Category Archives: Networks

Gov. 3.0 conference day 2

I missed the initial sessions this morning at the Gov. 3.0 conference but saw the rest of the days proceedings. Once again, rather than give a summary of the presentations, I want to feature a couple that particularly resonated with me. Not surprisingly, they were on the practical aspects of web 2.0.

The most interesting and relevant presentation for me today was from Amanda Eamich of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Amanda described some of the web 2.0 activities used by the USDA to convey particular messages and/or run engagement campaigns. These included such worthwhile initiatives as improving health and fighting obesity; linking chefs with a good food message to schools, and a food desert locator to show low access to healthy food. You can check out the following websites to see some of these initiatives in action:  Choose my Plate, Chefs move to schools and the Food Desert locator

Amanda emphasised the importance of defining the  mission when starting social media initiatives. This is akin to my mantra” what’s the purpose”? Amanda also recognises that it is important to properly resource initiatives (staff, etc.), have familiarity with the tools (i.e. don’t the tools be your master), have an awareness of your target audience, and have a commitment to the strategy to see it through over the long-term. This is good advice.

I really liked the Chefs move to schools program. The idea was promoted through social media in response to calls from schools for more information about healthy eating and by chefs wanting to deliver the healthy food message to students. The USDA acts as a matching service to link up chefs with a good food message to schools wanting to find out about healthy food and nutrition. It is akin to knowledge brokering which I blogged about recently.

Another top tip from Amanda was that despite the opportunities that arise through social media, “it is important to do things on the ground”. The matching service linking chefs to schools is a classic case of making things happen on the ground.

The USDA has a lot of data and this data can be brought alive through visualisation. Whilst the USDA (and similar government departments) may not have the technical in-house capability to do data visualisation; by making the data available publicly it allows those with such technical skills the opportunity to turn the data into really useful and engaging information. The food desert locator is a good example. Similarly, information of farmers markets used to be on the USDA website. It was later made available in MS Excel and this information was then used to create data visualisation of farmer markets across the USA by people taking the data to reformulate the information into a more appealing package.

I consider government data (as distinct from reports and publications) to represent the greatest value for the open government mission. By putting data that is publicly owned into the public domain, opportunities abound for the data to be used and mixed with a range of data sets to give really useful and engaging information in ways beyond the scope of government web teams.

Lastly, Amanda also championed the social and humanising nature of web 2.0. One example was the USDA blog featuring the people who worked at the USDA – personalising government “bureaucrats” and showing to outsiders a human dimension to the staff of the USDA. An added benefit was greater awareness of people and their interests among USDA staff throughout all the offices in the US.  One other anecdote was about a fun campaign on pumpkins. The USDA ran a campaign encouraging people to send in fun photos of carved pumpkins. Even the luxury car maker Audi got involved with a pumpkin shaped in the style of the logo – an unintended consequence that now reached a market (Audi customers) that might not otherwise have been touched by the USDA).

I intend to follow up with Amanda at a later stage some of these initiatives in more detail. Suffice to say, Amanda’s presentation was the highlight of today.

Even so, I also want to note the presentations from Robert Thomas at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research who is making great strides in making nanotechnology and biotechnology more accessible and relevant for public consumption through social media: see the Technyou website.

And I thought the presentation from former puppeteer Paul Storey (now at the Department of Health in Canberra) was a fascinating insight into how the semantic web may, in the future, help improve preventative health care through examining the relationships between disparate but relevant data sets to hone health and medical diagnosis. The international harmonisation of health terminology was the first start in this quest: see what SNOMED CT is all about. What was really interesting from this presentation was in looking at the prescription of pharmaceuticals in network terms. Pharmaceuticals taken in combination can have very dangerous effects (the Heath Ledger death almost four years ago was an example). Having the technical capacity to better understand the effects of pharmaceutical use in combinations from the available data would provide real human benefits.

It was clear to me that much of what I heard from the presentations had applicability in my professional field of knowledge management. As a network administrator now and in the past, networks are an important part of my knowledge management arsenal. And it is still clear to me that information and knowledge exchange is critical, assisted by social media, if we are to solve problems or seek solutions to problems that we may not have the answer to right now.  Whilst I do have concerns over the slow pace at which government is embracing social media in Australia, I am encouraged by some of the experiences shared at the conference.

The panel discussion concludes the day and a very informative Gov. 3.0 conference is over for this year.

On podcasts, learning, and uni students

When I first went to university I wrote all my essays on a typewriter.  The desktop PC revolution and word processing programs were only just beginning.  In fact, the typewriter held fast in universities throughout much of the 1980s; some universities having specific rooms full of typewriters for students to tap away upon. I had my own typewriter; but even that posed certain problems.  One memorable comment from a lecturer on one of my essays was: “I think a new typewriter ribbon would have been helpful”! 

The change from typewriter to PC and word processing was a massive change for students – a change for the best.

Nowadays, university students have it pretty easy when it comes to doing their university work.  Students have laptops that can go anywhere and word processors that make writing and editing assignments relatively painless.  Thankfully, computers made “white ink” corrections redundant.  Students don’t have to queue for ages at photocopier machines to copy key journal articles anymore – almost all academic journals these days are available online via the university library.

University students today don’t even need to go to classes to listen to lectures since many lectures are now podcast, enabling students to listen to the material at a time most convenient for them.  Moreover, podcasts overcome the multitasking dilemma we “older” students had when trying to listen to lecturers and write down salient points at the same time! Podcasting, like laptop computers, give students greater freedom and flexibility for learning.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that university students are spending less time on campus and more time online, according to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald. “Three out of four students use podcasts of lectures and a third believe online lecture materials can be a replacement for attending classes, according to the nationwide survey of 2422 first-year students by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne”.

While we can say that technology has created the capacity for increasing a student’s online experiences, the other reason is financial.  The cost of education is much greater these days then when I first went to university (in the days when university education was nominally “free”).  Over the past 10-15 years, university students have had to pay expensive fees or take a loan to pay for their studies. For undergraduate students in particular, paying for education means there is a greater need to take part-time jobs to earn money to pay for fees, as well as the usual costs associated with text books and transport.

The negative side to all of this is the lack of on-campus activity that comes with university life.  If students are learning by themselves via online services, podcasts, and even wikis, where is the social interaction that is also part of the educational experience? 

People in the workforce do not work in social vacuums.  The lecture, with all its ancient history behind it, acted as a focal point for students to meet before and afterwards.  The death of the lecture means new focal points will need to overcome the loss of social interaction.  And I don’t just mean the fun part of social interaction; I mean actually meeting with other students (both by design and serendipity) to discuss what they have learned and what needs to be thought through.

It is interesting to compare the university experiences of students today with what will be their work experiences.  For the most part, employers want staff to be at work in a specific physical location.  Despite all the hype, working from home is still relatively rare.  Working with people at the workplace is still the fundamental organisational architecture that university students today will move into.

In the knowledge management industry, we are very supportive of face-to-face contact to establish trust to enhance workplace (working) relationships.  Trust is integral to many of the knowledge management initiatives that we like to promote, especially in terms of leadership, communication, collaboration, people networks, and operational effectiveness.

Information technology gives us speed and scale that cannot easily be replicated in face-to-face environments.  For example, knowledge management professionals like to promote online communities of practice, wikis, and podcasts too.  We see that there are many different ways to communicate information and knowledge and we try not to rely on only one channel.  We like to consider context and how our KM work best fits within that context.  In many ways, we are like both the university students and university lecturers of today’s world.

Getting the balance right in the context in which we operate is the real challenge.

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 clarity

One of the forgotten aspects of knowledge management relates to clarity.  Wikipedia defines clarity as referring “to one’s ability to clearly visualize an object or concept, as in thought, (and) understanding”.  Without providing clarity, can we have successful knowledge management?

And when I speak of clarity, I am not saying that “we know in advance” or that clarity means that we have “the answer”.  What I am saying is that clarity provides for understanding.  Understanding, whether of the task or expectation, provides people with some sense of direction and confidence that might otherwise lead to confusion.  We will certainly not always know the future and therefore we cannot always be confident that we have prepared in advance.  However, providing clarity, often with explanation, is helpful in overcoming confusion and inertia.

I am looking at a number of issues in my current workplace where some of the knowledge management components would be improved if there was some clarity.  This relates to how the organisation uses explicit knowledge contained within project documentation as well as the ability to use tacit knowledge within thematic networks – networks that may become communities of practice (CoP’s) in the near future. Clarity is about guidance.

There is a lack of clarity about the correct work processes and final destination of project documentation (we don’t have a true electronic and document records management system), let alone what use could be made of them later on outside of reporting requirements.  This example is knowledge management 1.0 – KM as a process and a tool for information capture, analysis and re-use.

If we were to define this problem using the Cynefin framework, we could see that some of the business processes around project documentation are in the simple space and some of the later issues are in the complex space.  The simple space refers to the systematic way in which the project documentation should be originated and the steps to take to put these documents into a repository for retrieval and use.  A “rules and tools” approach could work here.  The complicated space refers to the area in which different needs and opportunities may be serviced by using these project reports for a range of activities if only there was some knowledgeable response to the problem.

Similarly, there is a lack of clarity about how our networks should operate and what the expectations are surrounding the networks.  There are differences in opinion depending on where one sits along the management pole, for example. Hopefully, the recent review may provide an answer – we will see.  A big success factor for what happens next will be in determining a clearer picture as to what the networks can contribute and what role members are to play.  This may take some time and we might need to explore different ideas – “probing the complex space” to use a favoured expression from Cognitive Edge.  But providing clarity will give people confidence and some assurance as to the role they can play within the networks and in the exchange of tacit knowledge within the agency.  Building confidence within CoP’s is a critical requirement for successful networks.

Providing clarity is something that we should not ignore.

On organisational network analysis

I arranged for Cai from Optimice to come into AusAID today to give a short presentation on organisational network analysis (ONA).  Some people may also refer to ONA as social network analysis (SNA).

I had previously talked with Cai and Laurie from Optimice at the recent KM Australia conference in Sydney.  Cai had offered then to do a presentation for me on his next trip to Canberra.  And today was the day.

The interesting thing for me about using ONA was in the visualisation of data and the direction and intensity of relationships. My interest is largely directed at the information relationships between people, as well as the relationship between people and knowledge objects.  At the same time, some consultants have just finished a draft report on the thematic networks and I was thinking that the report could have been improved with some good organisational network analysis using the Optimice product.

In addition, the online team in Communications were interested in the mapping possibilities tied to internet/intranet content management and the broader communication issues between head office and overseas posts.

Suffice to say, I am keen to try out some ONA with my own workplace responsibilities in information and  knowledge services.  ONA might not have all the answers, but the visualisation of the data and relationships would be a great starting point for deeper research and analysis.

On making patterns and links – meaning and illusion

One of the natural wonders of human life is the way in which we look for connections, patterns, and links. We try and make sense of potentially unrelated events and actions by looking for relationships between them. One of my high school teachers told me that I look for things that aren’t there, so I have a strong sense of looking for relationships and connections! But by the same token, I am acutely aware that imagined connections may appear to have some meaning but in fact have no real relationship at all.

My long-time  interest in psychology brought me to the attention of the work by Harold Kelley, and in particular,  attribution theory and causal attribution. The gist of it all is that people to seek to attribute a certain causal relationship between two (or more) events to themselves, often a self-rationalisation and often completely unrelated to the actual reality (causality) of the relationship being considered.

So I was therefore not surprised when I read this news story about a tree stump in Ireland that purported to show an image of the Catholic “Our Lady” in the wood grain. The news story reminded me of a similar event years ago when a spilt milk shake in a lift in the US yielded a similar iconic response.

We look for patterns and links to explain things to give us meaning. It is not just primitive societies seeking explanation for drought and flood from sun gods and rain gods; modern society also looks to find meaning and explanation for things that happen or are likely to occur.  Superstition is everywhere.

At the same time, we need to be wary of attributing causality and seeing relationships and linkages that are not really there. If we are not discriminating in our thinking or analysis, then we can come up with some rather ridiculous explanations for things that have no real relationship at all – and history is littered with them, and not just in Ireland.

Now, I am beginning to look at how to map some workplace relationships (the work-oriented ones rather than the social ones at present) and communication channels between groups in order to get a picture of how people share information within identified networks. I am interested in levels of intensity, direction of flow, and whether there are particular gatekeepers or knowledge hubs.

Yet I am conscious of using this information without looking for relationships and making conclusions that don’t really exist – attribution theory and causal attribution are certainly on my mind. Are the linkages showing real relationships and do those linkages and relationship really matter? Care will clearly need to be taken in drawing out meaningful observations and conclusions.

Let’s look at the following list and try and identify what they each have in common (I love playing this type of game with my daughter, so bear with me on this one). I know it’s not as sophisticated and meaningful as the oft-used Dave Snowden example – cow, chicken, grass – but this is more for fun to illustrate a point.

  • Richie Blackmore
  • Greenpeace
  • Judy Garland
  • Goorialla

So, does it matter?

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.