Knowledge Management: why not?

I will get back to 'proper' blogging soon. Honest. It's just been a bit mad round these parts as I've put my new life together. It's going well, I might add, but the blogging has been neglected. Another week or two should do the trick.

However, thanks to Computing, CIO and Information World Review, a few of my pieces have popped up in the last few days, all of them connected in some way to Knowledge Management. And, yes, I know that's a contradiction in terms. But put 'social' and KM together and magic starts to happen.

The three articles are:

Social tools take KM to a new level (Computing]

IT accumulates data but Web 2 shares knowledge (IWR)

Board level energy saving and environmental issues (CIO)

None of the titles is mine, of course. (They have sub-editors to dream these things up.)

The first was my response to a request to prepare a 'definitive guide to Knowledge Management'. The second was a column in which I postulate a kind of lifecycle of knowledge/information. And the third was created by plundering the business/CIO related threads in the recent IBM Eco-Efficiency Jam – another example of social/KM in action. It happily blended my two primary interests: human and environmental IT.

Happy reading. See you back here soon, I hope.

Is the eco-wind blowing your way?

It wasn't so long ago that all 'green' activity went under the heading of 'idealism'. Nothing wrong with that, but the so-called developed world is not big on that sort of thing. It doesn't put money in shareholders' pockets, satisfy fashion urges or keep children 'happy' at Christmas. (The quotes are because I remember our family's happiest festive times were when we were poorest.)

Now, with Copenhagen looming and the Carbon Reduction Commitment legislation just around the corner, large organisations especially are beginning to realise that a regulatory steamroller is heading their way and they will need to do something about it, quite regardless of their anthropogenic climate change beliefs, or otherwise.

In terms of business operations (as opposed to political lobbying or scientific research), it's probably best that organisations focus on what they can do which will deliver genuine benefits while minimising their impact on the environment. Generally speaking, benefits boil down to cost savings and increased revenues, although public bodies are likely to focus more on the former than the latter.

The tough bit is measurement. Like accounting and auditing, this is necessary to understand progress and to be able to report convincingly, both internally and externally. All the time the global warming, climate change and greenhouse gas discussions have been going on, it's all seemed a bit abstract to day to day life. Now that we're facing the prospect of being nailed by governments, councils, customers and investors, the need to act has crystallised. What a fantastic opportunity for the IT world. If nothing else, it's very good at collecting and processing information in very high volumes and that's exactly what organisations need as they contemplate their own sustainability, in all senses of the word. (We shouldn't be so dazzled by the CO2 story that we forget about raw material use, water, waste and other forms of pollution.)

Some software companies – Access and Microsoft Dynamics spring to mind, although I'm sure there are others – got into carbon accounting before their clients were fully aware that this was going to become important. Hats off to them, and others like them, who knew what had to be done and just got on with it. They will, hopefully, reap the rewards of their early efforts.

As ever, the pioneers aren't usually the ones that walk away with the big prizes. While journalists and bloggers have been complaining about the apparent lack of action, the big guys were getting on with the job. They were watching what's going on out there, putting their own houses in order while preparing new products and services for market. Now they're emerging from the woodwork.

For example, CA managed to secure the name ecoSoftware for its SaaS-based measurement and reporting system aimed at medium to large businesses. It looks into every nook and cranny of a business in order to assess and report on its environmental health. It takes the whole sustainability perspective, rather than concentrating on carbon or energy alone, for example. It takes its feeds from just about anywhere – hand entered meter readings, electronic feeds and inputs from other recording systems. It integrates with other software, especially the major ERP systems. Users can drill in and out of detail, and filter the information in a variety of ways – by business process, by GHG Protocol Scopes, per shipping unit, by floor area, and so on. The end result is action plans based on genuine insights and, of course, the ability to measure progress.

Another company, 1E, is probably best known for its NightWatchman system which minimises the power use of the desktop computing estate. It has recently announced a system for measuring data centre energy use and identifying how much useful work each server is doing. It can change the power profile of each device according to the work it is (or is not) doing. The system reports what's been going on in charts and tables and users can drill into any unusual patterns. It will integrate natively with hardware vendors' own tools or scripts can be created for exceptions or new developments. Crudely stated, the point of the exercise is to maximise the business value delivered with the least use of equipment and energy.

These examples serve to show which way the wind is blowing. Organisations will find that the IT industry will be key to helping them get a grip on their environmental obligations and costs. It is a case of a win all round but, as is frequently the case, no one will win bigger than the IT industry itself. 

Moving to a new app? Mind the data trap

If you're anything like me, you're always on the lookout for
software that will improve your life in some way. It might help you communicate
more effectively and more widely or simply get you through the work week more
productively.

You frequently alight on something new, play with it for a
bit, then decide that it's not for you. Probably because the user interface is
too clunky or maybe it's missing some favourite features of an otherwise
inadequate existing system.

The search goes on. And you put up with the restrictions of
what you've got.

When you find the right product, you then have a bunch of
decisions to make, not least of which is "how easy will it be to
switch?"

If you're talking about a move from one screencasting tool
to another, for example, the move is relatively straightforward. Your old
screencasts will still work, so introducing the new tool is largely a matter of
learning how to use it. And, if others are to use it, to boil the instructions
down to the essentials, in order to cut down the 'time to value'. They can
always pick up on the finer points as they go along.

If you're talking about a system that requires you to move
legacy information into it in order for it to become useful, then you have to
seriously consider whether the promised benefits are worth the effort. The
effort, of course, will vary according to the export/import capabilities of the
software. Some software vendors make a point of being able to import their
competitors' data, in which case you could be in luck. However, if your
existing vendor is a smaller player, you may be denied this, unless it provides
a standards-based export mechanism.

As an example, I've just spent many hours looking at
Microsoft's OneNote.
It held out the promise of organising my life and the information in it. But,
for this promise to be fulfilled, I had to a) learn how to use it and, b) move
enough of my life into it to keep the Tebbo show on the road. a) took a few
hours, but b) took many times that. The time consumed was my own. It wasn't the
sort of thing I would have done on the company shilling, in case it was wasted.

After many years of using organisers of various kinds –
ideas processors, outliners, mind mappers, databases and others, such as Lotus Agenda (1992) and Octave's
Web (1989) – I was
reacquainted with OneNote on a recent visit to Microsoft. It was incidental to
the briefing, but it will become more ubiquitous with the arrival of Office 2010. Perhaps I'd
dismissed it before because of its simple notebook-like interface. Or maybe I
didn't like the 'container' approach to content elements. Whatever the reason,
ignore it I did.

Yet, it does what so much of the other software fails to do:
it provides useful capabilities using a familiar metaphor. Everyone can
understand notebooks, sections and pages. And, on those pages: text; drawings; images
and hyperlinks. Getting stuff in and out is simple, in the main, but if it
isn't then add-ons and third party tools are available to help. It has some
shortcomings but, for me, the important thing is that it held out sufficient
promise that I gave up a huge chunk of weekend and holiday time to get my data
in. (Context: I already use Office Pro.)

Moving to new software is never easy but learning to use it
is often the easiest bit. The hardest bit is if you have to move heaps of
legacy data across. You can consider yourself successful if the systems and
people around you don't notice the change.

Mind-mapping with MindJet and MindGenius

Ever since Tony Buzan started popularising mind-mapping in 1974, it's had a bit of an uphill struggle to reach the mainstream. Over sixty commercial applications are available for the PC, the Mac and the web. A sprinkling of others are available for the Pocket PC, iPhone and BlackBerry. And you'll even find open source and freeware versions.

So mind-mapping is an industry, albeit a bit of a niche one. And the products/services keep on coming. October saw announcements from two well-known players, MindJet and MindGenius, which suggested that the mind-mapping world has yet to run out of puff.

MindJet has blended communications and mind-mapping into a single web-based collaboration service with Catalyst. Its premise is that most so-called collaboration tools are actually communication tools, completely lacking an application at their heart with which participants can engage. It feels, with some justification, that a mind-mapping application is exactly the right thing for this. It's useful, easy to understand and the nodes can activate files inside their own applications.

The counter to this might be that a generalised voice-video-IM-screen-sharing communication service allows you to run whatever applications you like at the desktop. Either a scribe can do updates or, more clunkily, control can be passed between participants.

The second announcement of the month fits the latter category. It is a desktop application. MindGenius claims that, with an addressable market of 400 to 500 million English-speaking users, it can focus uncompromisingly on improving the mind-mapping experience for this particular market. And it does a good job. Information entry is slick, navigation can be through the graphical image or through a separate 'outliner' pane (called Map Explorer) and any notes attached to the selected entry are visible in another pane. It offers smooth two-way integration with Office applications such as Word, Excel and Project.

Mind-mapping started out as a very personal thing. The aim was to enable you to take notes effectively, learn quickly and plan easily. When personal computers came along, outliners grabbed our attention first, then the more graphical mind-mappers came along. As screens got bigger and resolution improved, so the visual mappers came into their own. But most people were either ignorant of the technique or they saw nothing wrong with sticking with paper and coloured pens.

Once the vendors twigged that they could be used for project work and for effective communication, the brakes came off and MindJet, MindGenius and others offer some good tools for facilitating projects from inception to completion. They also offer varying degrees of data exchange with other applications.

The thing to watch out for is how many brain cycles are consumed with actually operating the application as opposed to getting something done with it. Ideally, you want the program to more or less fade into the background while information is quickly transferred to the screen, moved around, navigated and absorbed.

Bearing this in mind, of the two applications mentioned, I must confess to a slight leaning towards MindGenius.

Am I qualified to comment? Well, I started using mind-maps in the mid-70s and wrote a mind-mapping program in 1981 which, incidentally, is still being published today from somewhere deep in Colorado. I've been using my own program habitually for 28 years and others as and when they find their way into my computer. If you'd prefer to follow a couple of subject experts, then I'd recommend Chuck Frey and Vic Gee.

Collaboration and Control

Once upon a time, the boundaries of IT management were fairly straightforward. All your customers were inside the company and exchanging digital information with the outside world was highly controlled, if it happened at all. Not only that, but you sat down and figured out the business needs and then bought or developed the appropriate software which you then ran in-house. The users were obliged to take what they were given. Not quite easy peasy, but close.

Nowadays, users have their own views. They want to collaborate electronically with each other and with the outside worlds of business partners, suppliers and customers. They want to hold webinars, share screens, instant message each other, maybe even work on wikis together and comment on each others' blogs. You have to decide whether to allow these things to happen formally or informally. If formal, at least you have some control over what holes you allow in the firewall. If informal, you've probably given them web access and told them to behave themselves. Although the social media brigade will say, "Trust everyone," only you will know if that's going to work in your organisation.

If you do try to restrict what users can do, you'll be surprised at how inventively they'll sidestep your controls. Research suggests that if they can, they will. You are driven by the need to keep the enterprise system secure. They are driven, usually, by achieving results in the most effective way. These two drivers are not usually compatible.

Knowing that 'collaboration without travel' is at the heart of their needs, you start looking around at what's available. Broadly speaking, the bottom line is a choice between an externally hosted service and one you look after yourself. The externally hosted approach is a bit nerve-wracking because all your company's digital collaborations will be stored on someone else's servers. What if something goes wrong? The service provider could fold or you could simply fall out with it. Can you get all your records back? Will they be in a usable form? This is the stuff nightmares are made of. Some very major vendors are beginning to offer such hosted services. Perhaps you'd feel more comfortable entrusting your data to an IBM, a Citrix Online or a Microsoft, for example.

But the alternative, hosting it all yourself, brings its own problems. Scaling is one, but that's probably fairly easy to address. What about your own users, who are now merrily collaborating with each other, being able to collaborate with external partners of various kinds? Your lock down could end up as a lock-out. And, in these days of close collaboration between organisations, this could be greatly to your detriment.

If partners, suppliers or customers are running different collaboration systems to you (as many will), be wary of the glib salesperson who assures you that interoperability is a piece of cake. Ask to talk to real users with similar needs to your own. Find out if your licence terms allow you to extend membership of your collaboration systems beyond the firewall. Ask a few of your business partners if they would be happy to work in this way. After all, they may be just as nervous about engaging beyond their own firewall.

It's so easy to find private systems that satisfy internal collaboration and security needs. The danger lies in forgetting that, over time, the constituency you serve is increasingly likely to involve ever larger numbers of outsiders.

New Lotus?

If you were in the market for collaboration software, what would your reaction be if a major software publisher offered you an all-singing all-dancing suite of battle-hardened collaboration tools?

What if that publisher were IBM? What if it were Lotus? What if it were Microsoft? Bear in mind we're talking about the same set of tools, same quality in each case.

You have your preferences, right? And they have nothing to do with what's on offer. It's about perception of the brand. And that, as has been discussed exhaustively and exhaustingly, is an issue for a brand called Lotus. It can dance, sing, strip, do cartwheels and swing from a trapeze, but nothing it does will impress those who don't want to be impressed.

So why on earth does IBM persist in protecting the brand? Part of the answer lies in its existing base; let's not rock the boat for the 100M plus users. Part of it lies in a touching faith that the reality of the technical specs will trump the perceptions of the marketplace. As my colleague, Dale Vile, pointed out recently, the evidence suggests this is not the case. The respondents to the survey were readers of The Register, not best known for their love of Lotus, but this is the point – they are exactly the outsiders that IBM/Lotus needs to influence if it is ever to expand its market.

Let's forget any ideas of switching back-end servers and applications. If a company has Exchange and Outlook, or Thunderbird, or The Bat! (okay, I threw that in for good measure), then it's unlikely to change and, if Lotus ever thinks it will then its head needs examining. But some of the new Lotus offerings don't want you to switch anything. At best, it will run on your existing equipment and operating systems, at worst it needs a dedicated server – an appliance, in effect – and you don't need to fret too much about what's in it. Some of the offerings are provided as a service, so you don't even need to worry about installing, managing and updating the back-end, although you will still need to look after the clients.

You'd have thought that IBM/Lotus would be crowing about these things that don't depend on, let's say, a Domino server. You'd have thought it would be making the point right up front that the product is freestanding and can be popped onto a Windows or Linux server. But, no, it takes a while for non-Lotus folk to figure out just what can standalone and what has a dependence on a bit of Lotus-specific back-end stuff.

It's not like buying insurance, a camera or a car on the web. Some of these sites get you to 'radio-button' or 'check box' your desires and a shortlist appears, each showing its primary attributes. It's a matter of minutes to drill down to the product that best suits you. The Lotus site makes you drill and drill and drill. To give it credit, at the lowest level, all the information is eventually given, but finding it requires some diligence. You'll find no mentions of platforms on the Lotus product page unless you count the 'Collaborate in the Cloud' link to LotusLive. Drilling required. Click on 'Collaboration Software Products'. From there you can search by product category, product name or keyword. Since you're unlikely to know the names, then category seems best. Or you could use keywords. 'Microsoft' pulls up just two hits, Quickr and Quickr Content Integrator (team sharing tools). Following the latter reveals that it offers both migration from and coexistence with SharePoint and Exchange public folders. Hurrah! But this is hardly platform independence. More digging needed. And then, deep in the bowels of the documentation, is a list of platforms -including Windows.

When it comes to the Lotus Connections social software tools, once again no clues are given to its platform requirements. It takes a further seven clicks to reach the information you need. Lo and behold! it can run on two flavours of Linux and three flavours of Windows Server plus, of course, IBM's AIX.

At least with the Symphony page, it takes only one click to find out the platforms. But why is Lotus so coy about some of its products being multi-platform? A mystery, to be sure. Perhaps someone in Lotus would care to comment?

To summarise, we have a company here that wants to expand its user base into the wider world but it is, a) shy about telling us the information we need, b) makes it horribly complicated to discover, and c) hides the good stuff behind a brand that carries a lot of well-deserved baggage.

Given the company's irrational attachment to the Lotus name, here are some suggestions: 1) Improve the website, at least for the multi-platform and cloud stuff; 2) Make sure that the multi-platform credentials are at least hinted at on the home page. (Sure, it won't work with certain versions of operating systems, browsers, databases and so on, but this shouldn't affect the broad messaging. All it needs is a direct link to the detail.); and, 3) think about changing the name.

In view of the foregoing, may I take a leaf out of the politicians' book and suggest 'New Lotus'?

No, I thought not.

Evangelist: beware

Evangelists. Plenty of them hang out in the sustainability and collaboration fields where I work. Some irritate while others are acceptable. And this isn't because they necessarily reflect my views. (In case you were wondering.) The trick is to spot, early on, which variety you're faced with and make your excuses and leave if they're the 'wrong' kind.

Last week, the Free Software Foundation, wrote to the Fortune 500 companies (well, it didn't bother with Microsoft) essentially telling them they'd be mad to upgrade to Windows 7. The story was widely covered but few publications would have ended up with such a rich discussion as the Register. This is a hugely popular online IT publication which takes no prisoners. It has attitude and a healthy disregard for some of the tripe that emanates from the industry it serves. Readers are encouraged to comment on items and, this particular article quickly attracted 145 comments.

The interesting thing is that the article was about an evangelical organisation and it attracted evangelistic commentators, both pro- and anti-, as well as your everyday commenters. The end result is that anyone with the willingness to work through the comments, evangelistic or otherwise, would end up with an independent point of view, providing they read through with an open mind. If they didn't, they'd end up just strengthening their own prejudices.

The sustainability and collaboration folk are no different. The evangelists are noisy, in your face, on conference platforms, lobbying whoever and wherever possible, frequently on the web with their blogs, Tweets and comments. They exist everywhere, and always have. The big difference today is that they can be more readily heard.

You can get positive evangelists who show how life could be better. I have a lot of time for them, even if they turn out to be wrong. At least they're trying to help. Then you have the negative ones who are more intent on tearing down than building up. "This is wrong" or "you shouldn't do that" rather than "try this alternative" or "why not do this?". In pop psychology, the former are the I'm OK, you're not OK brigade – the same mentality, incidentally, as criminals.

A lot of evangelists are so immersed in their blinkered view of the world, that they forget (or ignore) the fact that, if adopted, their wheezes might cause more problems than they solve. We're shutting down coal and nuclear power stations to cheers from the acid rain and nuclear waste storage evangelists. But how deeply have they considered where the energy is going to come from? Or, alternatively, what impact on our lives a profound cut in consumption will cause? I venture to suggest, 'not a lot'. Out here in the real world, we have to find solutions, not just state problems.

In a way, the easiest ones to deal with are those that have 'Evangelist' printed on their business cards. They're being paid by someone to persuade others of the folly of their ways. You'll find these folk in many major IT companies. Others are not so obvious. Perhaps a company has plied them with gifts or other, more subtle, bribes. Recently I was talking with a Toyota (non-employee) iQ evangelist. Turns out she'd 'won' the car for a six month trial, in exchange for blogs and other social media outreach. Others are just total believers in 'the cause' simply because it makes sense to them within their own frame of reference.

The answer has to be to filter them as quickly as possible. Find out who pays for their evangelism in money or in other ways. Ask them what alternatives they know about in detail. And get them to tell you what the long term implications of their advocacy are likely to be. Some will slink away from the interrogation. Some will bluster, so you can take your leave of them. Those that will remain probably have a good and well thought out story to tell.