Users need to like KM and collaborative software

Once upon a time not so many moons ago I developed a piece of software for the small information company where I worked that I thought would prove very popular. That company specialized in writing short, informative summaries of articles in major Australian newspapers, which it would then distribute in various ways. 

One of its crucial concerns was the accuracy of the summaries. The operation took place at night, starting at 1am and finishing at 6am, so there wasn’t really time for editors to check every detail of every summary. So, basically, the people writing the summaries had to get it right.

When they didn’t get the facts right all sorts of bad things happened, especially as much of the content was syndicated to Bloomberg, where mistakes were rapidly noticed. Like the day one of the summaries reported the annual earnings of a major Australian company with the correct numbers — only they were marked as millions of dollars instead of billions.

The software I proposed to management would correct this problem by comparing the summary with the content available online, and providing a report of any differences. Management turned me down, but I just went ahead and developed the software anyway. 

I went ahead because I thought management had turned it down because they didn’t believe such a thing was possible. It isn’t all that hard to build. All you do is grab the summary, extract anything that looks like a number, a proper name or a date, then see if a similar bit of text appeared on the web page that had the original article. There were a few obstacles in terms of getting currency formats right and all that, but nothing insuperable.

When I finally ran the software for a slightly miffed and surprised management, they were amazed. Especially as the first run turned up a series of serious errors. They immediately mandated that the program had to be run on every batch of information that was released.

Over the next couple of weeks, an amazing number of errors were found. And just about everybody in the office stopped talking to me.

I really hadn’t intended the software as a way of getting people in trouble — quite the reverse. I thought if we had a reliable means of checking for errors, everyone could relax. Instead, management used the software as a way to criticize workers.

It’s a fairly typical software story, really. I did what I did with the best intentions for everyone involved, but by the time I was through I had disrupted the company culture in all kinds of ways. But I did help achieve a major objective, which was improving the accuracy of the summaries.

I think probably most software in offices gets developed under similar circumstances. The improvements you are striving to achieve are organizational rather than personal, and if personal feelings/sensibilities get hurt, that’s just something that happens.

The big problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work at all when it comes to introducing Knowledge Management (KM) or collaborative technologies. You can’t force people to collaborate effectively anymore than you can force two children who don’t like each other to play together. Yet most collaborative technology is introduced in the same way as my error-checking system was, as an imposition and a culture change ready-or-not. It’s little wonder that most KM and collaboration systems fail.


What is the alternative?

When it comes to building KM and collaborative systems, it may be necessary to invert this process. Instead of imposing organizational goals on individuals, we may have to think of imposing the goals of individuals on organizations.

What does this mean, really? Well, the best way I have of explaining what I think I mean is to tell you about the next version of Xenos I’m currently working on. Xenos at the moment is a great way to build individual RSS feeds for your organization or team, and allows you to distribute these as new RSS feeds or html email newsletters. The next version of Xenos is called Xenos Social, and it adds (not surprisingly) a social element to RSS.

Basically, using a Xenos RSS reader, people reading RSS feeds produced by Xenos Social will be able to post comments on any news item. They will also be able to tag any news item with both predefined and new tags. The comments and the tags will be recorded in a database, along with the original RSS news item.

So what — or, from our new perspective, how does this benefit the individual? Well, in my experience, comments are pretty irresistible. Read an article that is full of errors and misinterpretations, and it’s pretty hard not to want to talk back. Or sometimes you think of something that is really funny to say. Younger executives might want to show off their knowledge. And so forth. Comments work.

Tags also work, especially in a close social setting. A special RSS feed is generated each day that lists any new tags invented the previous day, linked to what they tagged.

Importantly, all of this data — comments, tags, the original RSS item, and the source material where copyright allows — will be recorded in the database. At a later time every user can retrieve the data. So users might want to tag items with their own names, clients names, project names and so forth.

All this eventually should benefit the organization as well. Do a search on the RSS database, and you get not only the new items, but the comments made at the time, and tags, which will lead to more, associated news items.

This is “bottom up” KM/collaboration. I hope. I’m still busy developing the system!


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