Knowledge Scorecard …

No, i am not coming up with a new knowledge scorecard. Rather, some of the things i have been reading about … about measuring knowledge. Rather interesting reading, though i would think they are based on assumptions which we might want to question.

The first assumption of measuring the knowledge inventory of the organization, is that the knowledge, and the person who holds the knowledge are two separate, independant things. Not only does this treat knowledge as a thing, it also makes the assumption that you can have knowledge even if you abstract the knower from the scene. This may not be an assumption that may be quite valid. Of course, when we talk about explicity knowledge, we assume that this assumption is valid, but having said that, once we believe that all knowledge is directly or indirectly tacit, this assumption breaks down. The question that then comes up is how does one measure something which doesnt exist on its own.

Another assumption is that knowledge is a “thing” which can be measured. This assumes that knowledge is an object which can exist by itself, which, as we have seen, is not something which is necessarily correct. Add to this the idea that what you cannot measure, you cannot manage, and the mix becomes heady … but then, the question to ask here would be … is the term management apt when it comes to KM?

The answer to this measurement dilemma, though, can be simple … we can measure something based on its manifestation. What is the manifestation of knowledge? Improvements in the way things are done. Great … this is a nice, indirect way to measure … after all, if there is no mechanism to directly measure something, then we use something indirect to measure it … think dark matter! Only thing is, this indirect measurement must change in different scenarios. In other words, something which is relevant to the context in which we are measuring it, as i have written before!

Value of KM

Admittedly, theres plenty written about the subject. And, we are yet nowhere closer to what could be a framework for measuring the value of KM. So why am i writing about this? I came across an interesting blog by Jenna Sweeney about the idea of measurement of Training … and, look at it closely, Training and Knowledge Management are related, so i have thought for a long time.

The basic point that Jenna is making here is the fact that measurement must be done in the context of whatever you are measuring. And, this is quite valid for the entire question of value of KM. First of all, KM means different things to different people … and if this is so, it is quite difficult to come up with adequate measurement norms. Leave aside the fact that even if it were to be able to come up with these norms, it would still be very difficult to measure, because of the basic structure of knowledge. And this is something i have written about before … that when we are measuring something as nebulous as knowledge, it is a nice idea to not abstract it from its context, and try to build up something generic, but instead, stick to things which are specific to the context of the measurement.

Art Fry and Social Computing

I was reminded of the story of how the Post-Its were invented. Though this post is not about Post-Its. Or, you might find this an interesting read. Or, if you look closely at the story of the Post-Its … From what i read …

The marketing people did some surveys with potential customers, who said they didnt see the need for paper with a weak adhesive. Fry said, “Even though i felt that there would be demand for this product, i didnt know how to explain this in words. Even if i found the words to explain, no on would understand …” Instead, Fry distributed samples within 3M and asked people to try them out.The rest was history.

The part about not being able to explain in words, and even if one found the words to explain, no one would understand, reminds me of social computing. Strange how one thing could lead to another? This, to my mind, is the beauty of human thought. One doesnt know what thought might lead where. The interesting part here is that, like Post-Its, senior management usually doesnt see the need for sticky web-pages where people can scribble their thoughts. However, just give these pages to them, and one could come up with quite interesting uses. And, the interesting thing is, it may not just be restricted to the usual things.

Why should a wiki be used only for maintaining project plans and communications, or for preparing presentations? Why cant a systems administrator create a wiki for maintaining help and FAQs for the new system? Or, a sales guy create a blog to keep track of the orders he has closed this quarter, so that, for reporting, he doesnt have to go back asking for reports, but rather, just go to his blog, and get the numbers from there? Or, why cant just about anybody write down their objectives or targets for the year on a wiki page, an track their achievements against their targets, in a wiki, so that come appraisal time, one could just send the link of the wiki to their boss (if one is feeling adventurous, that is … otherwise, copy-paste and send it in an email!).

The point i am trying to make is that given the chance, people could come up with uses of social computing technology which were probably not even thought about. There are, of course, the usual, well-defined ways of using them, but these may just be one of the few.

Of course, if usage cannot be completely predicted, the next question that arises is whether anything like ROI can be predicted with any reasonable level of confidence? I dont think so. Of course, the question still remains whether one could tag ROI to something as intangible as social computing (simply because there is usually no causal relationship between the tools, and the outcome … the tools are the software, and the outcome occurs in the heads of people!). Though, of course, somethng which keeps coming back to me is that if a senior manager is to make an investment, surely, they would need to make sure that it is worth it. And this, to my mind, is where the catch lies. This ROI is to be experienced, not necessarily calculated, to begin with!

This Book I Am Reading

These days, i am reading a book titled Shadows of the Mind … written by Roger Penrose. This is a rather interesting book … One that i would definitely recommend to anyone who is even remotely interested in human thinking. Though, of course, you would need to make sure you are at your most alert when you are reading the book (using a language slightly closer to English would have been actually a wonderful idea …).

Just so you know … i am still on chapter 1. Though, soon to move to chapter 2! Now, that would be an achievement (and if you read the book, you would quite agree with me!). The basic point of the part that i am reading now, is that there is the aspect of understanding “what needs to be done”, and of being aware of “why it needs to be done”. And, what Sir Roger Penrose argues (to my mind, quite effectively), that while the former is something which can be easily understood by any intelligence, through the form of mathematical algorithms (i would stretch this to the hilt, and say something similar about documented information, or, if i may use the term … explicit knowledge!), the latter, in other words, awareness of what we are doing, and why this needs to be done to achieve a particular objective is something which is the tricky part.

And this is where i would extend the logic from chapter 1 of the book, to the two aspects of Knowledge Management i deal with …

Codification, which is my fancy word for documented information

Collaboration, which, to a lot of folks, is the “other” part of KM

And this is where i would like to make the point that while what some folks call KM 1.0 focussed on the former, it is the latter which is the trickier part. One of the points Sir Roger goes on to make …

It also allows us to have some kind of direct route to another person’s experiences, so that one can “know” what the other person must mean by a word …

This is where i would like to bring out the importance of collaboration … from the basic premise that there is something which is beyond the objective (i am using the term loosely here) nature of things, and this is where managerial imagination comes into the picture, to imagine an organization where this can be tapped into. And this is something which large part of web 2.0 technologies are focussing on.

This also reinforces the point that some aspects of Knowledge, and hence of Knowledge Management must remain beyond measurement, at least till such a time as we can generate a framework which is scientific, and can bring these into the scientific fold (though this is something which the book argues against … something i would surely write about again).

Tongue in cheek … there are always ideas relating to our field of work from domains which are not necessarily related. Something i have written about before.

Web 2.0 in the Organization

Dave Snowden has written a very interesting post … Small one … You could read it here. Very interesting thought. More often than not, we use things for stuff they werent even remotely intended for.

Something we saw yesterday … I am in Bangalore right now, and i was in my room last night, with a few friends, knocking off a few Beers. As usual, the wall-mounted bottle opener proved inadequate for opening the Beer bottles. And, what did the guys open the bottles with? You wouldnt guess … A spoon. Whoever invented the spoon would never have imagined that.

On a more serious note … i was once working with a client. They were using an enterprise software (read ERP), and interestingly, they were using a particular feature of the applications. Interestingly, that was an undocumented feature (euphemism for bug), and when they upgraded the software … what do you know … the “feature” went away, and they were no longer able to do something they were able to earlier. Nobody would have guessed they would actually have been using that.

Which is why i quite agree with Dave when he quotes …

When I worked at IBM we were asked (in 1990) to 6Sigma our CICS development team. The gurus told us that the next release of CICS could only have 6 bugs (or APARs as we called them). This was ridiculous, but luckily a colleague ran a report and showed that IBM program products had extremely strong positive correlation of profitability with APAR rate. That is, the products with the most APARs were the most profitable. This is because great products, like CICS, get used for lots of things we didn’t think of and for which we didn’t test. Mediocre products only get used for what the tests cover. Bad products don’t get used at all and so generate almost no bugs.

In all probability, you would be using things in ways which the guys who made them never even dreamt of. And this is something which i hold even when it comes to adopting technology … especially in the web 2.0 world … More often than not, you can roll-out some application to the users, and you would find them using these in ways you never were able to imagine in those requirements documents you had written. Which is why, i believe that especially with technology in the web 2.0 space, it would be wise to simply launch this in the organization, and wait and watch … you would find over a period of time, usage emerging … new, and in all probability, innovative usage for these tools. And, it is not in the interest of the knowledge managers, or the larger community, to restrict this usage.

In other words … usage, and hence benefits would tend to be more emergent rather than being pre-defined when it comes to collaboration, or social software. This is a challenge especially to the ROI school of thought, because this very phenomenon would make it quite difficult to actually measure something like this. Remember … ROI of spoon? While this is something we are all grappling with, the other side of the coin also is quite relevant, that is, how does management decide whether to invest or not, unless they can see benefits. Having said this, though, there is also the viewpoint that whether you like it or not, social computing is here to stay … whether within or outside the firewall. More beneficial to adopt it, and see benefits as they emerge. Only thing is, most managers are not comfortable with the idea of something emerging over a period of time. What we dont realize is that most technologies do actually emerge. The internet wasnt invented … sure, the technology was, but the usage … thats something that emerged over a period of time. Same is true of web 2.0, too.

Emergent technology means looking at how people use it over a period of time, and then look at how you would like to guide this technology into the business processes in the organization. Which again is something which, in my opinion, would happen sooner or later … something i have written about before.

Of Measurement …

Wikipedia defines Measurement as …

The estimation of the magnitude of some attribute of an object … (theres more, but this quite sums it up!)

Now, when it comes to measuring KM, we are not even sure what is the object, and what attribute of this object we are trying to measure. As such, there doesnt seem to be a direct mechanism of measuring the impact of KM, because the impact of KM is not on KM itself, but on some business processes. Now, this is what makes this so nebulous. The business processes vary from one part of the organization to another, and hence, the impact of KM on these also varies from part of the organization to another. In this kind of a scenario, can there be a direct way to measure the impact of KM? I am not talking about measuring KM (i dont think that would make sense), because KM cannot be the end in itself.

I came across a post by Dave Snowden about setting targets for KM. Dave is spot on … if you are setting targets for KM, you really havent understood KM. Especially the part where he says …

The early abortive attempt involved things like requiring x documents contributed to a community of practice or similar measures. Net result there was meaningless material been published to achieve a target along with plagiarism in many cases.

I quite agree with the observation here. Having said this, there are two thoughts i wanted to make:

1. The idea of the software which gives thank you credits … sounds like a nice idea. The crazy part, i think, is the part where these credits are encashed. I would look more at the possibility of generating social capital for folks who are earning these points. Something like “Featured Bloger of the Month” … or, some such idea?

2. Having said that setting targets for KM is quite akin to taking the wrong road, the point is, that managers need to figure out the return on the money being invested in KM. Since there are no direct ways, we need to rely on indirect measures. Something i have written about here.

The way i see it … the impact is more in terms of the impact, and the kinds of results in terms of improvement in business processes can be delivered by KM, and no way we can have a direct measurement of KM which is possible … or desirable.

KM — Tool or Function

I was at the KM India Summit last week. Which explains the long time since the last post. Well well … Traffic in Delhi can have that effect. As you can see, the who’s who of the knowledge fraternity in India were there … and talking. Dr. Rory Chase delivered some interesting insights. And, Dave Snowden was there … via telephone. A little bit of a disappointment not being able to meet him, but he did deliver a talk which was very insightful (had read a bit of it on his blog, which should go to show the power of web 2.0 …).

Well … one theme which came out of the summit throughout, and something which you couldnt help observing was this … More and more people were talking about KM being used to achieve a particular thing … Which is the way it should be … End of the day, KM cannot be the end in itself, but has to be a means towards a larger business goal. Having said this, there are two things which I thought need a little more reflection … Not because I disagree with the idea of KM being a means to a larger business objective, but because the larger discussions threw up a few questions in my mind …

1. It seems to me that in a lot of scenarios, KM is encroaching … on the domains which used to be those of other functions in the organization. It could be production, or operations, or it could be quality, or it could be sales, or finance, or hr … Its one thing that KM enables these functions, and another thing to have things being drawn from other functions, packaged together, and labelled KM. Having said that, it is also a fact that the business demarcations between functions are blurring as the world around us getting more and more multi-disciplinary. But, somewhere I think there is a little bit of confusion about where KM should fit into the jigsaw. Of course this would be different for different contexts, and for different problems, but KM cant be all things to all people.

2. Taking the previous point forward, and the logical conclusion from this is … KM can either be a function, or a tool. As a function, I think the definition of KM is blurred in the current applicability context, which leaves us with one option … a tool. The question this then throws up, is that if KM is a tool, and this is something which explains a lot of the things and practices taken up by KM practitioners, is how does one measure a tool? Does this then mean that our efforts to look at measurement of the effectiveness of our KM efforts are misguided?