Category Archives: Society

A Brief Rant About Knowledge Management

Someone I met through Facebook sent me this document, titled “Knowledge Managers: Who They Are and What They Do“, by James D. McKeen and D. Sandy Staples.  She asked me what I thought about the subject, so I thought I’d post this hastily-written reply for later food for thought.

I’ve been out of the corporate world for a few years, so my knowledge is a bit out of date, but here’s what I’ve seen about Knowledge management in my experience.

The Knowledge Manager role is really useful in theory, but it’s fairly challenging, for several reasons.

The culture is not always set up for “knowledge managers” to get involved in the places where they can be most useful. For example, trying to get people to remember to tell the knowledge manager about stuff they created on a project. Nobody really takes the time to do that, unless there’s a specific performance metric tied to generating “knowledge assets”, or the KM is charismatic enough that sharing with them is fun, or savvy enough to figure out benefits to sharing beyond just the intrinsic value.

Technology can play a role in helping a KM role, or hinder it. For example, using tools where people keep the information in their email, presentations, and documents versus encouraging / requiring the use of wikis and other tools that expose the information to an easy-to-use search engine. If you put the repository in front of people, and make it really easy to contribute, then technology can help. If it’s an extra login, or a convoluted process of filing, the people with the most information (who are always the busiest) will not go through extra steps.

Where I’ve seen knowledge management succeed is in organizations where sharing knowledge is part of the cultural fabric. Companies like Automattic, which has a distributed workforce, require all conversations to take place on blogs and in logged chatrooms. They create the data and automatically it becomes part of a searchable repository. Nobody has to go in and put “knowledge” somewhere.  The whole thing was set up to be unified and shareable in the first place. There are also fewer than 300 employees, so that may have something to do with it.

Where I’ve seen it fail is in environments where “knowledge manager” is a position that’s assigned without the realization that it really requires deep involvement in how the organization works. For example, a knowledge manager that’s in a marketing organization doesn’t always have access to IT systems – or a KM who’s in an IT organization, but isn’t allowed or encouraged to talk to the business divisions that make high-level decisions. In IT, you might have access to all the data, but it’s not really knowledge unless it’s matched up to the intent that produced it in the first place.

This is why some companies create a KM position that reports directly to the CEO – this can remove access barriers.  And this is why they hire motivated, curious, self-starters to stir up the gunk.

I’m curious to know how many “knowledge management” positions made it through the previous two boom and bust periods in the last decade.    Certainly the ability to generate information has increased, and technology systems have been designed to be more accessible to sharing.  Business Intelligence systems can scrape and sort quantillions more data units than ever.  However, I haven’t observed that people have changed.  Knowledge is still power in the enterprise.

Actually, no, I won’t donate

I received this email from Howard Dean yesterday.  Howard Dean is the chair of the Democratic party, and I signed up to be on their mailing list.  Personally, I am registered independent, for some very good reasons.  This is one of them:

Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are done. John McCain will be the Republican nominee — he’s the only one with a reasonable path to the nomination.

So how do we beat him? We stand up — right now — start fighting, and show the American people that he’s not who they think he is.

We can’t wait for Hillary or Barack to win the nomination. Now that the Republicans have a candidate, the dollars are starting to pour in from special interests who will do anything to beat the Democratic nominee. They’re just waiting for us to decide so they can start smearing.

Here’s what U.S. News and World Report recently reported about how the RNC is getting ready…

[RNC Chairman Mike] Duncan and his aides want to be ready to go on the offensive against the Democratic nominee presumptive in an effort to define the opposition candidate on GOP terms. Opposition research is already well along, and the plan is for surrogates to talk to the media around the country while a TV ad campaign in key states and media markets as soon as the Democratic nominee is determined.

We must be ready to fight back, and fight back hard, today.

While I agree that the RNC and its muckrakers are going to leave no stone unturned in their attempt to discredit anyone in their way, I do not believe that an appropriate response is to return the volley.  Howard Dean, I will not give you one coper penny to dig up dirt on John McCain.   Sorry.

McCain is a human being as well as a politician.  He has worked for many years on behalf of his constituents as well as on behalf of some respectable ideals.   

The election is not a “battle”.  We are not at war with each other over how to solve problems in the economy.  Nobody “wins” when an election turns into a smear campaign. 

We are a democratic nation whose intelligent and compassionate discourse has been overwhelmed by the language of combat.  We are the only first-world nation whose citizens live in fear of ruination due to lack of proper health care, whose children are getting a sub-standard education, and whose corporate leaders are able to make enough bank to buy small pacific islands.

So.  I refuse to support a group whose plan for the election is “dig up dirt first”. 

Talk to me about the issues.  Tell me what your plan is for health care, how you plan to gain support in Congress and with the American people to increase our safety net so that we may all have the opportunity to participate in the freedom and liberty that some can only see on bumper stickers.    Get me excited to support you and you will have considerable resources at your disposal.    Give me a straight answer for once. 

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Welcome to 2008

This year is looking a little slow so far. 2007 went out with a bang, at least at our house, and now, I’m in a mess of cleaning trying to remove the detritus before it becomes an encrustation.

I’ve been hanging out at home, taking pictures. This is one thing I hope to do more of in the next few months. I accomplished last year’s goal of selling a few photographs (thanks to the ladies at Luscious Garage), now, I want to do more of that.


This is the New Year so far – fresh and new.

Ignite SF – A Report

On Tuesday, October 16, I had the opportunity to attend Ignite SF, an inspirational night of presentations put on by O’Reilly Media.

The premise was that each speaker would get 5 minutes, and get to speak in front of a presentation, whose 20 slides would be automatically swapped out every 15 seconds. 

The event was held at the DNA Lounge, which is THE place to be a cyberpunk in SF.  Anyway, it was a fun bar full of geeks ready to get excited about the work we’re all doing.

The speakers were pretty good, for the most part.   Nobody gave any answers to key questions, but there was a lot of stuff to think about and research further.

Here’s a synopsis:

Annalee Newitz – Spaceships (and a few dragons)

Annalee had a very polished, articulate speech about space ships in various SF shows, and the cultural milieu in which they existed.  She talked about how Star Wars features ships that are used by plucky rebels to overthrow a totatilarian government (at least in the original series), how Star Trek was all about a utopia that influenced the children of the 80’s, and so forth.    She was a great opener, full of energy.

Bryan O’SullivanFunctional programming: from buzz to products

Bryan works at LindenLab building virtual worlds. He talked about the wonders of the programming language Haskell.  His presentation crapped out on him, so he had to wing it for a few minutes, which he did really well.

Haskell is a functional programming language that imposes certain constraints of its users, constraints that force a more elegant solution, according to Bryan.

Ian KallenUnderstand The Web Spam Ecosystem In 5 Minutes

Ian Kallen leads the Core Services engineering group at Technorati, which is a search engine that follows blogs in real time.  His talk was about link farms and Google click fraud, which I found very interesting as it provided some concrete examples of the problem, and a solution.   There is apparently a whole industry, consisting of stay-at-home-moms in Florida, Russian sweatshops and lots of other people trying to make a buck, who create “fake blogs” that contain keywords and links to ads. 

Apparently, if you find such a blog, you can click on the “Ads by Gooogle” words, and report them, thus helping to keep the web safe for humanity.

Toby SegaranSocial Data Mining

Toby performed a Social Data Mining experiment by analyzing Craig’s List personals postings in various cities, and came up with some funny and startling findings.  He also analyzed Hot or Not, and showed that one can apply decision trees to determine that Hot or Not finds more attractive men on the East Coast, but that more attractive women are found on the West.  Or something like this.  In any case, his book sounds like it could be at least as fun as Freakonomics.

Brooke BlumensteinWeb 2.0 Outside the Tech Scene

Brooke was the most “corporate” of the speakers, but her subject was interesting to me, as someone who has tried to impress new technologies in a corporate culture in order to manage “knowledge”.   Her findings included the fact that people don’g like to tag documents (duh!), but that a usable and useful knowledge base can be established when you give people very simple tools that evolve to meet their needs.  One interesting fact: 90% of the content entered into their systm was entered by only 20% of people.   Which just goes to show – most people like to do their job more than they like to help the next person do that job – but those 20% who DO like to document provide most of the findable knowledge in an organization.

Tara huntForget Venture Capital, Raise Social Capital!

Her talk was the most topical for what I’m working on right now – specifically it’s about how building a good social network around your company (which she calls “social capital”) can lead to having more fun, a more successful product, and, eventually, VC money.   Her talk can be summarized as “get your friends to be customers, and build products that they like.  Then the VC’s will come to you”.

I’ll have to read more about her to see how successful she is with this idea (her web site is really interesting, and rings very true), but I was inspired by her presentation.

dan farmer – faster than the bear

This security expert used about 4.5 minutes to give out as many metaphors as possible for “your organization changes constantly, and it’s really hard to identify the human users on the network.”  His conclusion?  I paraphrase as: “Corporate security will not be able to find 100% of the problems because things are always changing inside the firewall.  Get that money from your boss and buy a few beers for your team, at least that way they’ll be slightly happier when there’s a breach.”

Violet Blue – Porn or Not?

She talked about different social mores around porn, and the fact that smut is relative – one man’s foot photos are another’s masturbation aide.    As more and more people’s tastes and perversions collide with each other on the internet, especially on sites such as Flickr, we are more and more inclined to start to see every photo in its smuttiest context, thus losing some of the innocent enjoyment one can get out of seeing photos of children’s swim meets and women’s feet.

She was funny and engaging, and even incorporated LOLcats in her presentation.  She didn’t offer any answers to this quandry, except to implore those of us building sites and putting content on the web to keep in mind that everything is NOT porn.

Chicken JohnArt and Innovation

Chicken John gave a funny yet somewhat disjointed speech about why we should vote for Chicken for 2nd place in the upcoming SF Mayoral Election.   He represents the surreal wing of SF politics, and wants to attract attention to the Instant Run-Off Voting system now in place in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, he is far more able to shock and amuse than educate, at least in person.  Fortunately, he actually wants to make things better.

If I lived in SF,  I would totally vote for him for second place.

David Recordon – ScubaBots

David gave us a status update of the state of P>ing information on the internet, and then followed up with a pitch to get someone to build robots that can be stationed at P>e sites and report in real-time about ocean conditions.

Seems like that might be useful in the tsunami-warning and observation field as well. 

Jonathan Foote – SWARM: Spherical Kinetic Robots

These guys actually BUILT robots, though they were mostly for fun and not science.  Jonathan had some awesome slides, including one full of equations, to show how “kick-ass” the SWARM team was.  Thoroughly fun, and I look forward to seeing these robots rolling around the Bay Area someday.

Patti Roll – Timbuk2 + CrowdSourcing = Awesomeness

This was another useful presentation.  Patti is a Marketing Manager at Timbuk2, and she talked about how the company has been getting good results from providing a human face and interacting directly with T2’s very passionate customers. Timbuk2 actually converses with customers on their site, as well as on sites such as Flickr, where Timbuk2 is one of the most tagged brands.  People love the bags, and are willing to tell the world, in exchange for free bags.

Rick Wesson – Why we are fucked: eCrime and the Internet

Another security speech, this one focusing on the number of attacks and compromised machines thtat exist in the world.   He showed some really interesting graphs of insecure machines over the entire scope of IP addresses and allocations, and was fairly engaging and fun while describing them. 

Unfortunately, his conclusion didn’t boil down to much, other than “Buy a Mac for your parents because there are fewer viruses for them right now.”

Jason Tester – Futurism 2.0: human-future-interaction

Jason works with the Institute for the Future (what a great job!) and gave some compelling examples of things that technologists should start to consider.  His piece was mostly about imagining consequences of our technologies.

Mitch Altman – Hacktivism & Inventing: TV-B-Gone & The Brain Machine

Mitch Altman summed up the night by describing his rise from lonely geek obscurity to instant celebrity after his invention of TV-B-Gone.  He encouraged us to pursue our passions (even if we can’t stick to them) and to work on what excites and compels us.  In his case, the TV-B-Gone came about because he recognized that TV was stealing time away from him by providing an escape outlet, instead of a create outlet.

All in all, it was an interesting night, and I hope that O’Reilly keeps doing them.  The DNA Lounge is a great space for this type of talk, though it would be nicer if they had planned an after-party.  I found myself bolting right after the speeches.

Realizations about business

I used to work for a web design shop during the highs and lows of the internet bubble. When I first started, we were hiring every kid who could string two href’s together because work was coming our way, more than we could handle. It was great! We had parties, ate fancy lunches, and drove around in our clients VC-funded Jaguars while dreaming how we were subverting the dominant paradigm and creating money out of thin air.

Then came the dark times, when all those clients of ours went belly-up and our fellow web design shops started closing. It became very difficult to sell our services. We had to lay off everyone who was just barely average, and several people who were really good, but whose skills were not much in demand. We thought we were going to go under.

However, our organization was led by someone who knew business, and his team took up the task of teaching the rest of us. Instead of Friday afternoon beer bashes, we started to have team financial reviews. We spent time learning about our customers, what their needs were, and how to satisfy those needs. We learned how to sell ourselves, and our company prospered.

I learned about the very big difference between the business and the art/craft of what we did.

Business is a competition. To win requires more than slapping on the label of “professional”, and much more than merely being good at your craft. As a businessperson, it’s part of your job to figure out your customers’ needs, and what they are willing to pay money for. You also have to look at your competition, and see how you can differentiate yourself.

Do you need to educate your customers about your offering? Do you need to find a different niche? What is your value proposition, that ephemeral thing that makes people feel good about buying something from you?

You cannot compete on the basis of “I’m a professional” alone. You cannot compete by complaining about the competition, or scoffing at how ignorant your (potential) customers are. Pissing off your customers by being arrogant or whiny does not make them want to pay for your product.

There are people out there who will pay money for what you do – but they usually do so only if they save time, if you are offering an experience or product that they can’t easily get for free, or if they feel GOOD about paying you.

Is it really good to know who’s watching?

A few months ago, I read that MySpace or Facebook, or one of those sites, released a tracking feature – you could see who had visited your page and when. This backfired pretty badly because (a) people were creeped out when they saw that strangers were coming to their page over and over and (b) people got mad at their friends for not hanging onto their every update. So they pulled the whole tracker concept.

Now Facebook has introduced this feature that shows you what people on your network are up to (e.g. “added a new application”, “changed their profile”, etc) which has been driving people away somewhat (my 22-year-old cousin said “I guess I’m too old – I find this thing a bit invasive. I don’t really want everyone to know what I’m doing.”)

I don’t know how I would feel about a tracker on Flickr – would it be more like seeing who came into my open studio space, or would it be stalking? Would I want strangers to know I had gone to their pages? What would I want to know about someone before leaving my calling card at their open studio space? What about you?

And once I know who is visiting my stream, would I want to, say, restrict those visitors? For example, should I be able to forbid all Flickr users who are members of certain groups, or who have certain tags in their streams, or certain friends, from seeing my stream?

BoingBoing summary of Google Street View and privacy concerns

My favorite blog, BoingBoing, has posted a thought-provoking summary of peoples’ reactions to Google Street View privacy hub-bub. The questions started to pour in to media outlets from concerned citizens when some people found themselves, their homes, and embarrassing moments of others displayed on the internet. The discussion is very interesting – a few people make some good points about privacy, the law, and social expectations that are being challenged by advances in technology.

Tom says,

One of your comment writers mentioned that if we find Google Street View creepy, we might need to look beyond our present legal privacy rights. So the question is, what new legal privacy rights should we be seeking?

I think we need to consider how automation can create collective privacy problems that are greater than the sum of their parts.


Shout out from eTech – Games and Happiness

I’m in San Diego at the fabulous O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, haven for nerds and technocrats.

This morning I attended Jane McGonegal’s keynote presentation, Creating Alternate Realities.

One of the premises of Jane’s talk centered around how games, and in particular immersive reality-based games, can help to improve peoples’ quality of life by engaging them in the real world. Technology is used to inform people and let them see the results of their actions. One example was a game called the “Ministry of Reshelving”, where people were asked to move copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from the fiction to the non-fiction shelves of bookstores around the world. Players posted copies of the book in its new location to the matching flickr group, which provided feedback around the world.

Jane suggests that technologies and products that increase happiness through pleasure, engagement and mastery can improve our human experience. Games and tools can be developed that encourage people to engage with the world in a positive way.

The experiences of the people who were engaged in this game, and others like it, seemed very optimistic. They felt more connected to their world, and more capable of making a positive change, rather than riding along.