Social software

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?

What are the lessons to be learned from the Obama campaign’s use of social networking software to mobilise supporters and raise $650 million?

THE SUCCESS OF BARACK OBAMA has been attracting world attention because he will be the first African-American, indeed the first non-white President of the United States of America. Some attribute his success to his opposition to the war in Iraq; others to the dreadful meltdown of US financial institutions that galvanised the American electorate in September. And many people to whom I have spoken since 4th November, and many public commentators besides, paradoxically regard Obama as a doomed man for those very reasons. It may be that his hands have been tied, his chalice poisoned. He will inherit two problematic and unpopular wars, a ten trillion dollar national debt, a growing energy crisis, an economy sliding into recession and, of course, his own commitments to cut taxes.

Many who voted for the largely unspecified ‘change’ promised by Obama may come to be disappointed. If he is forced to govern in financially conservative ways, which seems likely, the honeymoon may be a short one. Relations with the rest of the world may be just as fraught with dilemmas. If he can’t cut taxes and he can’t cut spending, he will have to resort to the third instrument: the printing press. Paying off your foreign creditors by printing dollars, provoking inflation and a drop in the value of the dollar so that those creditors lose half the value in real terms of what they loaned to you, is not a good way to make friends abroad. A cheaper dollar also hurts those countries which rely on the American market.

Obama’s amazing money machine

The Website

The Website

Probably the most amazing feature of the Barack Obama campaign is the way he was able to come from a starting position right outside of the Establishment, yet build a huge political machine, and raise a phenomenal war chest: an estimated total of $650 million, according to Richard Lister of BBC News. Which was a necessity, because Obama had to fight not one expensive campaign, but two. The Clinton camp in the Democratic Party machine had a virtual monopoly of all of the party’s big-money donors and fundraisers, and during 2007 had amassed about $100 million.

According to a fascinating article by Joshua Green in The Atlantic magazine dated June 2008, Obama’s initial financial support came from a hitherto untapped source: hi-tech Northern Californian Democrats who were software entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, adept at networking, and at ease with the Internet technologies that support it.

Mark Gorenberg, a partner in a San Francisco venture capital firm, got into political fundraising in 2003, to support John Kerry’s bid for the Democratic party nomination. He got friends and colleagues to commit not just to making a personal donation, but more importantly to commit to raising a certain amount from others. In the same year, Howard Dean’s supporters pioneered the use of the Internet to raise large numbers of small donations, such that before long he had out-fundraised both Kerry and Edwards. Dean’s team also pioneered the use of social networking sites for political organising, making use of sites like to bring local activists together.

A few days before Obama declared his candidacy, there was a fund-raising dinner held for him in Northern California, hosted by John Roos and attended by Mark Gorenberg and Steve Spinner. It seems that the Clintons had overlooked the potential for Democrat financial support from the rich young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who in any case were readier to click with Obama. Gorenberg joined Obama’s national finance committee and was delighted to find that the campaign was ready to embrace new ideas about how to build networks and communities with online tools. Spinner also joined, and took the initiative to found an online affinity group, ‘Entrepreneurs for Obama’. Obama spoke to the network by videoconference, and soon it was raising big bucks.

But central to the success of the Obama campaign has been the site, created along social networking lines. Indeed, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes took a sabbatical from his company and came to Chicago to work on the campaign full time. Joe Rospars, a veteran of the Dean campaign who had in the meantime set up an Internet fundraising company, joined as head of new media for the Obama campaign.

The Atlantic quotes Rospars as explaining the rationale behind My.BarackObama thus:

We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign. One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event.

People who signed up at could register to vote through the site, and could set up their own personal affinity group with a listserv, to lobby their friends and associates. They could hit a ‘Make Calls’ button and get lists of phone numbers to call. They could set up their own personal fundraiser page, set a target with a ‘thermometer’ to display progress, and set to work raising money for the campaign. It was the Howard Dean approach, but with new tools and a tech-savvy team; the site attracted more than three million donors and fundraisers.

Spending their way across the nation

Accumulating huge amounts of money, much of it in ten- and twenty-dollar amounts, has been proved capable of outweighing the old model of political fundraising. The first sign of this came after Super Tuesday, when the Clinton campaign ran out of money. Meanwhile Obama’s campaign was rolling in cash. He went on spending on advertising, winning the next 11 primary contests.

When it came to the presidential election, McCain was hampered by having chosen to accept federal campaign funding: as a condition, he had a cap imposed on his spending. Traditionally, there are Democrat states and Republican states and relatively few swing states, and the parties focus their attention on campaigning in the swing states and to a lesser extent in their ‘safe’ states, ignoring the rest. But the Obama-Biden campaign had the money to put paid campaign workers into every one of the 50 states. They bought television advertising nationwide, too — culminating in the 30-minute advert that aired at eight in the evening on 29 October on NCS, CBS, Fox, Univision, MSNBC, BET and TV One, gaining an estimated 30.1 million viewers.

This, then, is to my mind the most interesting part of the Obama campaign: Politics meets Web 2.0, achieving unprecedented engagement and partipation, unprecedented fundraising, and an unprecedented nationwide media campaign, substantially extending the Democrats’ demographic, and advancing victory into states such as Virginia that had not voted Democrat for 40 years.

So, what next?

I started this post by noting what a sticky situation Obama is going to be in when he enters the White House in January. Is there anything he can do that will be different, unexpected? Might he make use of the 3-million-strong network of contacts and supporters that was built to get him to victory, or is it destined to fall away and burn up like an exhausted first-stage booster rocket, no longer needed?

I am intrigued by the text message which Obama sent out to his supporters, shortly before making his acclaimed Election Night speech:

I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.

We just made history. And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.

You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change.

I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign. We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.

So — what comes next?


‘The Amazing Money Machine – How Silicon Valley made Barack Obama this year’s hottest start-up’ by Joshua Green
The Atlantic, June 2008.
(Online version)

‘ The Howard Dean Nominee’ by Steve Kornacki
The New York Observer, 26  June 2008.
(Online version)

‘Why Barack Obama won’ by Richard Lister, BBC News, Washington
BBC News online, 5 November 2008

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 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!

Rashmi Sinha

Rashmi Sinha

SINCE I READ an interview with Rashmi Sinha in the Information Design Journal, I’ve followed her enterprises with great interest. Most recently she’s been involved with setting up and running, a place where you can upload your presentation slides — be they PowerPoint, OpenOffice or PDF — and share them either privately with an invited group or with the world.

Now, ordinarily that facility wouldn’t appeal to me. You see, when I prepare slides to accompany a talk, I don’t put much text on them. I believe that we’ve only got one language-processing centre in our brain and it has to cope with making sense of words whether they come in through the eye or the ear. So, making people read and listen to you at the same time is not a smart thing to do. A lot of the time, my slides just have pictures on them.

But I did get interested when I heard about ‘slidecasting’. That’s SlideShare’s term for linking an audio file to your slides and synchronising the turning of the slides to specific points in the audio file. It’s hardly a new idea, in fact it is reminiscent of the old slide-tape shows, but it could be an excellent way to ‘broadcast’ ideas over the Internet, and I thought I should give it a go.

The opportunity arose. On 17th September I am due to speak at an event on climate change organised by the British Computer Society’s Sussex Branch. I have to fit into a tight time-slot and though I usually speak from a handful of notes, this time I thought I should script my talk and time it. So here I had the perfect test case for slidecasting!

I don’t do PowerPoint, so I made my slides in Adobe InDesign CS3 by creating a document the pages of which measure 1024 points wide and 768 points high. Images were prepared in Illustrator and Photoshop. Finally, I exported the 42 pages as a PDF file, and this is what I uploaded to my SlideShare account.

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

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

Recording the audio

Audio is more of a challenge, but I quite frequently record conferences for the BCS and other organisations, and I also record voiceover narrative for video productions. My preferred kit for this purpose is an HHB professional MiniDisc recorder and a Røde condenser studio microphone. However, at the moment the HHB is sick, so that was out of the question.

Olympus DS50 audio recorder

Olympus DS50 audio recorder

My back-up recorder is very small indeed. It’s an Olympus DS-50. It has three sensitivity settings marked Dict, Conf and Lecture. The stereo microphone that plugs into it is actually quite good quality, considering. The audio is saved into the solid-state memory as Windows Media Audio (WMA) files, and there are five compressions one can choose from, and I always go for the most gentle.

So I took my script and chose the bedroom as the quieter place to record: it doesn’t face onto the river with all its traffic. I set the Olympus on Dictation-mode sensitivity to suppress as much background noise as possible and arranged a place for it quite close to my mouth, and made my recording. The thing to do is, if you fluff your lines or a magpie decides to add an accompaniment, you just repeat that paragraph and deal with it in the editing.

The Olympus attaches to the Macintosh as if it were an external USB drive and you copy the recording file across. Macs don’t much like WMA files but I’d bought Patrice Bensoussan’s EasyWMA audio converter plug-in for QuickTime ($10) and converted the file to AIFF for editing. I use Apple’s Soundtrack Pro for editing, chopping out the out-takes and suppressing intakes of breath. I thought the output from the Olympus sounded a bit ‘tinny’; the solution was to use the ‘Fat EQ’ filter to boost the lower frequencies until it sounded like me again.

I saved the result as mono AIFF and then took it into iTunes to convert it to MP3. My standard podcast settings use a data rate maximum of 56 kbps, 16 bits of precision, Variable Bit Rate and best quality conversion. The 23 minutes of speech came out slightly less than 10 MB.

Uploading and synchronising are quite generous in the size of presentations you can upload – up to 100 MB — but for now at least they won’t host your audio. You have to find somewhere from which audio will stream, and they recommend placing it on The Internet Archive, which is what I did (I already had an account there — it’s free to use, as is SlideShare.) Once you have copied the URL where your sound file sits, you paste that into a field on SlideShare, and the slides and audio are connected.

click image to enlarge!

SlideShare’s synchronisation tool: click image to enlarge!

I had feared that the synchronising of the slide-turns to the appropriate places in the talk would be tricky, and it was the most difficult part, but I soon got the hang of it. Considering that you are working with files on two different servers on the other side of the world, it’s quite amazing that it works at all! If you click on the thumbnail image of the screen shot, you’ll see my edit in progress. The slides ‘slide’ along in the upper channel, and the synchronisation workspace shows the waveform of the audio, which is something I feel very comfortable working with. The Audio Selector at the bottom wasn’t immediately intuitive to me; you slide it along to reveal another bit of the audio further on.

The red line in the Workspace is the ‘playhead’ and you play and pause the audio to find the sync points. I kept trying to stop and start the audio by hitting the space-bar because that’s what you do in iTunes, QuickTime and Soundtrack Pro, but not here! The process is a bit clumsy, and due to the latency across the Internet it’s a bit unresponsive at times. As you move the ‘slide x end’ line to where you want it, the next slide asks you to ‘Select this slide to synchronise’ and when you click on it, it dumps a new blue line close to the previous one. They you play along until you find the next sync spot, drag the rightmost blue line to that spot, and repeat.

It’s good. It works. It’s quite impressive. It’s all done with Flash technology. And it’s here (my first slidecast, I mean). It works full screen too, so you can really see detail if you want. My main gripe is that as my slidecast makes progress, the slides arrive later and later after the points that I had designated for synchronisation. I hypothesise that this may be because my slides have a great deal of graphic content?