Date: Sat, 6 Oct 2001 08:01:59 -0700
Mr. Rod Welch
The Welch Company
440 Davis Court #1602
San Francisco, CA 94111 2496
|Subject:||Thinking about communicating|
I am intensely interested in some aspects of KM. It seems that most of what
I encounter in the area completely misses what I consider to be the major
points about the subject.
"The first element of style is to have something to say". It seems to me that the notion that dumping all of the ideas of a huge group of people into a big pile and hoping that the good ideas will somehow float to the top is naive and runs counter to my experience. Therefore, I submit that KM starts at the personal level - how can we enable an individual to make sense of his own knowledge and the vast amount of information that is potentially available to him and allow that without it taking all of his time.
My experience indicates that large groups rarely accomplish what they set out to do. A "skunk works" level project is the most likely to achieve its goals if it works as is should. The major requirements for a "skunk works" are that the group be small enough for full collaboration, and that nobody in the group is in a position where his ideas have to be accepted for any reason other than their value in advancing the solution of the problem(s) under investigation.
I work as a contractor at places like Motorola, Rockwell, and Boeing. These groups are uniformly clueless abut what they are doing, and show little to no interest in doing a better job of any part of it.
I would like very much to develop a dialog that would lead to a productive path in this area.
I have difficulty following the SDS pages. Perhaps there is something I don't know about navigating them, but I get one long stream of text with embedded links. It looks like it depends on a formatting engine for effective use?
What I did get is that several large companies have given up on KM, and that
at least part of the problem is that the engineers who develop the software
are sufficiently disconnected from the problem and from the people for whom
they are trying to solve it that most of what they produce is unsuitable for
the task intended. This has certainly been my experience.
Here again, I believe that at least part of the problem that KM faces is that it is trying to figure out how to allow thousands to millions of people to collaborate in some meaningful way, and that is largely absurd.
There is an aspect of KM that grows out of information management that deals with how to organize and present information fore ease of access and use. This scales up to global level, except that there is very little that is globally interesting. Global accessibility is useful, but the fact is that the vast majority of people won't be using any such tools. This is essentially a publishing and library model. It supports collaboration only in the sense that it makes it possible to discover who else is working in the same area so that efforts can support one another and evolve into collaborations.
When KM starts to talk about collaboration, it seems to think that collaboration has to do with the interaction of huge numbers of people. I disagree. Problems are not solved by groups, particularly large groups.
There is a component of the solution to global problems that has more to do with getting agreement than with any technical or knowledge aspects of solving the problem. Many of the global problems admit of some sort of technical solution - it is getting that solution implemented that is the issue. One of the major components of several of these issues is the "Commons Problem" - how to manage a common shared resource where there is short term gain to be had by misusing or dominating the resource while the only long term gain involves some sort of balance among the participants. There are local solutions to this problem, but I have never seen an approach that purports to treat the general case.
At one time Doug said that the tools he had available were such that further improvement was not useful until it was possible to figure out how to develop the communities of people who could use them effectively. It seems to me that this is still the case.
I believe that a truly useful goal for KM is to make it possible for small groups to form and collaborate. In short to reduce the size of the group that is required to solve problems of a particular scale rather than to add more people to he group trying to solve the problem. In any volunteer organization, for example, a small percentage actually contribute, and the real work is done by only a handful. This appears to be the case whether the group is real or virtual. Further, this is not limited to volunteer organizations - most of the people in a huge organization contribute relatively little, and much of that gets lost in the disorganization.
I can see that I am repeating myself. I get that way on this subject because it is so clear to me that we must first enable individuals to think, process information, organize it, and formulate it into knowledge before they really have anything to offer, and then enable small groups of these individuals to collaborate and successfully combine their knowledge. Trying to do this directly with large numbers of people is absurd.
Even when we look at larger groups, we find that while there may be many
people who need access to part of the information base, nobody needs access
to all of it. There are pockets of collaboration that need information
beyond what they themselves can gather or develop, but much of what
interests one group will be of little interest to the rest. Trying to make
everything available to everyone and allowing everyone to participate at
random in all parts of the discussion results in chaos.
Part of what keeps me from pursuing this as intensely as I would like, aside from limited time and resources, is that I can't see a way past the problems of large organizations on the one hand and the limited resources of small groups on the other.
I already know enough to be able to revolutionize the way work is conducted at the Boeing group where I work, for example, but getting any sort of improvement in the general operation is essentially a hopeless task.
I am trying to understand how such a project (Space Station software) gets so fouled up in the first place. The combined decisions made by the (constantly changing membership) group over time are worse than those that would be made by nearly any single individual. This tends to select for people who will put up with the idiocy, resulting in a large number of people who are less than competent, and a far larger group who have given up trying to improve matters to the level they know could be done because of the massive inertia.
Small organization like Neil Larson (MaxThink) and the group that produced Ecco lack the resources to pursue problems that only a few are interested in and still survive.
Thus the problem - large organizations have the resources and can't really
utilize them effectively, and small organizations don't have the resources.
Here is where the "skink works" has show phenomenal success. Every now and
then a small group will tackle a certain class of problems with the
resources available to a large organization, and the results are staggering.
The original Skunk Works was an aircraft design group within Lockheed. At
one point in time it is said that >80% of all commercial and military
aircraft flying were based on designs produced by this group. The group was
disbanded of course since it didn't operate according to company policies.
Lockheed announced a few years ago that they were going to revive the Skunk
Works. I can see it - a shelf of manuals, 12 layers of management, and a set
of formal processes guaranteed to make it impossible to get anything done.
When Tom Peters did his research, he found "pockets of excellence" everywhere. Follow up studies several years later could find few to none of them surviving.
...has spent years investigating the phenomenon of large, hierarchical
organizations. Together with many other engineers they collected and analyzed
"war stories" from numerous large to huge organizations. The evidence is that
an organization will refuse to do the things that it needs to even to survive
if it requires changing certain elements of the social structure. Livingston
wrote several books on the subject and basically concluded that the only thing
that can be done is to estimate whether a given organization is at a point
where it is willing and able to solve a particular socio-technical problem If
the organization is not ready, there is no way known to get it to change in a
specific direction. I tackled the problem because I consider that solving it is
at the heart of continued human progress. I believe I now understand some of
the mechanics of how it happens, but that hasn't helped with the question of
how to keep it from happening or how to fix it once it has happened.
I believe that mankind is at or near a stage where if at least some people do not learn to think and to cooperate to solve some of the problems that we have created for ourselves, that our survival as a species is doubtful. On the other hand, the future is incredibly bright if enough people can learn to think and they can organize and collaborate to solve some of our very real problems. For a glimpse into the nature of the problem, just look at the discussions on UNREV for a time. This group, all of whom are interested in the solutions to complex socio-technical problems, mostly can't agree on what the problems are, what approach would be useful in solving them if they could agree, and how to get tools that will assist in their solution.
I am going to stop here. I apologize for the length, but this is one of my passions.
I really want to thank you for getting back to me. I would love to explore how
and with whom productive collaborations could evolve. There are numerous
problems that could be addressed effectively if approached from a workable
perspective, and I would like to be a part of such an effort.
Garold (Gary) L. Johnson