Re: Important information about your new management style

Julie received a recall notice in the mail today for a piece of equipment she uses in her business. Actually, the recall was for a component part (a spring) of said equipment. Anyone who has owned a car or large appliance of some kind (got one on the dishwasher a couple of weeks ago) is familiar with the notices that come out.

Dear Valued Customer,

We have identified a potential problem…. Our records show that you purchased…. To date, the problem has only occurred 5 times out of the 50,000+ that have been sold…. While the risk is low, we are replacing…..

Very straightforward for a purchase of hardware. (We know that it doesn’t happen for software, that’s what patches and updates are for.)

What about management consulting engagements? What happens when the process you’ve helped a customer implement is shown to be “faulty,” and could actually hurt the company instead of help it? What if this happens a year or more after you’ve finished an engagement? Or is this more like an “upgrade,” something that should be treated as a follow up to something you’ve done in the past?

I guess you could have minor version upgrades (KM v1.0 to KM v1.1) or major upgrades (KM v1.0 to KM v2.0).

Just some rambling thoughts….

Knowledge Management: Theory and Practice

“Pure” and “Applied” Mathematics. “Theoretical” and “Experimental” Physics.

I’m sure there are others examples of the distinction between what can most easily be described as the academic and real-world aspects of a discipline. Yet, as far as I know, the discipline currently known as “Knowledge Management” is still a catch-all that includes essentially all aspects of knowledge in organizations – from personal knowledge management to the social nature of knowledge within groups.

I first realized this several years ago, when I was still somewhat new to the world of KM. I was trying to learn more and checking out the various KM organizations and certification programs.

Some organizations, such as KMPro and AOK, focus on the practical aspects of KM, actually applying a process, technique, or tool to positively influence a business outcome. Certification programs from these types of organizations likewise focus on how to “do” KM in a given setting.

Other organizations, such as KMCI, focus on the theoretical aspects of KM, trying to establish an understanding of how things work and why they work that way. Using KMCI as an example, there is no real “certification” in KM, just an abundance of learning opportunities with which to broaden your personal knowledge and experience.

Though some may disagree with me, I don’t think either aspect is necessarily better than the other. (My personal preference is for the theory side, but that is true for most any subject – that’s just my personality type.) In fact, like the two examples I give above, I think that each is dependent on the other for continued growth and success. Without a theory on which to judge the outcomes of experiments, the experiments have no lasting value. Without experiments, it is difficult to prove (or disprove) a theory.

Because there is only one “branch” of KM, there seems to me to be a lot of “that’s not KM” – “yes it is” going on today (such as this page at KMCI). Perhaps it is time to “formalize” the distinction between the two aspects of KM. A key problem, of course, is finding the right words to get across the meaning but not have potentially pejorative connotations.

Some thoughts on possible descriptors for the two branches:

  • Theoretical – Practical
  • General – Applied
  • Fundamental – Functional

Change and unintended consequences

From a Washington Post article, via Schneier on Security, concerning the prohibition of lighters and matches on commercial airplane:

As airports and government leaders began discussing how to create flame-free airport terminals, the task became more complicated. Would newsstands and other small airport stores located beyond the security checkpoint have to stop selling lighters? Would airports have to ban smoking and close smoking lounges? How would security screeners detect matches in passengers’ pockets or carry-on bags when they don’t contain metal to set off the magnetometers?

Just goes to show the importance of considering not just the first order effects of decisions and change, but the second and third order effects as well. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and we should not forget that (especially in the world of Knowledge Management).

Something old, something new

As much as I use, and enjoy using, information technologies, my primary personal note taking (and storing, for that matter) media is a paper notebook. My current book of choice is the Infinity Journal from Levenger. With 600 pages, I get about a year out of each book. Everything goes into this book, including random thougths throughout the day, notes from meetings, and quotes/passages from books/websites, etc. At times I even print-and-paste things from my computer into the notebook so I have it available whenever I may need it.

Of course, paper does have some limitations. Two key ones are searchability and organization. To solve the searchability problem for key things such as phone numbers, e-mail addresses, web sites, etc. that tend to get jotted down in haste, I use a Moleskine pocket-size address book. Though it is called an address book, it is really just a notebook with the letters of the alphabet on tabs every few pages. No “rules” on what should go in, just a simple way to organize. (I’ve chosen to alphabetize names by first name, since that is what I usually think of when I want to call someone.)

As for the organization part, that’s not so easy. I do use a paper calendar to keep basic schedule stuff (see my response to Jack’s post Thinking While Note Taking for more on that), but that doesn’t help with organizing the notes I have. I do number the pages, as well as date them when I jot something down, so that helps a bit.

I have tried several digital methods of note taking/keeping, but I’ve yet to find one that works for me. My first try was with a “digital pad” from Cross (the pen people) many years ago. This was (is?) basically a base-station for a paper pad that captures your writing, which can then be transferred to a computer. Very clunky, maybe ahead of its time. Next was a Palm OS based Handspring handheld. I’ve also tried a couple of different systems that tried to tie a pen-and-paper notepad into the Handspring, but they didn’t work either. The one thing I haven’t yet tried is a Windows Tablet PC. If they work near as well as they are supposed to, they may work out. But then again, I’m a Mac guy so….

Speaking of the Mac, I’ve just started trying out a new tool to organize my notes: DEVONthink from DEVON Technologies. I first heard of this on Steve Johnson’s blog and figured I should give it a try. Still in the early stages of figuring out exactly how best to use it, but it definitely has potential. I think I will keep to pen-and-ink (nothing like the feel of a good fountain pen) for day to day stuff, but this may be what I’ve been looking for to help me find what I need when I need it.

On the value of planning

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In retrospect, my post On the futility of planning captured a “you had to be there” moment. Out of context, the intended sarcasm falls (very) flat. In truth, I am a big (HUGE) believer in planning.
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As an Army officer I learned very quickly the value of planning and, possibly more importantly, the rehearsal of those plans. The aphorism “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” is absolutely true. Proper preparation, though, can make that fact largely irrelevant. The very act of planning, and rehearsing that plan, involves preparation that enables you to effectively react to most any situation that may arise. In other words, proper planning allows you to IMPROVISE.

“What?” you say. “Improvise? That’s fine for comedy and music, but military operations? Business? I don’t think so. The whole purpose of planning is so you know what is going to happen, and when it is going to happen. Not to just wing it.” In an Industrial Age setting, I may have agreed with that. But in the Information Age, I strongly disagree. If you tie yourself too tightly to a plan, and stick to it no matter what, I believe you are doomed to fail.

As an example, consider a football (American) team – or any other team sport, for that matter. It is possible to develop a detailed game plan that dictates every play you will use, and when you will use them in the game. You could make a simple list of plays: On the first play, do this; On the second play, do that. etc. Or you could have a more detailed plan: If it is second and under 5 yards, and we’re in the red zone, we do this. etc. You could even take it a step further and include separate options that take into account the opposition’s activities. Of course, the more contigencies you identify, the bigger the play book you have to carry around and the longer it may take to figure out exactly what to do.

What actually happens is that the team develops a basic game plan ahead of time and rehearses the execution of that plan. By doing this, the focus of the team becomes achieving the goal of winning the game (as opposed to simply executing the plan).

I was inspired to write this post partly by a few key passages in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Blink (which I’ve written about recently), in which he uses the obvious example of an improv comedy troupe (which in turn cites as one of their references a basketball team) to support the concept of “thin-slicing,” the ability to parse a given situation into the minimum information required to deal with that situation. I have the feeling I’ll be writing quite a bit more that is inspired by the book. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to go out and get it.

The art of subtle influence

As a kid I remember reading some books and hearing some stories about “subliminal advertising” (and of course demonic speach in LPs played backwards). I was always fascinated with how the brain (mind?) can be influenced even when it doesn’t know it is being influenced.

Driving to the Newark airport yesterday (for what turned out to be a cancelled flight), I heard an interview (listen here in RealAudio) with Martin Lindstrom on WNYC‘s Leonard Lopate show discussing Lindstrom’s new book, Brand Sense : Build Powerful Brands through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Sound. One of the key things that came out in the interview is the (sometimes not so) subtle way the senses can be used to influence decisions, with the sense of smell being the sense with the most impact. One of the examples they discuss is the famous “new car smell.” Very interesting.

When I went back to the airport today (to actually fly), I was walking by the bookstore on the concourse and Malcolm Gladwell‘s (of The Tipping Point fame) new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking caught my eye in the display. I had heard an interview with Gladwell concerning the book (again on the Leonard Lopate show) and was intrigued, so I picked the book up to read on my trip.

I am glad I did. I got through about half the book on the 3 hour flight, with a little bit of time taken off to work on the laptop ’til the battery died. The three tasks of the book, as explained by Gladwell:

  1. Convince you of a simple fact; decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately
  2. Answer the question, “When should we trust our instincts, and when should we be wary of them?”
  3. Convince you that our snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled.

But what, you may ask, does that have to with “subtle influence”? What really caught my eye (ear!) in the interview was Gladwell’s description of how an individual’s performance can be influenced by “priming” them with subtle, sometimes subliminal input.

For instance, studies show that asking African-Americans to indicate their race before taking a test has a measurable negative affect on their performance on the test. (The study mentioned in the book uses a sample of questions from a GRE test.) On the positive side, you can use the same type of approach to improve performance by getting yourself (or someone else) into a “smart” frame of mind. An example I came across recently was Tom Peters Cirque du Soleil standard, watching a CdS DVD for the last 30 minutes or so before a presentation.

Lots of implications from both not only on how companies can influence customers (the branding/marketing side), but also how leaders can “influence” the success of their employees. I’ve not had a chance to read Brand Sense, but can heartily recommend Blink.