Sunday, February 19, 2006

KM (Knowledge Management) KO'd

Or maybe this should be called whistling past the graveyard - but first you need to read this

The basic question is: if KM is such a boon to humanity why, after decades of blabbering and flailing about, hasn't it made more real progress? It's a fantastic question - right up there with "is the emperor wearing any clothes?" There will probably be more reactions over the coming days but if Denham Grey's lame response is typical I think we can call this war well and truly over.

The truth is this - tools, applications, and disciplines are adopted primarily on their ability to create value or produce otherwise tangible results. KM as a discipline hasn't delivered. In many ways KM wrote its own downfall when it granted itself the power to solve ALL problems and its practioners became all but razzle-dazzle snake oil salesmen.

My most earnest suggestion would be to see KM change its name back to the more sensible "Information Management" and that it focus on extending the reach and effectiveness of proven commercial applications.

Social Networks: It's a small world (after all)

What is a social network and how do social networks actually work? SNA, Social Network Analysis is the art of analyzing and, most importantly, representing the flow of information through an organization. It is an astonishingly interesting field mainly because the flow of documents and information through digital networks can be used, for the first time, to accurately describe the level of communication and collaboration between sub-groups and individuals within an organization.

The image above shows the collaboration network within an organization based on a single topic. Each node represents a person and the size of the node represents the relative strength of collaboration between this person and all others in the network. The lines show how strongly an individual collaborates with other individual players in the group. Nodes are colored based on the department in which they work. Imagine how powerful this type of information can be when an organization is going through a strategic change, introducing a new product or responding to a competitive threat.

Perhaps the most unexpected features form this kind of analysis is the observation that some nodes in the network will act as "short circuits" for the flow of information. These nodes are connected in ways that dramatically reduce time it would otherwise take to spread a message throughout an organization by following the hierarchical channels of communication. They make it a small world!

Reference stuff -

The Hidden Power of Social Networks, by Robert L Cross, also see
Social Network Analysis: a handbook, by John P Scott
Email as Spectroscopy - a first rate paper from HP

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Context of Information

I earlier described the differences between ontologies and taxonomies and their importance when it comes to organizing the things we know, or would like to know. Now comes an interesting question (the first of several) - once you have settled on an area of interest, sailing ships and sealing wax for example, how will you learn the connections between the documents and sources that you are likely to run across? I imagine most of us have experienced this type of problem at one time or another - let's say you'd like to know more about bronze statues. You mention this to a friend and almost before you stop speaking you've been handed a thundering fat textbook on "metallurgy through the ages". Like, Oh! Joy, actually I was looking for something with a little more art.
On its face there is no good way to know if this is a great first step or a rat trap of confusion. Ideally what you'd really like to know is: how does this particular text stack-up against similar texts in roughly the same area and, perhaps, how well is the author known and revered by others with similar interests to you own.

Librarians have fortunately crafted a solution to this type of problem - it's called a citation index. It works quite well for scientific journals. Basically, someone goes to a LOT of trouble to methodically count how often an article in a scientific journal has been referenced by other authors. You can usually also find a raw list of publications by an authors name. Taken together this information can be used to select what seems to be the most useful/insightful articles from a stack of similar-looking papers. In fact, these scores have often been pretty good predictors of who will win Nobel prizes.

Unfortunately an index of this type is usually not available when one is presented with documents from the non-scientific world - take websites for example. Without any prior knowledge of the contents of a site is there any way to get a grip on potentially useful relationships between documents stored there? And, can these relationships be presented on-the-fly? With the great power of computers and modern semantics the answer if a resounding YES.

The graphic above shows the relationships between the key concepts related to "coffee" presented on the Kraft website. The engine has clearly identified a relationship between "coffee" and "roselius" - like what-da-f is roselius; Dr. Roselius invented the modern decaffeinating process.

Don't try this on Google where keyword search can't tell the difference between "articles by George Bush" and "articles about George Bush" ... just because they are rich doesn't mean they aren't low class!

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Getting Organized, Ontologies and Taxonomies

It's the blooming middle of February and my New Year resolutions are already a fading memory! One was to get organized - not just neaten-up the same old crap but methodically get organized (Travis Bickle "organizized") - no more loose ends; a place for everything and everything in its place!
'Course right out of the gate I have a problem, two problems actually and their names are ontology and Taxonomy! The ontology for organized living means defining the classes or categories into which your "stuff" is divided. If an object meets the definition of the category it can be managed in the same way as other members of that group. Let's take for example - my socks. By definition socks are those objects, in pairs, that fit on my feet, inside my shoes. From now on whenever I find socks lying about I know that they are managed by being placed in the sock drawer.
The next step is to think about how socks should best be arranged within their category - how should they be arranged within the sock drawer. This is the Taxonomy for my socks. Perhaps I will divide them by color, or by age, or by the date I purchased can all be so complicated!
At least one point worth remembering is that there is NOT necessarily a one-to-one relationship between an ontology and a Taxonomy. In fact, there may be many Taxonomies associated with each ontology.
Clearly, this seems like a pointless narrative but it actually has some serious consequences. Arranging any type of information so that others can find and use it often hinges on defining the categories into which it will be divided - should a library contain only books? What about hardback versus paperback? Once we agree on the forms of the information we intend to manage we then must consider how it should be navigated; fiction versus non-fiction; classics versus young adult, etc. Here the key is to have a structure that seems universally "intuitive" but is also not ambiguous.
Next time I need to think finding information when intuitive signposts are not available.