Category Archives: Management

End of ER and L Conference for 2011

Today was the third and final day of the Electronic Resources and Libraries Conference in Austin, Texas.

There were presentations given on standards; acquisitions and assessment, web discovery, ebooks, and content indexing.

From the presentations I saw, there were two stand-outs. The first was the presentation by Hana Leavay of the University of Washington Library who gave an interesting and informative talk on assessing electronic resources. Considerable thought had gone into the data collection, the sorting and analysis, and then finally the input into decision-making. Once again this presentation demonstrated to me why we need to better capture a range of statistics and work out ways of using the data for management and reporting purposes.

The other presentation was a group presentation about web discovery. The prime mover here was John Law from Serials Solutions and the product called Summon. Tammy Allgood from Arizona State University Library and Anne Prestamo from Oklahoma State University Library both provided practical ways in which Summon could (and did) work. Summon is a way to search across electronic journals from different sources and providers, with the added benefit of consistent indexing across repositories and databases, and quicker retrieval of material. I will investigate this product further when I get home.

I am organising a couple of library visits tomorrow and hope to see more live music before I start my way home with a flight to Los Angeles on Friday afternoon.

Finally, Austin is a great place to visit and you gotta see the Eric Tessmer Band live – awesome!

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Online retailing doesn’t always deliver

Hey, Gerry Harvey and the crew of the whingeing Australian retail coalition – online retailing doesn’t always deliver!

If you’ve been following the brouhaha here in Australia over online retail then you would know that some of Australia’s biggest retail behemoths have been whingeing boldly and loudly about the non-application of GST (10%) to overseas online retail below $1000 in value.

If you believed these retail dinosaurs, you’d think that online retail was a great evil attacking the very fabric of fair-faced capitalism! Nothing could be further from the truth.

As this latest article identifies, online retail has some problems that should be familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time understanding the phenomenon. Problems facing consumers shopping online include:

  • non-delivery
  • item was not what was claimed online
  • privacy and security issues with internet transactions
  • confusion over application of domestic consumer law to overseas purchases

One of the reasons consumers shop online is because “bricks-and-mortar” retail has let them down.  Big retail in Australia generally has poor customer service and the range of products on sale is far fewer than what is available online over the internet. The first problem is something big retail could fix but it would cost them extra money in recruitment and training, something they all want to avoid. The second problem is unavoidable due to globalisation and communications – something that has been obvious over the past 20+ years.

Rather than spend the millions of dollars on a public relations campaign whingeing about a paltry tax payment, big Australian retail could actually improve performance through good ol’ fashioned competition. They could provide better service. They could offer a wider array of products. They could lower some of their prices to be more competitive with online (still higher, but not the umpteen hundreds of per cent differences we often see now). This comes at a cost to the retail monoliths and this is the real reason why they fly the online tax propaganda.

Retail stores in Australia have a huge advantage over online:

  • products are visible and tangible
  • products can be bought on the spot
  • there is no postage charges and overseas currency banking fees to pay
  • good customer service builds consumer trust and improves word-of-mouth marketing
  • Australian retail can use their own online stores to supplement their retail stores, thereby being both supportive of the business and enhancing the brand (but only if the online store actually meets consumer needs)

The trouble is, big Australian retail needs to put in some effort to compete. That’s why the CEO and Board of Directors get paid the big bucks – to work hard on strategy and operational performance. Quite frankly, I don’t see much evidence that they are willing to work hard beyond the easy fix of spending their company’s money on simplistic advertising drivel.

On network culture

One of the interesting things about humans is their interrelationships with other people.  There are historical reasons for this based on family, tribe, and community.  Such groupings were necessary to survive.  In most human societies today, the family unit is still the foundation of people’s relationships.  Friends and the people we socialise and work are also part of the human interrelationship matrix.  And interestingly, people have relationships with characters in books and on television, they have online relationships, and they have virtual relationships in digital spaces such as Second Life.

It should therefore be self-evident that people relationships are significant in nearly all that we do.  In fact, modern humans are truly part of the networked society as a consequence of the internet and World Wide Web.  We have in fact extended the possible reach of our relationships, widened the scale of intensity of relationships (between very weak to very strong); and increased the scalability of our relationships.  So shouldn’t we now recognise the importance and value of the network culture?

In many organisations, relationships are grounded in an “old style” corporate mentality dealing primarily with direct work-based relationships, often hierarchical in form.  In most cases, the network is based on physical proximity.  However, relying only on work-based physical contacts to get one’s work done is not enough these days.  In order to get the right person with the right information at the right time, we need more than just physical proximity.  We need access and immediacy.  We get access and immediacy through our networks, often facilitated through information technology channels.

In a recent blog post by Stefan Lindegaard, called How to create a networking culture, Stefan outlines some ideas for establishing and recognising a network culture within an organisation.  Not surprisingly, this recognition starts at the top. Stefan says: “Leaders [need to] show a genuine and highly visible commitment to networking. Leaders must walk the walk, not just talk the talk. … Leaders should also share examples of their networking experiences whenever possible”.

At the practical working level, Stefan has identified the following: “People [need to be] given time and means to network. Frequent opportunities are provided to help individuals polish their personal networking skills. Not everyone is a natural networker. But almost everyone can become good at it with proper training and encouragement.   Both virtual and face-to-face networking are encouraged and supported. Web 2.0 tools and facilitated networking events maximize the opportunities people have to initiative and build strong relationships”.

Now this all makes very good sense.  Why wouldn’t organisations want to leverage individual and groups’ people networks to get things done more quickly, more efficiently, and more effectively?  Such networks are at the heart of collective intelligence and knowledge management.

Why not use all the network facilitation services available in our modern world, from coffee shops to internet and Web 2.0?  And why should there be any doubt about the value of people networks when we can see how fundamental interrelationships between people have been over time?  Network culture should no longer be revolutionary – it should be accepted organisational practice.

On whether Knowledge Management matters

I’d like to start the New Year with a rhetorical question: does knowledge management (KM) really matter?

Well, it matters to me and to people within the KM world.  It matters to people who want to do their jobs more effectively and more efficiently. And it matters to conference organisers, book publishers, consultants, contractors, and people and institutions providing KM courses.

But does KM really matter to the people in organisations who have the power and authority to make the big decisions and then carry them out?  Based on my own observations and discussions with people, perhaps the only people who care about KM are the KM-ers in the industry itself.

There aren’t many examples of people like Bob Buckman from Buckman Laboratories (Book: Building a knowledge-driven organization) who really saw the benefit of pursuing a knowledge-driven strategy for his company.  I certainly read the Buckman Laboratories story with great interest, and might I say, with a great deal of hope that other organisations see the KM light as clearly and positively as Buckman himself.

It seems to me that the KM industry, and I am part of it too, spends a great deal of time talking about what KM can do; what KM could do; what KM might do; and what KM is all about, but actually struggling to get any key decision-maker within an organisation to actually support and promote an organisation-wide approach to KM.  Sure, we get by with the odd successful initiative or project and we can champion them (I certainly do!) but this is pretty small-fry in the big scheme of things.  We can lay claim to a nice intranet site, or a great social networking initiative, but rarely are these initiatives the well-spring of senior management.  More often than not, these KM initiatives emerge (struggle through by sheer individual persistence in many cases) and we celebrate them. In fact we actually make-believe that bottom-up approaches are the way forward rather than seeing these successes as symbols of bright KM cracks in a dull and disinterested organisational landscape.  Bright cracks of KM success are indeed positive, but they are not bright enough to penetrate the dim, dark recesses of conventional and political organisational management.

There was plenty to hear and read about “the KM success stories” when I did my Master of Knowledge Management course at University of Canberra, and all the readings and discussions on KM years prior to that.  In my Masters course, one subject on leadership highlighted the characteristics of great organisational leaders and how they made a big difference to their organisation – the US female newspaper publisher from yonks ago was the case study in fact (sorry, the details have skipped through my memory bank at this time).  And, of course, there are bestselling books and biographies of champion business leaders extolling more success stories.  I am not convinced that these tales are actually ever read by business leaders to stimulate thought about their own organisations, but perhaps they do.

However, in the ubiquitous world of organisations, all these success stories and learnings are the exception. We in KM seem not to be able to shift key management thinking and action towards an organisationally-driven knowledge management (or knowledge capable) enterprise, better able to recognise and solve internal problems, and more resilient and agile in the business environment.

So, does knowledge management really matter?

On internal and external sources of knowledge

I just received my latest Gurteen Knowledge Newsletter from David Gurteen.  David alerts us to a new book by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell  entitled No more consultants: we know more than we think.  I have already ordered the book for my personal library and look forward to reading the book when the order arrives.

I have often wondered what the appeal of hiring external consultants is when people already working within an organisation could do the same or even better job at solving a perceived problem.  There seems to be an attitude that only good knowledge exists outside the organisation; a situation that I feel undervalues the existing knowledge assets of an organistion, or at best, underutilises that existing knowledge capability. And perhaps this is where knowledge management needs to make more of an inroad – in bringing these knowledge assets out in the open so that they get the righful attention of decision-makers.

Of course there will be times when people are busy working on other things and so a consultancy allows for an issue to be looked at sooner rather than later. But in many situations, it’s almost like the organisation doesn’t think highly of it’s own staff being able to undertake the work, something a bit strange when the staff are best placed to consider the workplace context.

Now before readers get the wrong idea, I do think that consultants have an important role to play, especially in offering a new approach to problems and in looking at issues in a different light.  Good consultants really want to help their clients overcome obstacles, look for new opportunities, and solve problems that really matter to an organistion.

I often take on the “consultancy role” when I start a new job or where I want to begin a new project: I seek to determine the current position of the organistion; what are the problems, constraints or concerns about the project or activity; what are the priorities and capabilities within the organisation; how this all fits within the organistion or business unit’s overall strategy and desired outcomes; and then I look at solving problems and issues within the organisational context using whatever combination of people and resources is required for the task at hand. 

Management certainly need to consider the effective utilisation of knowledge assets that exist within the organisation as well as what external knowledge assets can bring to an organistion.

On knowledge management measurement

It’s a fact of life that senior management nearly always love to see facts and figures. Facts and figures can be concise, are usually thought of as being objective, and provide decision makers with raw data from which to base decisions. Senior executives also claim they are time-poor and therefore only want to see just the facts, often in graphical or tabular form because they believe this information is easier to understand.

We therefore often have a problem conveying the full story of our work in knowledge management since we do not always have the facts and figures senior executives want. We often provide information that is easy to collect but does not provide real meaning.  The classic example is in using hit rates for intranet pages and web sites. High hit rates can often indicate confusion just as well as indicating purposeful traffic.

And, of course, facts and figures can be gamed. Work perfomance becomes artificially directed towards a narrow set of quantitative targets rather than the complete set of workplace activities and responsibilities. Narrow quantitative targets often stifle innovative thinking, limit team work, and inhibits building trust within organisations. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) are a classic case of turning targets into the target itself!

The other problem is that the outcome of a number of knowledge management processes and activities does not always show a direct linear relationship. The beneficial outcome might come out of a series of interconnected relationships and serendipitous exchanges that take time to yield a distinct outcome on which to report. Social network analysis and knowledge mapping are techniques helpful here but they themselves take considerable time and analysis.

One strategy that I have used in the past is to provide the “raw data” in graphical form with an explanatory paragraph under each graph or chart. It is important to place the graphical representation of the data in some form of explanatory context. Hit rates and traffic numbers on communities of practice are not sufficient on their own.

The other pieces of “data” I provide are stories – narratives of things that have happened as a consequence of an action. This action might be closing a business deal based on information gleaned from a community of practice. It might be that getting that particular report on time meant that the final prepared document for management was more informed and better reflective of the contextual environment.  Or it could mean that meeting the right person at the right time meant that the business plan had a greater chance of success. There are many outcomes that one can use.

The skill is in finding these examples and ensuring they represent the kinds of outcomes senior management want to hear and can understand.  While I think any form of conversation that enhances our understanding and capacity to work more effectively is a good thing, others do not. Choose outcomes that are meaningful to the person or people you are reporting to.

But don’t stop there.

I would also include a story (or narrative fragment) that might not be directly related to a business outcome, but demonstrates a more intangible element. If the narrative fragment is interesting enough, it is surprising how much this sparks some interest to hear more. These “tell me more” instances don’t always happen, but when they do, they can be even more powerful demonstrations of knowledge management work that just the data.

In this regard, it is vital that the knowledge manager establish and maintain personal and visible relationships with people throughout the organisation. Scaleability can be enhanced through communication channels like the intranet,  listservs, blogs, Twitter (if appropriate), and communities of practice. The knowledge manager must remain visible and be perceived to be an important gate keeper or lynch pin for people scattered throughout the organisation.

In reporting, I strongly recommend utilising both quantitative and qualitative information. If senior management have more meaning around the work of knowledge management, the better chance management will see the benefits.

On the road to knowledge management

I regard myself as a knowledge worker and integrally involved within the information sector. Over the last ten years I have increasingly been involved more on the knowledge management side of things than on the library-side.

When I first entered the information sector in the 1980’s I was physically based in a library. I worked in public libraries and corporate libraries, Macquarie Bank being my first corporate library experience. I have worked at the Parliamentary Library in Canberra. In all those environments there were books and often files that formed the main body of the “collection”.

Throughout the second-half of the 1980’s, electronic and online databases helped broaden the reach of information access and increase the speed and scale at which information could be found and circulated to the people who needed it. But I was still sitting in “the library”. And this was not such a bad thing, especially in corporate environments, where the library and my position in it were viewed as “neutral”. I was able to play information broker between different people and sections of the business – keeping in mind governance and compliance issues.

From the second-half of the 1990’s until recently, except for my time at the Parliamentary Library in Canberra, my working library environment became much smaller. My management and use of information resources  became much more digitally based (and the internet was the obvious driving force). Bookshelves gave way to intranet portals and Google, and online databases became more sophisticated and carried significantly more content.

During much of the “noughties” (the year 2000 and beyond), the emphasis was less on a centralised one-to-one directed research and information service, but on establishing and managing networks of information and people within the organisation. In addition, more communication channels could be used to enhance reach and provide more specialised services while at the same time increasing the number of access points and search options. Communities of practice was one such manifestation.

Now I am working in a “library environment” that has no on-site physical collection and specialises in distributing information widely and in specific, tailored information products. We still have a book and journal collection, although most journals are now accessed electronically.  There is less emphasis on one-to-one research, although this service is still provided.

We still use an electronic library management system, although we also have a (rather mediocre) content management system using Sharepoint 2003. Information is much more dispersed within organisations and there is far greater user-generated content, both internally and externally.

We also have thematic networks that are gradually emerging as a facility to promote knowledge sharing and information distribution across a range of groups of various subject interests.

There are other disparite activities that are happening in learning and development, human resources, internal communications, and information technology. There is much information produced and knowledge generated in program areas and country desks.  They all have a part to play in how knowledge management takes shape within an organisation. Yet there is a need to give shape to knowledge management as a real and driving entity within organisations – all organisations.

The way forward is still to be mapped out in terms of an integrated strategic approach to knowledge management, although I hope to be part of it. After all, one of the strengths of the library and information profession is in “organising”, whether it is a subject search or an intranet page.

Giving life to knowledge management is therefore a real challenge and something a modern “library” can certainly play a vital part.