L. Gore & Associates divide business units when they exceed this size. Dave described fifteen as a ’limit of trust’ and related to the size of the typical extended family; and five as Miller’ Number [Wikipedia ref], the limit of short-term memory. (Note: George Miller actually defined this limit as ‘the magical number seven, plus or minus two.’)

Spotting the ball, missing the beast

Dave then got us to take part in an experiment which demonstrated both the strengths of distributed cognition, and one of the failings of all human cognition about which we should be on our guard. He prepared us for this by getting us to think about the fairground competition that invites us to guess how many jelly beans are in a large jar. If the first guess is visibly posted up, subsequent guesses tend to bracket this; whereas if each person remains unaware of the other guesses, cognition remains distributed and the average of the guesses is more accurate.

Our task was to watch a video in which three students dressed in white T-shirts walked within a circle passing a basketball between them, while another three dressed in black T-shirts also circled between them, likewise passing a ball. How many times was the ball passed between the students in the white shirts?

This visual attention test wasn’t new to me, as I had read about Daniel Simons’ experiment in Scientific American a couple of years ago. Most people concentrating on this task fail completely to notice that half way through the clip (see it here), someone in a gorilla suit shambles in from the right, grins at the camera and beats his chest, then leaves. Many in this audience likewise missed the gorilla — but as a thumbs-up to distributed cognition, the reported number of passes neatly bracket the correct answer, which is 14. (I anticipated the gorilla, but failed to count three of the passes as a result!)

Given how we were prepped for the task, the gorilla was a typical ‘weak signal’ that slipped off most people’s radar. There is a moral to this: we don’t tend to notice what we are not looking for. According to Dave, people on the mild side of the autistic spectrum do tend to notice the gorilla despite concentrating on the task.

Stories and filters

With both positive and negative effects, human beings and societies are closely attuned to stories. Indeed a book by John D Niles characterises our species as Homo narrans. Families, workgroups, companies and whole cultures have stories, and dominant narratives act as primary filters through which we see (or fail to see) data. (Indeed, I see this as related to the idea of a ‘paradigm’ anyway.)

But what if we were able to capture stories and make use of them to build business intelligence? Dave’s clients are coming to value the freeform comment over conventional forms of survey, and also in preference to the output of focus groups (in which the danger of bias from the facilitator is high). At Cognitive Edge they have been developing methods and software tools which harness the illuminating power of stories beside distributed cognition, and make the raw data available directly to decision makers together with useful quantitative summaries and visualisations — what Dave calls disintermediation.

Dave gave several examples of this in practice, but one will suffice for here. In the My Visit project, National Museums Liverpool wanted to collect and analyse feedback from the hundreds of thousands of school children who visit and interact with its staff. The children leave small text comments, and are asked to ‘self-signify’ the comment fragments by placing them on a sliding scale between two negative polar opposites. Examples of scales:

  • From staff patronise the children

    to staff are too childlike and pathetic

  • From too much to see and it’s overwhelming

    to not enough to keep me interested

  • From rushed from place to place; missed things

    to too much time in one place

The software provided by Cognitive Edge (SenseMaker) presents the spectra of results as a histogram. Obviously, what the museum management would like to see would be positive stories that sit comfortably in the middle of these negative extremes. But to detect problems and fix them early, what they keep their eye on is the histogram columns at the negative edges. The long-term pattern displays as blue bars, the last 48 hours’ results show in red. Behind the simple display is a database of all the comment fragments, and the management can drill down quickly to read the individual, unmediated complaints.

The SenseMaker display lets museum staff monitor the emergence of trends and drill down to read comments left by children.

The SenseMaker display lets museum staff monitor the emergence of trends and drill down to read comments left by children. Image by permission of Dave Snowden.

Feedback from the system has helped the museum to refine and develop over twenty learning activities for children, and has quadrupled the figures for learning visits.

Dave showed other examples covering e.g. attitudes of employees to their leadership, scenario elicitation within a Canadian forestry service, and so on. One of the latest uses of SenseMaker sounds fascinating and I look forward to learning more: the Children of the World project aims to create a cultural map of the world, getting children to gather stories from their families that are reflections about past and present life, future hopes and aspirations. Starting in Liverpool, the project will branch out soon to Australia and Canada, Bangladesh and Africa.

Shifting paradigms

Summing up, Dave argued that while there is nothing wrong with the BPO paradigm for the things it’s good at, it doesn’t deal well with complexity. So what are the practical implications for organisations prepared to make the switch?

  • The demands of weak signal detection imply setting aside periodical analyses based on surveys and focus groups, in favour of narrative-based research that continuously captures and displays a disintermediated evidence base, as described above.
  • Rather than determining outcomes and measuring performance against targets (what’s ruining UK health and education), shift to measuring the impacts of activities and allow for emergence and adjustment.
  • Rather than using centralised scenario planning, set up systems which allow for scenarios to be generated by employees.
  • Break people out of their boxes. If you can assemble ‘crews’ with a membership that spans functional job boundaries and put the crews ‘on watch’, you will have at your service a team whose skills exceed those of any one of its members.
  • Best practice databases are all very well, but they lead you to rely on what you ‘learned’ in the past. Dave recommends knowledge management practices that collect narrative fragments.
  • ‘Practice-Informed Theory’ similarly assumes stability and doesn’t deal well with emergent behaviours and situations. Indeed Dave felt that more ‘Theory-Informed Practice’ is desirable. For example if there were more professional ethical principle applied in banking and accounting, would we be in the mess we’re in now?

IN MY LAST BLOG ENTRY I described being at the BarCamp5 Spillover event held at the BCS London meeting rooms. On 9th October it will be my turn (with colleagues) to run an event in the same location: the MetaKnowledge Mash-up 2.0 gathering [But see NOTE below], organised by KIDMM and ISKO-UK and with the focus Making and Organising Knowledge in Communities.

(A word of explanation: KIDMM is a discussion community around issues of Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management — its roots are in the British Computer Society — and ISKO-UK is the UK chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization. I co-ordinate the activities of KIDMM on a voluntary basis.)

Plastic poker chips being used to ‘rate’ the importance of topics generated on cards by group members, in a discussion about computers and climate change.

Plastic poker chips being used to ‘rate’ the importance of topics generated on cards by group members, in a discussion about computers and climate change.

The instructions for BarCamp said ‘Come with something you want to talk about,’ and I brought along with me a concern about the best way to conduct small group exercises on the afternoon of the 9th. People there will be seated in groups of up to eight around tables, an arrangement which affords a surface for a card-sorting exercise.

In the BarCamp discussion which I led, I explained how cardsorting works and how it can be used to understand how people group ‘things’, be they ideas, features of a product, whatever. In information architecture and product design enterprises, letting a representative group of users sort cards can help clarify what people expect of or hope from a product or service. There’s a variant called ‘divide the dollar’ which I read about through Uzanto’s Mindcanvas site, which offers these ‘Game-like Elicitation Methods’ (GEMs) on-line. In this, each participant is given a number of coins or chips and asked to distribute them across a set of topic cards to indicate in quite a subtle way the degree of value attached by that person to each.

What has this to do with a KIDMM/ISKO conference? Well, in considering ‘making and organising knowledge in communities’ we will be hearing case-studies from a number of organisations who are using electronic tools to enable long-term and long-distance discussion and collaboration within their communities, with the aim of accumulating and organising knowledge. Tools like email lists, bulletin boards, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and online media repositories for documents, audio files or video — in addition of course to face to face gatherings and designed-for-print publications. Which of these approaches seem to hold out most advantages, and how might they be combined? The workshop session is when we can deliberate on this, and a cardsort is my proposed mechanism for this.

Hopefully, all participants will appreciate the opportunity this exercise will afford to sift through the approaches we’ve heard of through the day, and brainstorm a few more. And for the KIDMM community, this foray into ‘requirements elicitation’ has another benefit — with the assistance of a final-year software engineering student, Susan Payne of De Montfort University, we are embarking on our own venture into online community. In the next eight months, Susan will be writing a custom web application based on a CMS (content management system), designed to match the needs of knowledge communities such as KIDMM.

If you’re interested in learning more about cardsorting and other user requirement elicitation strategies, I have written up a five-page account of my BarCamp5 session — how I presented the topic and how people responded to it — which is available for download as a PDF file. [But see NOTE below]

Also available for download is my preconference paper: a literature and concept review on knowledge management, communities of practice and approaches to the evaluation of online community toolkits. [But see NOTE below]

NOTE: The domain kidmm.org has been kidnapped! Following KIDMM-hosted links will currently take to a Web site about baby clothes and things. Apologies while this gets sorted out. It is partly due to the incompetence of my ISP, Adept (should be Inept?) Hosting, who are also currently ignoring calls for support. [11 Oct 2008]

MAKING AND ORGANISING KNOWLEDGE IN COMMUNITIES is the title of the conference which will be held in London on 9th October 2008; a joint endeavour of KIDMM (Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management) and ISKO-UK (the UK chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization). The conference Web site is here.

KIDMM is a project with which I am very closely associated. It is probably best described as a ‘discussion community’, which primarily manifests as an email discussion list hosted on the JISCmail UK academic system, and this currently has 76 members. KIDMM arose initially from the recognition of a group of people, all active in different Specialist Groups of the British Computer Society, that knowledge, data and information — a whole lot of stuff which masses of computing power are now devoted to creating, storing and serving up access to — together formed a topic of interest across our Specialist Group boundaries. The organisation of KIDMM has remained informal, and membership of the community has now extended outside the BCS. The way things have evolved, there’s also a significant overlap of membership with ISKO-UK.

KIDMM ran a conference last year, the ‘MetaKnowledge Mash-up’, which was a great success. This year’s conference is in the same mould, but as the title suggests, has a focus on how knowledge can be elicited from members of a community of practice or community of interest, gatherd, organised, and turned into something useful. This is a hot topic in knowledge management, in industry and the public sector, and for professional and learned societies like the BCS.

The K word is a tricky one. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid remarked in their book The Social Life of Information,

We consider knowledge and learning… with some trepidation. On the one hand, epistemology, the theory of knowledge, has formed the centerpiece of heavyweight philosophical arguments for millenia. On the other, knowledge management has many aspects of another lightweight fad. That enemy of lightweights, The Economist, has pronounced it no more than a buzzword. We may, then, be trying to lift a gun too heavy to handle to aim at a target too insubstantial to matter.

This is an issue that I’ve spent quite some time thinking and reading about over the summer, since the decision to go ahead with this conference topic. So, one of my two substantive contributions to the event has been to write a literature and concept review which I hope will deploy some of the concepts we can usefully use in our discussions on the day. You are most welcome to download it (PDF).

As for my other contribution, that trial still stands before me. It’s relatively easy to organise a conference as an array of speakers (and I mean no disrespect to our speakers, we have a good line-up!) But we are keen to spend at least an hour in a set of parallel round-table discussion workshops, sharing ideas about how to maximise participation and knowledge sharing, using the new techniques that the Internet affords in addition to traditional tools such as meetings and publications. With less than two weeks to go, I must now turn my mind to how best to organise that session!