Knowledge Musings

Musings about knowledge management as I go about my daily life

Thursday, July 10, 2008

TRASH Your Emails!

OK – sometimes that how we feel, but as we see later TRASH is an acronym for how to process your emails.

Sorry for the lapse in keeping this blog up to date, but I have been rather busy with client assignments recently. Even though consideration of ECM (enterprise content management) systems is a core topic, everyone understands that this a strategic investment requiring significant investment. However, one topic always comes up as a relatively quick win these days – and that is of email management.

Essentially, if people follow good practice guidelines for email they can improve their personal productivity as well as making the recipients of their email more receptive and productive. It is reckoned that every (non-spam) email send is read by an average of seven people. Therefore, a bit of planning at the front-end by the sender can create efficiencies at the back-end by the recipient. Some experts estimate that good practice throughout an organisation can save each person 30-45 minutes a day in reducing the amount of time spent managing email.

In outline there are five areas to tackle and three prongs of attack:

1. Thinking about what you are trying to communicate and whether email is the best method.

2. Composing your email – there is lots of guidance on this aspect, e.g. on subject headings, structure, clarity

3. Sending your email – targeting it appropriately

4. Processing your incoming emails – this is where you TRASH them. A key point is to batch your processing (don’t be distracted by the little “you have a new email” pop-up). There are really only five things you can do with an incoming email (some people say four as you’ll see below):

T – Trash it – read (or skim) and delete

R – Redirect – forward it to someone else to deal with

A – Act – process it (e.g. reply) there and then

S – Save – for future reference

H – Hold – for processing it in future

(though every email you hold is an email you will have to process twice, so this action is often eliminated).

5. Managing the information - if emails have lasting value, then they should be filed somewhere, either in well organized personal email folder or perhaps in your organization's ECM system; either way you'll need a good search tool for efficient retrieval.

The three prongs of attack are:

1. Process and Protocols – having set procedures for handling and filing emails; protocols could for example be team specific e.g. use of subject line, action needed by those cc:ed, how to allocate priorities.

2. Technology – especially the use of rules and filters; for example I don’t have a single inbox but 20 in-folders where my rules pre-sort emails into these folders based on sender and subject contents.

3. Good practice – adopting ways of using emails that suit your preferences and personality, and also that others can expect.

There’s no need to labour these points here. There are plenty of useful sources on the internet. While you are reading this website have a look at our Effective Email Guide that I wrote 10 years ago and which has generally stood the test of time. Here are some additional more recent sources:


Friday, May 9, 2008

Voting for Knowledge

We've recently had local elections in England. That got me thinking about voting and knowledge. In Britain's first 'past the post' system you weigh up what you know about the candidates, but since you can't vote on each issue, you consider them and their parties in the round. What do they stand for? What are their core principles? Forearmed with knowledge about voter intentions (opinion polls) you might resort to tactical voting, where you don't vote for the person whose views most closely match your own, but since they are unlikely to win, you cast your vote for someone else who with additional votes from people like yourself can beat an opponent whom you would rather lose.

Voting in some respects is like other decisions that individuals and managers make day-in day-out. You assess the situation, pooling knowledge from many perspectives, then go through a mental process of evaluating the plusses and minusses of various options. Sometimes this can be a lonely decision: I have to reduce headcount, so who do I fire? If I bid too high a price, I lose the opportunity to make money. If I bid too low, I lose money anyway.

Within organisations, there is often something akin to collective decision-making. Although the chairman may make the final choice, he or she may ask for a show of hands on how to tackle an issue. There are groupware decision support systems that let users vote on various options. When prioritising options in a KM action plan, I often give a group of senior executives 3 votes each which they allocate however they please to the 10 or so options available. In these situations you are not just averaging knowledge, you are assessing the collective will and commitment to one choice or another.

Now consider the case of where the choice of decision should be factual rather than judgemental. A party of three people on a trek come to a junction. One way leads down to base, the other into a wilderness. They decide to vote which direction to take. The person who actually knows the way out is outvoted 2:1. There is also the classic case in recent British history where prime minister Margaret Thatcher was accused of being out of step with her 12 European counterparts. Her response was that she was going in the right direction and that they were all wrong. Only in hindsight or with a deeper delving into the situation is the right choice finally clear - even then you can rationalise your original choice based on the knowledge available to you at the time.

What conclusions can we draw from these situations?
  • decisions may improve with better knowledge but a vote is not necessarily a reflection of the validity of the knowledge on which it is based
  • collective decisions provide a greater pooling of knowledge - however, in many situations they tend to converge on the most conservative and conventional thinking - not too good for breakthrough innovations
  • voting for something is a demonstration of your commitment; therefore even if the resultant decision is not necessarily the best, it may well do better because more people are committed to its succeed
  • on the other hand those whose votes were not for the resultant decision might feel overriden or their views ignored and therefore not fully committed to something they did not vote for
  • voting may provide the initial direction of travel, but every good practitioner should continually review progress, make micro-decisions along the way, and - although painful - perhaps admit that the wrong initial decision was made, go back and take an alternative course.
So should you vote on knowledge? You may feel the need to adopt voting so that if things go wrong there is collective blame. However, the smart manager will not offer colleagues such simplistic A or B choices (unlike political elections). He or she will work to explore why there are differences - probing more deeply to get from surface knowledge to fuller understanding and insights, suggesting other options, teasing out assumptions. He or she may stimulate further discussion and open up new opportunities by planting what seem like outrageous ideas (a good way of getting away from conventional complaceny and into innovation mode).

In other words, decisions based on consensus, deep knowledge, smarts and weight of argument, rather than on weight of ballot papers.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Spring clean your knowledge

Spring (supposedly) is on its way. Now is a good time to reflect on what knowledge and information you hoard and what you can safely dispose of. What prompted me to write this piece was an article I wrote on knowledge auditing, that has been reprinted on KnowledgeBoard under the title Cleaning Out The KM Closet. Complete with a picture of a broom, it prefaces the article by pointing out that organizations often overlook what knowledge and information they already hold. It's not the heading I would have given the article, but it did prompt me to think about spring cleaning my knowledge!

First, let me say that I'm pleased that KnowledgeBoard regular emails have started again, under the new editorship of Louise Druce. It really is one of the best KM portals and their emails help keep you informed of developments - beyond the technical promotions that many so-called KM websites pump out.

Coming back to auditing, several that I have carried out typically reveal two contrary situations:
  • duplication of information - how many customer databases does your organization hold?
  • key information that people need - but which isn't there or difficult to find.
Information is continually being created. As volumes grow, it becomes increasingly costly (in time and resources) to store and retrieve efficiently. When we create a document, do we think through the lifetime ramifications - how long it should be kept, when it should be reviewed or disposed of. We may give it cursory attention, but when the time comes we're usually too busy doing something new.

Like many people, my email files have grown and grown. I have many emails that are more than 10 years old. I do occasionally go through a folder or two, keeping only ones that may be relevant in future (it's amazing how management approaches I used 20 years old have stood the test of time!). An alternative strategy would be to do a wholesale deletion of email folders relating to completed projects, ideas that never got off the ground, past visits etc. This would certainly improve the 'feel good' factor, until a day or two later someone asks a question and you knew you had just what was needed only it was dumped.

So is there anything we can learn from physical spring cleaning? Have a look at others tips and see how you might adapt to your office/PC environment - see Tips for Spring Cleaning and Ten Spring Cleaning and Organizing Tips. Here are some things to try:
  • Be tidy in the first place - think logically about where things should be kept
  • Distinguish work in progress from final results - I treat many emails as transient and do not tag them; at a project milestone I file tagged emails
  • Things can only go in three piles - I use it (keep it), I never use it (sell, give away or destroy), I'm not sure (I'm unlikely to use it but it may have historical value or there may be legal or social ramifications if I don't preserve it)
  • If you don't want to make a bad decision, then try putting it in the attic (a temporary archive file); then you can delete it after a few years anything you haven't retrieved, or when you depart, someone will ditch it for you!
  • Don't generate so much rubbish in the first place!
The big question is - do you do a room (file) at a time, or go the whole hog and do everything together? A lot depends on personal preference. Either way, it does take time, so you should allow for it, either 10-15 minutes a day, or take a few days out. As the Wikipedia entry on spring cleaning says "a person who gets their affairs in order before an audit or inspection could be said to be doing some spring cleaning." A knowledge audit should be the spur to do this housekeeping.

What are your tips for keeping your office and online files tidy this Spring?


Friday, March 28, 2008

T5 Knowledge Holes

I'm currently involved with a couple of projects where a crying need is for reliable consistent information; where people can be assured that they are accessing the most up to date and authoritative version.

Think of the poor people at Terminal 5 (T5) at London Heathrow airport who lack such information (my daughter is travelling out of there tonight, so I have a personal interest). One person on the radio this morning, having come early to get a replacement flight for one that was cancelled yesterday, said that on arrival this morning (where the indicator boards now seem to use the euphemism "Inquire Airline" rather than "Cancelled") had to phone her destination (Glasgow) to find what was going on.

I recall my travelling days. If you knew at the outset that a flight was delayed 4 hours, you could make other arrangements. But too often it was "more information in an hour". It's the same on any public system. If information provision is poor or misleading, rumours spread, people get frustrated and it does nothing for customer service "I will never fly BA again - ever" said the lady this morning. I more or less made that vow about five years ago, when what was once an excellent airline seemed to lose the plot, thinking they could fleece business people for fares several times that of economy, but where the basic standards were declining. After all, the front end (business and first class) end of the plane always lands a few seconds later than the back end anyway!

And travel is not the only domain where lack of, misleading or inconsistent information upsets customers. Most of us can think of situations where customer-facing staff give out factually wrong information or give out information with a "take it or leave it" attitude.

Therefore up to date and reliable information should be at the heart of customer service:
  • Don't deny the situation (the Heathrow website at the time of writing prominently displays terminal 5 and the pleasures and comfort of the new terminal; even its hot news is dated 8th January!)
  • Think: what does the customer need to know when things go wrong
  • Customers want certainties, not maybes; to know about alternatives, and even get help with remedial measure (booked on a non-BA connecting flight last year that got cancelled, the airline automatically rebooked us on a rival flight while we were still in the air on our first leg)
  • Best deliver bad news and improve on it, rather than keep making incremental promises that cannot be kept (I was delighted when the new sofa that was going to take another month arrived within two weeks)
  • Ensure that those with the authoritative information have good channels to get the information to customers and customer-facing staff (you don't want your staff saying "you know as much as I do")
  • Bring back scenario planning - it's what we used to do quite a lot of; "what if the government changes?" "what if the oil price reaches $200 a barrel"; "what is the worst disaster that can strike our company?" (in 1985 our managers came up with some apparently whacky off-the-wall ideas on that one; some ideas that with today's terrorist tactics are not unusal today).
All of which means that you have clear information policies that can cope with sudden change. And that you have in place the mechanisms to gather and rapidly update key information. But most importantly of all that you have ways of moving it quickly to those who need it, and that you customer-facing staff are properly trained to assess it in terms of what it means to different categories of customers.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Putting the I back in IT

Ever since knowledge management took off, organisations have looked to IT to provide a 'silver bullet'. All along I've stressed the need to put back the I (Information) into IT. Now a recent report from TFPL and Cap Gemini (see the Information Opportuntity Report) says the same thing in a slightly different way. They want to put the I back into CIO (Chief Information Officer) "or else companies will suffer".

Their key point is that "the information culture is broken", "information management is poor" and "by not sharing information, organisations are suffering financial loss". One of the reasons, they say, is that more money gets thrown into the technology rather than working out what to do with the information.

I recall at least of couple of past assignments that I have labelled 'rescue missions'. Some persuasive enterprise solutions salesperson has sold a perfectly good piece of software, often with many 'bells and whistles', more than most users can take advantage of. Then as roll-out approaches, there is this stark realisation that too little attention has been given to such things as:
  • how do our users actually work; how does it fit into the way they do their job?
  • who is responsible for verifying and maintaining the quality of this information?
  • how should it be characterised; what metadata should be used to describe it?
  • what is the publishing process: what rules are there for checking before publication?
  • how do users find the authoritative, most up to date version?
Of course, IT vendors will say that the technology can take many of these decisions out of the users hands, with auto-tagging of content with metadata and built-in workflow. However, as a recent case study of Christian Aid's intranet indicated, the last thing you want to do is "automate a mess".

Every time you even think about implementing a new solution, why don't you think carefully through all the information process issues, the tasks, decisions and business processes that the information informs, but above all the hapless user who is often not consulted until a technical decision has been made.

It behoves anyone who has 'information' in their title, whether they are a technical guru or not, to remember the words of business executive William Pollard: "Information is a source of learning. But unless it is organized, processed, and available to the right people in a format for decision making, it is a burden, not a benefit."

So make sure that your technologists remember to put the I back into IT.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Virtual Economy

With all the turmoil in finanical markets, I recall an article written by Peter Drucker in the mid 1980s. Credited with coining the term 'knowledge worker' Drucker has been very perceptive on many management issues. He wrote back then that the financial economy was becoming too disconnected from the real economy in that the amount of trading of financial instruments (e.g. foreign currency) was 30x more than that of foreign trade itself. He said that some multiplier, say three times, was OK and needed for liquidity, but 30x he really questioned.

As I was returning from a day with a client in London yesterday, I read an article that trading in oil was running at 2 billion barrels a day, yet only 85 million barrels comes out of the ground - thus re-emphasising Drucker's point.

In my book Capitalizing on Knowledge (2001) I wrote that financial intruments were examples of knowledge products, being purely the fruits of human creativity. I even cited Enron as an example of creative innovation in knowledge products. But you can take creativity too far - especially in financial accounting - and we now know what happened to Enron! Even earlier in Knowledge Networking (1999) I wrote about the need for better knowledge ethics and governance. At that time Long-Term Capital Management had just collapsed, having traded heavily in financial derivatives. I asked:

"What value does such trading bring to furthering a true knowledge society where desirable outcomes are successful businesses of all sorts and quality of life for citizens? ... Intervention is needed in financial markets to halt computer trading when price swings get too violent. Will knowledge markets evolve in the same way, needing bodies to govern them, analagous to the Securities and Exchange Commission?"

The fact is that trading in such highly leveraged financial instrument is really just betting on future prices. Even betting on horses, it seems, is less risky! And who are the losers in such heavy derivatives trading? Usually those in the real economy - who trusted their hard earned money to banks in the first place!

Will the gap between the real and virtual economy identified as an issue over 20 years ago ever narrow to sensible levels, or will we keep repeating the mistakes of the past and present?

Labels: ,

Friday, March 7, 2008

Whatever happened to ...?

I was asked last week by Jerry Ash, editor of InsideKnowledge, to contribute an article on IT as an enabler of KM. He drew my attention to an article of mine written in 1998, saying "it just needs a little updating". The article in question is 'Knowledge Management: The Role of Technology'. Although most of the concepts are the same, and technology has improved somewhat (but not spectacularly), two main types of change caught my attention:
  • Change of language - old-fashioned terms we don't use anymore
  • Disappearance of some favourite products - for several reasons.
Anyway, curious to know what happened here's the results of what I found:

Whatever happened to the term ...?
  • Groupware - we tend now to use the term "collaboration software", though the term lives on in a number of open source products;
  • P2P (peer-to-peer) - it didn't catch on in the mainstream and these days one tends to refer to the software's function e.g. streaming, file sharing, and if used it is usually spelt out in full
  • KM suites - all the rage as document management and other companies tried to relabel their products and jump onto the KM bandwagon; however, most vendors (Eloquent is one exception) dropped the term and the more generic term of EDRMS (Electronic Data and Records Management System) is now more common;
  • Computer conferencing - once meant a variety of synchronous or asynchronous methods of messaging over the internet (other than email), such as bulletin boards; today the term conferencing is most commonly used for videoconferencing or webconferencing (even here webinar is more common); perhaps the most common term today is 'online forum' which are web browser based anyway;
Whatever happened to product...?
  • Lotus Notes - once ubiquitious in KM circles, Lotus was taken over by IBM and whereas Notes once referred to either server or client, the server is now called Domino. Notes (or at least Domino) is apparently very much alive, now on version 8, and IBM claims more people using it than ever before. One 2005 article described it as "a program used by 120 million people, of whom about 119m hate it." Perhaps that's why I don't hear about it much these days in the KM community?!
  • COPE - a fascinating concept mapping software developed by Colin Eden. It has been visually improved and is now sold as Banxia Decision Explorer alongside other specialised products.
  • Themescape (Cartia) - this excellent visualisation software for knowledge mapping was bought by Aurigin and became part of its patent analysis software. Aurigin went bankrupt in 2002 and its patent software assets acquired by Micropatent (part of IHI) who incorporated it into it's Aureka software. In turn IHI was taken over by Thomson Scientific and Themescape carries on as a patent mapping tool within Aureka.
  • Groove - a great peer-to-peer collaboration tool developed by Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes (so a good pedigree). Groove Networks was bought my Microsoft in 2005 and the product marketed (in quite a low key way) as Microsoft Groove. With Groove 2007 now being part of the Microsoft Office 2007 suite (enterprise edition) we may hear more of it again.
  • Semio (including Semio Map and Semio Tagger) - a fascinating set of software for taxonomy visualization and semantic indexing, Semio was acquired in 2002 by Webversa who then changed their name to Entrieva. Entrieva's main thrust is now its internet advertising targetting service ClickSense, in which Semio's technology (now fairly invisible) helps with the contextual targetting.
What this article illustrates is that many good KM software solutions often start as niche. There then seems to be three directions of evolution:

  • They remain niche, though are often grouped with related products for marketing purposes
  • They become mainstream (e.g. Groove, Lotus) but never quite have the leadership they showed when they were new innovations.
  • The technology is subsumed into vertical applications, a segment of the market which continues to grow.
I'd be interested to hear what happened to your favourite software and terminology.