Category Archives: information management

From Walled Garden to Amazon Jungle

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Estimated reading time 2–4 minutes

I enjoyed the LIKE dinner the other Thursday. The speaker Tim Buckley-Owen spoke on the theme “From Walled Garden to Amazon Jungle” describing the changing environment that information professionals find themselves in. He spoke of how disintermediation is often perceived as a threat in the information world, but that this is a mistake, because out in the jungle, the services of an expert guide become indispensable if you are to avoid getting completely lost and falling prey to posionous snakes and other hazards. He pointed out that at least one other profession is facing a similarly shifting environment – the legal profession. We, however, should be in a better position than lawyers because they believe they are masters of the universe, whereas we see ourselves as merely useful. The Trafigura affair showed that information can act as a force that even the lawyers can’t contain.

Although I would never have dreamt of comparing myself to a lawyer, I could see the similarity in the way that disintermediation enabled by an online world is affecting the two professions. For lawyers, distintermediation arises out of the increasing ease of self-representation – e.g. the availability of online forms so that you can manage your own simple legal processes. As Tim pointed out, going to small claims court can already be handled online by the claimant alone. Conveyancing is becoming increasingly straightforward for non-lawyers, as it is largely a question of being able to search effectively (anybody need an information specialist – cheaper than a solicitor?). Perhaps even the processing of divorces and wills can be administered via online forms. (That might not prevent family disputes, but would certainly make them cheaper!) The smart lawyers are, of course, responding by focusing on tailor-made specialised services for unusual cases or one-off situations. This is exactly what information professionals are doing too. Librarians have always offered bespoke research services and the value they add over and above trawling through millions of results on Google is their knowledge of which sources are the best and what are the best sources to answer your specific question (and figuring out the question you really want the answer to, instead of the one you actually asked, which is much harder than it sounds). In a world where information is proliferating while the quality of sources is not necessarily improving, the knowledge of where to look is increasingly rather than decreasingly valuable.

Tim described some research indicating that the people who are least likely to delegate their research are the most senior executives (middle managers are too busy and like having people do things for them). In particular, top execs like to do their own competitor research. His hot tip for the information profession was to work with software developers to produce really effective competitior research services and tools.

Virginia Henry and David Holme have also blogged about the evening.

Like 9 is on December 3rd.

Managing the Crowd: Records Management 2.0

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

I’ve just read Steve Bailey‘s book Managing the Crowd: Records Management 2.0. It is a thought-provoking and timely read and very enjoyable as well. There’s an RM 2.0 Ning site too. There’s a good summary on the TFPL website. Bailey is clear that he is trying to provoke debate, so I will raise a question. There is a widely held belief that people like tagging, but I’m not sure that this applies once you get into the office. People love to tag their own photos on Flickr, but is that because they like tagging or because they like their own photos? Similarly, people like to tag their own blog posts, but is this not a rather self-selecting sample? If you have the time, motivation, and energy to blog, the additional burden of adding a few tags to try to get yourself a few more readers is hardly great. So, is there any evidence out there that people tag work documents just as enthusiastically as they tag stuff about themselves? Are they really as enthusiastic about thinking of appropriate tags for financial reports and product information sheets as they are about tagging their favourite songs or You Tube clips?

It’s not easy staying on the edge of chaos

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

I just read this very excited article about the use of wikis and blogs to revolutionise the US intelligence community: SSRN-The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community by D. Andrus. Its giddy praise of Wikipedia amused me (especially as I found it as a linked reference from a Wikipedia article), but it does include a clear exposition of the principles of complexity theory. Dave Snowden at the ISKO event in April discussed complexity theory, and I remember an emphasis on “light touch” control of complex systems. This seems to be an emergent paradigm at the moment. Obvious examples are “shepherded folksonomies”, which seem to be working better than uncontrolled folksonomies (one example is the Records management 2.0 – thanks Danny – another is the occasional tagging suggestions made by the editors of – thanks to Liz for this tip – and even Flickr’s category clusters are an attempt to impose a little bit of order on chaos).

The theme is also cropping up in a number of posts on the future of knowledge management. For example, Should Knowledge Managers look for a new job? emphasises the need to allow individuals to become custodians of their own knowledge stores rather than teaching them to access centralised repositories. This has been bewailed as the end of the Knowledge Manager as a role. I think this fails to understand how difficult “light touch control” actually is in practice. Authoritarianism is big clunky expensive and arguably inefficient, but at least within it people know what they are supposed to do and how to do it. You can learn the rules and follow them. Anarchy is also easy – it might make a big mess and not get you what you want – but nobody has to worry about whether or not they are doing the “right thing”. Applying this to KM, the anarchic system simply lets individuals sink or swim – if they are very skilled in their own area of expertise for example – but hopeless at managing their personal knowledge repositories or accessing information – they will gradually become less effective and productive (presumably ending up losing their job). It may seem like a cheap and easy solution for organisations, but actually the lost productivity (not to mention human potential) has a serious cost. Under complexity theory, the most creative, flexible, and adaptive systems are those on the “edge of chaos”. Keeping a system balanced on a knife-edge is far harder than just letting it stagnate in authoritarianism or fragment into anarchy. Identifying those individuals who aren’t doing so well, figuring out what they need to help them, and making sure that each individual intervention contributes to the improvement of the whole system is actually fantastically complicated and difficult. It requires all sorts of skills ranging from the ability to notice who needs help in the first place, how best to help them on a personal level, and how to leverage technological and social developments to keep everyone moving forward. The Knowledge Manager of the future therefore needs to be more highly skilled, multitalented, and personally adept than ever before. This strikes me as an upskilling and increase in the importance of the role, not a downgrading. The fact that individuals are doing a bit of self-organising as well doesn’t diminish the KM role, it makes it more sophisticated, subtle, and critical.

Tools to analyse weak signals

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I liked the way this Pasta&Vinegar post highlighted the different information sources used to generate different measures of technology adoption. It also reminded me of Dave Snowden‘s emphasis on the importance of detecting weak signals. At the “prophecy/fantasy” stage the important signals will inevitably be weak, and surrounded by a lot of noise. Spotting trends once they have happened is one thing, but the prediction game is quite different.

Social media taxonomy

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It seems that everyone’s social networks are getting out of hand and the heart of the web 2.0 world now needs a bit of old fashioned tidying up. From hierarchies of “friends” to classic categorisations by topic, it’s time to start applying good old taxonomical principles to your social media:

Information visualisation

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Estimated reading time 3–4 minutes

I heard a talk by Ben Shneiderman about information visualisation yesterday for the Cambridge Usability Professionals Group. (It was ironic that I had a “locational usability” problem and was almost late, having made the novice error of trying to find Microsoft Research in the William Gates Building – which is indeed named after Microsoft’s Bill Gates foundation – but Microsoft Research in Cambridge was set up by Roger Needham, so it is in his building!)

The talk itself was very easy to follow with lively demonstrations of a number of visualisation tools. Shneiderman was very careful to point out that you need to have a good question and good data to get good results from information visualisation, and that it is no panacea, but when it works, it is fantastically powerful. One of the key strengths is that it makes it easy to spot outliers or anomalies in huge masses of data, particularly when there is a general underlying correlation. It is almost impossible to detect trends in a big spreadsheet full or numbers, but convert that into a visual form and the trends leap out. This means that you can see at a glance things like which companies’ stocks are rising when all the others are falling. Of course, graphs are nothing new, but the range of analytical tools that are now available mean you can quickly pick out things like spikes and shapes in your data in a way that would have been painstaking previously. There are also very important applications in medical research and diagnosis, as the ability to track which order certain events happen, helps researchers establish whether one condition causes another and could even be used to generate personal health alerts.

I liked the smart-money style treemaps (although the choice of red-green can’t be great for anyone who is colourblind), but I found the marumushi newsmap fun but not much more informative than traditional newspapers, mainly because the newsmap crams in more words than I can take in. Newspapers are really pretty good at writing headlines that work, and you can usually see at a glance what today’s top story is anyway – it’s the one in big letters at the top! However, if you need an aggregation of global news for international comparison, the newsmap does give you quick access to a lot of international sources all together.**

One of the great pleasures of these events is getting to talk to other people who are there and I met a fascinating researcher who had been monitoring importance of stories by keyword frequency, showing that when something happens you get a burst of news activity around the relevant keywords, a ripple effect, and then it dies away. By looking at those patterns you can produce a measure of the impact of different events.

**Update: Rayogram gives you images of actual newspaper front pages, with some options for sorting.
Creative Review – interesting post on tube maps.

Knowledge angels

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Knowledge angels are not Christmas decorations 2.0 but are “those people in information industries who are the most expert, understand innovations in their sector and add the most value to a company” according to an article on Alphagalileo. The phrase is based on “business angels” and one of the researchers who coined it stated: “Other possible names, such as, for instance, ‘consulting wizards’, ‘services magicians’, ‘knowledge-intensive demons’ or any further hybrid creatures resulting from the crossing of a management handbook and a magic trading cards, would sound less attractive.”

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the phrase to start appearing on CVs!