Archive for September, 2008

Big vs Little

Posted in Uncategorized on September 29, 2008 by xenosrssblog

Over at the ACTKM discussion list, there has been a rather long thread running  during September which began with the heading “Sharepoint is no magic bullet” and has since wandered off into the fields of organizational/cultural change, mentoring and so forth. (It’s a very lively list, and well worth subscribing to.)

The initial point, however, is interesting itself. In general whenever you see a company plan to launch some grand software that is going to improve all sorts of business processes and so forth, you are fairly safe to predict it will fail, or at best not quite live up to expectations. There are usually lots of little reasons why this is so, but there are two main, big reasons.

First, most of these plans are less about the software than they are about changing certain business processes. The software is brought in because by making its use mandatory, the business processes — management believes — will be brought under control.

Well, no, actually. If things are in such a mess that you can’t bring about organizational change, then introducing some new, unfamiliar software really isn’t going to help. It will just create a bigger disaster. If you have trouble believing this, take a look at what happened at Australian Customs a couple of years back.

Secondly, there is just no way you can bring in a major computer system out of nowhere that is going to effectively meet the needs of the people who work with it. Aim low enough, and you might meet the needs of management. But it’s likely people will not use the system much, or do so grudgingly.

The best software is grown organically. It starts out as something small, then gets added to a little bit. Then extended. Then linked to something else.

Of course, this drives the average IT department nuts. But, you know something, the software isn’t made to keep the IT department happy. It’s made to make the users more effective.

True, it can go too far, until things require so much maintenance that they’re down 10% of the time, and not much use consequently. Even then, it isn’t necessary to replace everything.

When I made Xenos, I very much had in mind the idea of “small collections of loosely connected things”. Xenos is just the first of a series of products, all of which will link together, if you want them to. And I’ve been careful to stick with open formats wherever possible, so that other people — developers, users — can make things that will link easily to Xenos.

The idea is to build software that is scaled to the size of the human, and not the size of the Ideal. At least, that’s the aim, though I guess we all do fail at something so ambitious most of the time.

What next?

Posted in collaboration on September 29, 2008 by xenosrssblog

I’d like to propose the following loose organizational history for businesses in the USA (and elsewhere) as they affect some elements of Knowledge Management (KM)

Years Trend “Hero” Employee
1960-1973 Experts and expertise Expert
1973-1987 Rise of middle management Manager
1987-2001 Middle management massacre; rise of “teamwork”  Team leader /Specialists
2001-2008 Age of outsourcing The Trainer
2008-? (Collaboration?) (Knowledge worker /manager?)

The dates are somewhat arbitrary, but reflect major social/economic events. 1960 saw the beginning of true desegregation and the trappings of the JFK era. 1973 was marked by the OPEC oil crisis. 1987 saw stock markets deflate drastically. 2001 marks both the final collapse of the internet stock bubble, and the events of September 11. 2008 marks the complete collapse of US investment banking.

At each marker the economic “game” changed drastically, and resources were reallocated by business to increase profits in some new way. 

One way of viewing this “progress” would be to see it as the gradual commodification of expertise. Individuals are gradually replaced by broader and broader groups. There is a net gain in efficiency at every step, but equally there is a loss of creativity, adaptability, and curiosity.

So, around 1973 experts who were interested in understanding were replaced by managers who had learned certain rigid analytic metrics from the work of the experts. 

With the rise of teams responsibility devolved from the management level to the specialist level.  The team leader essentially worked to apportion that responsibility, but did not take on specific responsibilities that related to expertise, other than being able to run a team.

The logical progression was to build more diffuse, and less expensive teams by outsourcing work. The trainer came into being, yet another step back from management responsibility.


Where does this leave us now, as we face the aftermath of yet another economic crisis? 

The startling fact that seems to have emerged over the past four or five years is that things aren’t working quite the way they are supposed to work. Companies that should be doing very well are not, and those that should not be doing too well are prospering. Apple which once was considered the epitome of potential gone bad, has risen to be such a formidable opponent that it has shaken up the mighty mobile phone market. Meanwhile companies such as Dell and Starbucks have plunged in profitability — and both have adopted the Apple solution of bringing the founder back into the company. Microsoft continues in the doldrums, even as its founder has left.

Is the need for creativity, for imagination, for adaptability actually on the rise? 

Is it possible that after over forty years of the gradual “disenfranchisement” of American knowledge workers, they may now be about to be “re-enfranchised”? Is it possible we are going to see the rise, finally, of a drive to create collaborative situations to enhance the productivity of knowledge workers?

Well, don’t count on it. But there are some hopeful signs around. Which will be the subject of another posting.