Saturday, April 26, 2008

Why Wiki? Part 3 - Knowledge Incubation

Perhaps because we were raised on encyclopedias and textbooks, we tend to think of knowledge in two primary forms:
  1. Steam - The thoughts, ideas and concepts that rattle around in our heads.
  2. Ice - Books and polished documents that we reference from time to time.
In the context of knowledge work, this oversimplification fosters miscommunication and information management bureaucracy. A far better metaphor is to see knowledge as a dynamic, continuously flowing stream, with resulting artifacts passing through various stages of a knowledge lifecycle.

How Knowledge Grows

You don't require too much imagination to visualize how knowledge transitions from simple ideas through further crystallization, eventually forming reusable artifacts and polished publications. All knowledge workers have participated in this process. Many of the steps occur informally or are managed in isolated environments on personal computers.

Content Management Systems (CMS) or Document Management Systems have helped us organize the mature stages of the knowledge lifecycle. However, much of the critical knowledge growth remains hidden in people's heads, e-mail threads, and in personal files. Lack of access to emerging knowledge critically stunts corporate innovation.

A Powerful Knowledge Incubator

The first step in growing knowledge is to make it explicit. Searchable e-mail and forums are great mechanisms to capture conversation and interaction. Next, Agency is required to move knowledge to the next level of maturity. This is where a Wiki shines, providing an excellent shared incubator for rapidly capturing content and incrementally polishing it.

A Wiki facilitates "any time" knowledge improvement by allowing everyone to quickly find and easily edit information in a highly associative environment. When you effectively deploy a Wiki, it generates a dramatic acceleration of the knowledge lifecycle process. The practical outcome is improved knowledge sharing and increased innovation.

Incubating Together

The additional effect of optimized collaboration should not be underestimated. Making early-stage knowledge visible while allowing everyone to easily improve it creates incredible synergy as the size of the community increases. A Wiki, combined with an emphasis on the people in the community, constitutes a powerful platform for moving knowledge quickly from ideas into highly valued, reusable artifacts.

If you haven't already done so, consider adding a Wiki to your knowledge management environment. By paying attention to effective adoption patterns, you'll be surprised how quickly this investment can produce value and improve teamwork in your organization.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Wiki? Part 2 - The Transparency Effect

Photo Credit: Dominion Coal and Wood Silos - from University of Western Ontario Libraries

One of the fastest ways to build trust and foster collaboration is to make everything visible. Complex organizations quickly become specialized and fragmented, creating isolated knowledge silos. Significant human effort and heroics are often required to bridge these gaps and maintain ongoing productivity.

How Dangerous Is Open?

In most organizations the tendency is to emphasize protection instead of knowledge sharing. Many systems start with out-of-the-box permissions that restrict everyone, allowing for manual overrides to allow individuals and groups to share content. Not only is this a sure recipe for clogging the knowledge arteries in an organization, it also tends to generate complex and unmanageable access matrices that introduce new risks and security holes themselves.

The reality for most information is:
  • Most people can't find it anyway, even when they have full access.
  • Generally, the benefits of sharing far outweigh the risk of abuse.
  • Having more eyes on information improves the potential for correction and ongoing value.
  • Overly restrictive environments encourage informal social sharing as people compensate to get the work done.
The Wiki Contribution

Wikis have a number of characteristics that balance these knowledge flow constrictions, creating transparency and visibility by:
  • Making it easy for everyone to publish content, so that there is something to see.
  • Using powerful search algorithms that combine content and behavior to "bubble up" the most relevant content - quickly.
  • Making it easy for everyone to link content, quickly creating associations across the enterprise.
  • Providing dynamic notification mechanisms that help people "stay aware" of what's going on, or discover helpful information automatically.
  • A visible and detailed audit trail helps reinforce peer accountability and productive behaviour.
Beyond the Wiki

Visibility is probably the most powerful accelerator for building trust and potential teamwork that we can directly influence. Having said that, there are scenarios where visibility is counterproductive:
  • Context Confusion. There are scenarios that are extremely sensitive, or strategically incubating where premature or sharing could cause significant confusion, or critical corporate risks. Timing and context are important leadership aspects for effectively communicating these issues.
  • Off the Record. A large amount of useful knowledge transfer happens through "off the record" sharing. This is often seen as a direct conflict to explicit knowledge capture and teamwork. However, this behavior is an essential component of social behavior and an effective knowledge sharing environment. Leaders need to foster a healthy "grapevine" communication channel in the organization to complement the more explicit mechanisms.
Culture Shock

It's time to take a hard look at the practices and culture. What changes can you make to begin to create a more open and visible environment? Don't wait too long, you can be sure your competitors are asking the same questions.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why Wiki? Part 1 - A Design Definition

Photo Credit: 3D Wiki in Second Life -

Almost five years ago, I introduced one of the first wikis into the corporate environment of a large healthcare company. We needed to solve a very simple, pervasive problem. The common challenge for a global team of analysts was twofold:
  1. I found something interesting, but there is no obvious place to store it in the project infrastructure or corporate taxonomy.
  2. I need to quickly find this stored information when it becomes relevant, even if I forgot about it in the interim.
The best solution at the time: a reused server under my desk loaded with SWIKI, a dead-easy Wiki server, all under the radar of corporate IT. Apart from solving the above-mentioned problems, we quickly experienced some of the exciting knowledge flow and work team dynamics that are inherently encouraged by Wiki technology.

Five years later, Wikis are the talk of the town. This same company has now purchased an enterprise Wiki that is accelerating interaction and knowledge flow between multiple R&D centers across the globe.

Magic by Definition

To really appreciate the potential impact of Wiki technology, it's important to understand what a Wiki really is. Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the Wiki, defines it as, "the simplest possible database". The name "Wiki" is a Hawaiian word meaning "quick".

A longer definition from the WikiWikiWeb is:
The ideas of "Wiki" may seem strange at first, but dive in and explore its links. "Wiki" is a composition system; it's a discussion medium; it's a repository; it's a mail system; it's a tool for collaboration. Really, we don't know quite what it is, but it's a fun way of communicating asynchronously across the network.
Although these descriptions give us clues about the characteristics of a Wiki, here's my definition, that I believe captures the design concepts that make Wikis magic:
A Wiki is a set of searchable web pages that are easy for everyone to create, edit and connect together.
Breaking down the definition:
  • Searchable. Information is only helpful if you can remember it, particularly when you need it. Good Wikis index all content and help you find information quickly by using smart search algorithms that automatically include text relevance, popularity, and date information.
  • Web Pages. Hypertext allows content to be quickly browsed and associated through convenient hyperlinks. Information is immediately accessible and can be explored in a completely flexible manner.
  • Easy. Wikis let people quickly create, edit and link web pages by simply clicking a button. Everyone can use simple text, no coding or HTML required. The Wiki takes care of the rest.
  • Everyone. Wikis are usually open, allowing anyone to create, edit, or connect. This eliminates the need for administrative bottlenecks, completely collapsing the creation/publication process. This creative and editorial freedom is accompanied by a full audit trail of every change.

More Than a Tool

There's a lot more to say about why Wikis change how organizations work together. Some companies have installed Wikis and then expressed disappointment with the lack of demonstrable improvement. As a tool, a Wiki only has the potential to accelerate teamwork and knowledge flow. To realize this potential requires committed leadership, special roles, and initial content seeding.

We'll be unpacking these dynamics together in upcoming articles...

Friday, April 04, 2008

How Training is the Enemy of Learning

Learning Cycle: University of Tasmania
Buried deep in the psyche of quality management systems is the discipline of training. It goes something like this:
  • Define what needs to be done
  • Train people how to do the work
  • Test to ensure compliance
  • Repeat activity in a predictable manner
  • Optimize as needed
The Danger Zone

Much of this emphasis finds its roots in Taylorism. Also known as Scientific Management, this discipline focussed on studying current work processes and optimizing quality and performance in mass production environments. Unfortunately, the context has shifted dramatically to what is needed in today's knowledge-based organizations.
"In political and sociological terms, Taylorism can be seen as the division of labour pushed to its logical extreme, with a consequent de-skilling of the worker and dehumanisation of the workplace."
from Wikipedia: Scientific Management

Learning in the Brave New World

The truth is that in our current information-age work contexts, there are a number of significant dynamics that truly make training the enemy of learning.
  1. Much of what we tackle is emerging, and therefore unknown. Focussing only on what is "known", training tends to emphasize the status quo and stifle innovation.
  2. The work is learning. It's often difficult to get people to create documentation because much of what they are doing is "figuring out" how to creat something or solve a problem.
  3. Sustainable value requires disruptive activity. Linear improvements are no longer adequate to ongoing competitive success. The rate of change and nature of work require discontinuous practices to exploit emerging opportunities.
  4. Patterns are more important than details. Learning design principles and strategies is more relevant to tackling new challenges than methodically following previously defined recipes.
Put Training Back in its Place

Is training still important? Of course, however:
"More is learned through legitimate peripheral participation than overt instructions"
from Catherine Schryer: The Dark Side of Health Informatics
Here are some practical tips to move beyond training into a continuous learning environment:
  1. Focus training on empowering people to collaborate, research and develop learning skills.
  2. Allocate and enforce a segment of exploration time (2-5%) that is dissasociated from the current project and work tasks.
  3. Use social collaboration tools to encourage serendipity and intra-organizational knowledge flow.
  4. Provide a rich environment of tools and support that allow people to create and share learning content, configurations, and practices.
By consciously emphasizing learning as an integrated activity, you will soon augment your training programs with a new level of productivity and innovation.