Friday, 5 November 2010

Getting cynical - or real? - about E2.0

Is the Enterprise 2.0 concept going anywhere? Ever since Andrew McAfee coined the phrase there have been various evangelists beating the drum for it. I suppose I could count myself as one of them, at least to a degree. There are various definitions, but I want to stick with what seems to me to be the most radical version, which is the concept of making organisations less hierarchical, less command-and-control, more 'human' and maybe a little anarchic, as a result of introducing Web 2.0 style technologies into the enterprise and getting the workforce to use them.

It's a lovely idea, it really is. But, you, know, it has me thinking back to past 'enthusiasms' relating to the re-invention of corporate life. One of these was TQM (now pretty-much morphed into Six Sigma). TQM was more than just techniques for using statistics and measurement to identify the root cause of defects and so enable process improvement. It was that, but it included - read your Deming - calls to "drive out fear", and "Remove barriers that rob the hourly paid worker of his right to pride in workmanship". Many managers viewed this sort of talk as subversive, and internal consultant types who promoted it, like me, as dangerous anarchists. Ditto 'change programmes': very cathartic for junior workers who at last had a voice with which to grass up the more egregious managers, and fun if you were a facilitator, but, not surprisingly, anathema to middle management. Yet the objections often remained unspoken, because it would be like objecting to motherhood and apple pie.

What these managers (some poor, but some actually rather good) really wanted to say was, "I hear what you say, and it's good in theory, but let me tell you two things: 1. It's not how real work gets done, and 2. I have a team to run, and I'm damned if I'll let your initiative or any other get in the way of that."

So what has this got to do with Enterprise 2.0? A great deal, I suggest. Many managers will see wholesale public transparency of thought on the part of the workforce, even behind the firewall, as dangerously subversive. They will pay lip service to it, because it's hard to voice objections without seeming to be a fascist. But they won't encourage it, and may well put roadblocks - disguised, perhaps, as security concerns - in the way.

How about just getting rid of all middle managers? After all, with the improvement in communication and collaboration that Enterprise 2.0 offers, who needs them? Strange how that question seems to have been posed repeatedly for several decades, even before the advent of E2.0, but it never seems to happen. Maybe they're needed after all?

Friday, 24 September 2010

Linked Data: the future of the Web?

I attended a one day conference, organised by the UK arm of the International Society for Knowledge Organization, earlier this month. The subject was Linked Data. This being a subject I knew very little about, but which I suspected might be important, not least because it's related to Sir Tim Berners-Lee's Semantic Web concept, I decided to pay the fee and see what I could find out.

There was a very international group of speakers, including two from France, one from the Netherlands, one from Germany and one from Austria. The degree to which they engaged me varied, but most had something interesting to say. Presentations that I particularly liked were Nigel Shadbolt on what the government is up to with its data, and John Goodwin on Ordnance Survey.

The basic idea behind linked data is to extend the hyperlink concept of the Web from the current norm of linking web pages and other (largely) unstructured media like documents and video clips, to the linking of datasets. Provided this is marked up in a standard way, using RDF (resource description framework) it can be made sense of by machines and re-used in, for example, mashups.

There's a lot of quite complex stuff related to ontologies, with a nice new collection of acronyms to learn, such as OWL and SPARQL. There was also a fair bit of quasi-philosophical talk about the difference between the name of a thing and the thing itself. One of the problems with this conference was that it was billed as being for beginners (albeit KM-savvy beginners), yet it assumed an understanding of some of these concepts. I don't think anyone explained what a 'triple' was, for example.

The process of putting linked data out there on the Web, and using other people's linked data, is not one I can see non-technical people getting to grips with, at least in the short term. Maybe the process will become easier just as putting up a web page has. Remember when that required knowledge of HTML? Now it's all wysiwyg. I can, however, see how linked data could work nicely where a data provider (such as government - wants to see its data used and presented, but doesn't want to build the UI for that. Given that there are loads of developers out there willing to do it for them, why should they? Equally, if you build aps you'd be grateful for lots of free linked data to power them.

There are of course risks. I do wonder whether the government has really thought through the implications of licensing its data for any purpose, allowing even that it be modified. When this thought was put to Professor Shadbolt, he rightly pointed out that the media routinely (mis?)present data the way they need to for the 'angle' they are taking, so this is no worse. Good point, but I think the jury's out. It feels like a welcome move towards transparency, though, and could save the taxpayer money.

Where's this all going? I have two opposing thoughts on this, both related to the structured v unstructured information debate. The first is that one of the primary reasons for the success of Tim Berners-Lee's brilliant invention, the World-wide Web, was its focus on unstructured information (web pages with text and some images, mainly), because that's what non-technical people relate to most naturally. A move away from this would therefore be retrograde, it could be argued. The counter argument is that the Web only really got going properly when databases started being used behind the scenes to drive websites. Search engines and ecommerce sites both depend on them, and there are countless other examples. So linking datasets across the web is just an extension of this and could bring even greater benefits, perhaps.

I think the second argument's possibly true, but only if the structure of the data is kept well hidden from the layman, and he doesn't have to learn a second meaning for that nocturnal bird of prey with the round face.

What do you think?

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Facebook and ZDNet

Here's what I was going to reply to Phil Wainewright's post about Facebook on ZDNet, until I realised I had to register to comment...

"You read it here first? ;-)
Actually, a lot more has happened since then. It's not all negative, but there is clearly a move to lock-in / walled gardens, of which some of us are very suspicious. But then again, the 'small pieces, loosely joined' idea is a bit arcane for some people, who probably prefer a structured package. And, to be honest, Facebook does clever (and, to many, attractive) things within that structure. "

I know a site that requires registration to post comments isn't a monopoly, but.... ;-)

Thursday, 26 August 2010

How not to make cost savings, and how it could be done well

I had to have a scan recently (all clear, thankfully) and decided to order a copy of it. I'd been told by the specialist I'd have to pay, so was rather surprised to be told by the receptionist in radiology that it was free for me, because I was ordering it within 40 days of the scan taking place. I commented that this seemed a bit eccentric, and she readily agreed. There had been a change to the rules recently, and she thought the change (making it free) didn't sit well with the cost-saving initiatives currently going on in the NHS. At the same time as making the copy of the scan results free, for example, the person who used to do the scans had been laid off, so they now take at least a couple of weeks to produce, by whomever has a spare moment. I agreed this seemed odd. 'They obviously haven't asked the staff', said I. 'But what else would you expect from NHS managers?', she said.

Assuming she wasn't embittered from, say, being on the at-risk-of-redundancy list - and she didn't appear disgruntled - I thought:

- consulting staff to get cost-saving ideas (as distinct from radical downsizing) is basic managerial good practice and has been for several decades;
- I got this from a 5 minute conversation - what more could be obtained from, say, an hour's workshop?
- I actually wouldn't mind a crack at this, but every role I've seen advertised relating to the NHS has required deep and extensive, specific, prior NHS experience.

Something's not quite right...

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

How regulated organisations can deal with social networking issues

In my last post I raised the point that in amongst the excuses applied in some organisations, particularly regulated ones, to avoid letting employees use social media, there are some real issues. This post looks at some of them, and proposes solutions.

I can think of four main types of issue, which I'll call, respectively, Conduct Unbecoming, Company Secrets, Off-the-Record Contracting and Chinese Walls. Let's look at each in turn.

Conduct Unbecoming

This rather old-fashioned expression I take to mean anything that an employee might say that the firm would not wish to be associated with its name. This could be inside or outside the firewall. The fears are more reputational than regulatory, although for internal-only material they may well be more about power and the prevention of the usurping thereof.

It should be possible to deal with both instances (inside and outside the firewall) by means of a policy. I'm tempted to say this could be as short as "Don't give away company secrets and don't diss the firm", but it will probably be a little longer and more formal than that. Nevertheless, that's basically the message. Whistleblowing rights would of course remain, but those aside a company can reasonably expect some measure of loyalty and good behaviour from its people.

Company Secrets

This covers commercially confidential material, client confidential material and so on. There's an art to saying something interesting online that doesn't breach confidences. Ever since the invention of email people have been learning the hard way that people react differently to opinions expressed in writing as opposed to face-to-face or on the phone, especially when the opinions are negative. It's not a simple matter to craft work-related posts that are interesting to you and your readers, and at the same time won't upset your boss. But this art must be learnt, because short of never mentioning work online - which probably means not being online at all - everyone will have to face up to the consequences of getting it wrong. As far as the company's concerned, again policies have a role, but they might amount to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Someone who doesn't understand 'netiquette' might blunder even though s/he's read the policy, and once that tweet or Facebook post's in the public domain it's too late. So there's a role for training here: in how to use social media effectively and safely in a work-related context.

Off-the-Record Contracting

This is the issue of people using unofficial channels to record or make agreements which could bind the firm legally. The issue isn't so much about secret or under-the-counter deals - intentional concealment - as people wanting to do them will always find a way, and there are legal sanctions available to deal with transgressions. It's more about the fact that there's a grey area between the conversations that lead up to a deal, and the formal contract documents. A firm can't afford to lose track of even the 'grey' bits. That is very tricky even if email were to be the only channel used, both in relation to finding stuff later and to dealing with multiple email accounts and platforms. Banks that I have worked for tend to block webmail at work to try to deal with the second point. (As for finding stuff for, for example, disclosure purposes, social media platforms can score over email there, but that's a bit off topic). The problem with blocking email, as opposed to making it a policy not to use non-firm email for business purposes, is it's a slippery slope towards banning all non-firm communication platforms. This can mean no access to (public) blogs, wikis, social networking sites and so on. in fact, no Web 2.0 at all. For me, that's throwing the baby out with the bath water. A better approach would be to state in a policy that such channels shouldn't be used for anything that could have contractual implications. But, of course, the regulators, and not just the firms, need to be convinced that this is satisfactory before it has a chance of flying.

Chinese Walls

A well-known concept in banking circles, the Chinese Wall is a necessary separation of communication between certain departments, usually to prevent conflicts of interest. Any 'social' platforms must take them into account. Broadly, there are two possible approaches. the first is to make all social platforms inside the firewall accessible to everyone in the firm, and make it clear that no discussion that should be bounded by a Chinese Wall should appear on them. This has the virtues of simplicity, clarity and ease of maintenance. Its downside is that it precludes the use of social tools within a Chinese Wall, which can seriously limit useful knowledge-sharing and collaboration. If a firm does decide to allow confidential social platforms it needs to be aware that it could let itself in for a big maintenance overhead - as I know from experience! The chances are that your Active Directory (or equivalent) does not flag people with the characteristics that your Chinese-wall-related privacy settings require on your social platform. Therefore, you'll need to have someone constantly adding leavers and joiners of the department or project in question, possibly by hand. It's wise to think hard at the outset how you can best set things up to minimise this manual effort. If you use Sharepoint, make sure you fully understand how security-enabled groups work.


Whether you adopt the approach that, broadly, I'm recommending, namely to allow quite liberal access to Web 2.0 sites outside the firewall and encourage their equivalent inside it, and deal with potential 'issues' by means of policies and training, or you decide to 'batten down the hatches' and block or ban most things Web 2.0, you'll probably wonder how you can police what's actually going on. In an ideal world you'll have trusted and trustworthy employees who are netiquette-savvy and won't put a foot wrong. If they do, however, you will probably want to know about it. But how to do this?

You might run searches for the company name on, say, Google. This should pick up most stuff on public platforms. It won't pick up 'walled' material like email, of course, or Facebook posts behind privacy settings. Then, of course, as there's no search that I know of that will pick up only 'inappropriate' comments about the firm, there will be a lot of link-clicking and reading for somebody to do. Auto-moderation software exists, and I'm guessing this could pick up combinations of swear words plus company name, for example, thus narrowing things down. But there might still be a lot to read, and as I said earlier, it will be after the fact. So you might decide not to monitor at all, and just deal with incidents as they arise and are made known.

A bit scary? Welcome to the new world! Now's maybe the time to reflect on the way your employees might feel about the firm, and, if that feeling's more negative, overall, than positive, whether it's actually realistic to try to keep the lid on that.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Social Media in Corporate Environments: Realism Needed

Prompted by a tweet by Phil Bradley, linking to his blog, it occurred to me finally to get round to posting something on the subject of control, trust and social media in large (especially regulated) organisations.

Many of my social media / Enterprise 2.0 evangelist friends seem to be pretty laissez-faire when it comes to the subject of the amount of freedom employees ought to have in relation to the use of social media tools. I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. Widespread adoption of blogging, tweeting/yammering and the use of collaborative spaces within and even outside the firewall has the capacity, at least in theory, to open up an organisation and make it both more effective and more congenial a place to work. Or, to turn that around, the open culture required to enable widespread use of these tools is a prerequisite to an effective and congenial organisation in the modern era.

I also think, though, that the extreme libertarians, if I can call them that, are either unaware of, or are ignoring, some important legal and regulatory matters that apply to many large firms. If these are ignored, a firm can easily find itself exposed to reputational damage, loss of confidential information and/or perhaps regulatory sanctions.

The problem is that in some, probably many, firms these issues are cited as the reason for not letting employees use social media. They may have genuine fears about the legal or commercial risks, or they may simply not want to do it for other reasons, and use these risks as an excuse. The ones with genuine fears and concerns can be helped, and my next post will provide some ideas for tackling the issues. Those firms that are making excuses will need to get through their state of denial before anything can be done. As a starting point they need to realise that the genie is out of the bottle; that social media/networking is here to stay, and that if they don't get involved their competitors will start to leave them behind.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Facebook: too public or too private?

There has been a lot of condemnatory talk recently on Twitter and elsewhere about Facebook's allegedly cavalier attitude to privacy. The argument is that there have been creeping, and concealed (or at least, not transparent) changes to the privacy policy since Facebook's inception, that have steadily eroded the ability of users to keep their information out of the public domain. There's also the fact that setting privacy controls on Facebook accurately to reflect one's intentions is not a trivial matter.

An interesting counter argument has been put forward by Robert Scoble, who basically says that he does (and, he implies, everyone else ought to) act as if everything he writes on the Web is available to be read by the whole world, and that, if anything, Facebook's problem is not that it's too public, but that it isn't public enough.

Personally, I think both arguments have merits, but the key point for me revolves around expectation and trust. Facebook's Mr Zuckerburg created a site which started out as one thing (a private place) and gradually converted it into something else. The way he did it has all the appearance of subterfuge. Some argue that most users don't care - either know and don't care, or don't know and wouldn't care if they did. That might be true, but it's not the point. The point is that it's been done in a rather sneaky way.

I've not closed my own Facebook account, nor have I (tried to) ban my children from using it - in fact, I've just helped one sign up today. But I have made sure all the settings are for 'friends only' where possible. This of course won't stop some information leaking out, which is the cue for the next lesson, regarding which I agree with Robert Scoble: assume everything you post could be read by anyone, someday.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Social Computing, new government, smoke-filled rooms

As I write, after several exciting days of speculation and intrigue concerning the composition of the next government, David Cameron is putting the finishing touches to his cabinet. There was, of course, a massive amount of Twittering going on during that period, and I for one had one eye permanently on Tweetdeck. The other was on the BBC website's live updates page, and it was interesting to note that some of the breaking news came from tweets written by politicians or aides.

In contrast to the openness and transparency of the activity on the social networks, the actual negotiations were taking place in great secrecy, with ne'er a leak. The only exception I know of is the mini-scoop by a Guardian photographer who got a shot of Nick Clegg's list of negotiating points. Some commentators objected to this 'horse-trading', saying that it was undemocratic to have a small coterie of individuals determining the next government. Personally I found that view strange and rather naive. I would argue that the country gave the three main parties the right to negotiate a government by not granting an overall majority to any of them, and that such negotiations would be much slower and might not work at all if they weren't confidential.

But this isn't supposed to be a political blog. Since my interest is the use of social computing within organisations I'm now thinking what the implications for it might be of the formation of this new government. Clearly the biggest issue is going to be the impact of the tax rises and public spending cuts that will be necessary to tackle the deficit. These will put great pressure on companies - and public sector bodies - to get more from less. And I stand by my previous post on that subject. I also feel optimistic - at the moment - that we might be entering a new era in which politicians co-operate more in the national interest, instead of trying to score points all the time, and that this chimes well with the sort of altruistic behaviour that is often seen on the Web. Perhaps this will help lead more companies along the road to Enterprise 2.0 - whilst not changing the fact that some decisions need to be taken confidentially in a (probably smoke-free) boardroom.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Wiki Wednesdays are back!

I was pleased to discover, via Facebook, that Wiki Wednesdays are kicking off again in London. I used to enjoy these. The format was informal, the people attending had varied interests, and there was (at the best ones) an atmosphere of enthusiasm for the world of Web 2.0 and all its possibilities. I suppose it did go into a bit of a dip after a while, and perhaps that was why it was temporarily 'retired'. David Terrar has worked hard in the past to organise these sessions, which date back several years, so it's good to see he's still involved.

If you're interested in the 3rd March event, sign up on the wiki. (You might need to register with Socialtext first.)

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

What is the role of KM?

Now that I'm a regular Twit(terer), I find it quite hard to blog. This is largely because, in comparison to Twitter, the bar to hitting the keyboard seems much higher. I feel I need to have something deep to say before I blog. And, er, OK, let's leave it there.

Paradoxically it's a link from Twitter to a blog post on a very deep subject that has prompted this post. John Tropea tweeted about a blog post by Mark Gould which discussed a blog post and paper by Patrick Lambe . In essence the argument put forward is that knowledge sharing is about a lot more than just getting thoughts onto (virtual) paper in public places and spreading them around using technology. The author went on to argue that knowledge managers ought to be taking account of the psychological processes that are involved in knowledge transfer. Indeed, the author seemed altogether impatient with a technology-based approach to knowledge sharing.

This prompted me to reassess my own position. Being a short attention-span Twit these days, I'll be brief. I agree that knowledge-sharing is a rich and complex subject. But I don't think it's the job of knowledge managers to be concerned with all aspects of the process. This is for two reasons. The first is that most of us don't have time to complete the in-depth academic study needed to become the true KM all-rounder implied by Lambe. The second is that many aspects of knowledge-sharing are better left to the individuals who have the knowledge and who are doing (or attempting to do, or would do if they had the facilities) the knowledge sharing.

I've never really liked the phrase 'knowledge manager'. It's too overblown, pretentious. We are concerned with facilitating the sharing of certain types of information, that's all. If we get a bit dry and technical about it at times, it's because that's a big part of the job.

Do you agree?