Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Introverted Leader -- book review

Cover of "The Introverted Leader: Buildin...Cover via Amazon

Jennifer B. Kahnweiler is a "champion for introverted professionals," her website says. I've just finished reading her book, The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. I really appreciated the book's approach. Most people giving advice to introverts start from the assumption that introversion is some kind of disease. Don't worry, there's a cure... or you'll have to grow out of it. I don't want to be cured, thank you very much and I don't want to grow out of who I am. What I want is a way to deal more effectively with situations where introversion is preventing me from achieving some of my goals.

Kahnweiler appears to have a much greater understanding of the introverts' strengths and as the title indicates, provides an approach that builds on the introverts' strengths.

Some of the advice appears to be a little contradictory. To have "presence," you have to be yourself, but you may also have to learn to "act" in order to push yourself to pretend that you're not paralyzed in social settings. I can reconcile that by trying to act like the confident and assertive version of me that I can imagine but doesn't show up very often.

Most of the advice is very sensible and not too difficult to act upon if you don't try to do it all at once. I really liked the chapter about "managing up." Whether your boss is an introvert or an extrovert, being proactive in managing the relationship is very likely to pay off.

The basic framework for the book is the 4 Ps of Preparation, Presence, Push and Practice, but the chapters are arranged around specific situations, such as public speaking, project management and meetings, all situations where success may require introverts to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. The 4 P's are repeated throughout the book and you can't help but remember them and what they refer to. I liked that I'll remember 80% of the advice just by remembering the 4 P's as a trigger for much more. The sections of the book are peppered with short anecdotes, descriptions of real settings and people who have either struggled with various aspects of introversion or found ways to succeed not so much in spite of introversion but using some of their introvert advantages.

Nowadays, you can't write a nonfiction book and hope to sell lots of copies without an accompanying consulting practice, and a blog (The Introverted Leader). It's more likely that the consulting practice existed before the book and the book is a way to reach out to potential customers (as well as a source of income).

I also picked up a few references mentioned in the book:

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Friday, November 06, 2009

The Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

I am trying to improve the Google Search results for a specific web site and testing some approaches. One of them involves creating outside links to the site. I realize they have to be quality links and this probably won't qualify as a quality link but there's no harm in trying.

The Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) is the office responsible for Knowledge Management at Goddard. That's where I work. Our office is best known internally for the Road to Mission Success Workshop (also known as RTMS) and best known externally for the NASA Case Studies developed by the office. We also implement Pause and Learn (PaL) sessions which are the NASA equivalent of After-Action-Reviews (AARs).

The office is led by Dr. Edward Rogers, Chief Knowledge Officer.

And, for the latest news about what Goddard is doing, check out the website of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
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Saturday, October 10, 2009


What can we learn from someone's bookshelf? After all, we do make judgments based on people's appearance, speech, education levels, etc... How about trying to understand someone based on the types of books they read? I once came across a successful professional whose desk was covered by piles of books that appeared to have been strategically stacked. The intent was clearly to impress visitors.

Nowadays of course, we would need access to a person's digital bookshelf to get a sense of his or her full collection.

I was looking at the collection I keep on LibraryThing, a collection which is not complete, yet sufficiently representative of my interests. I looked at it from two perspectives: 1) the tag cloud (I'll admit to cleaning up the tags a little before creating the cloud); 2) the book covers for the "Knowledge Management" collection, since "knowledge Management" turns out to be the biggest category.

This tag cloud could tell you a lot of different things about me but some of the tags would require some explaining. For example,"human trafficking" stands out but in my mind, it was a relatively short term interest linked to a specific research and writing project. It does not reflect current interests.

I prefer the book cover visual to the tag cloud. From my perspective as the reader of these books, each book cover is a memory trigger for the book's contents and a great way to connect ideas and perspectives taken by various authors.

If you wanted to know more, you might be able to visit my LibraryThing account and dig out some information about how I rated these books and read any reviews (if I provided any).

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

KM & PKM - Missing Link

I'm a fan of PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) and I'm puzzled by the lack of interest within the community of Knowledge Management practitioners in integrating PKM in broader KM strategies. There's a feeling that PKM is too much about the individual and not enough about the team or the organization. That's plain wrong. PKM is about continuously improving one's performance by systematically and purposefully applying KM practices at the individual level in order to be a more effective team member and a more effective member of the broader organization.

It's about being a lifelong learner -- How do I keep learning new things, both by doing and by purposefully seeking out new knowledge? How do I know what I should be focusing on? How can I know what knowledge I'll need five years from today? Do I have a long-term learning plan or should I just pick up new knowledge here and there? This may get closer to existing career management activities. What's my individual learning Plan? Teams can have learning plans too. Organizations certainly have strategies and plans around core competencies and training.

It's about managing information flows -- How do I access and filter information that reaches me? Some of this may be about personal productivity but it's not just about personal productivity. It's also about ensuring that I have access to all the information I need. I seek out the information I need. I'm not just waiting for it to come to me. What's your communication plan? Are you a passive recipient of information or an active producer / author? How do you see your role as an individual within your team or project in terms of information flows? Do you ever find yoursef wondering what information to push forward to others in the team, not wanting to flood emails with less than germane information?

It's also about communication skills -- How do I communicate what I know? how do I share what I know? With whom do I share what I know? I have often felt that I knew much more than what I was able to convey to others. Is there something I could do to bridge that gap?

I'd venture that without PKM, there isn't any KM. If we agree that organization do some KM, have always done some kind of KM -- even if not systematically or effectively why can't we also agree that people have always done PKM, just not systematically or effectively. Without PKM, enlisting employees to be actively engaged in KM activities is like pulling teeths.

KM needs to happen at the individual level (PKM), at the team level, and at higher levels. The types of knowledge that are most relevant at each knowledge is going to be different and the types of processes needed at each level are going to be different. Most KM strategies focus on higher level needs of the organization, most of which are not immediately relevant to the individual or the team.

Start with PKM and you'll be much better able to handle the "what's-in-it-for-me?" questions when you try to talk about team / project KM and broader organizational KM. Connecting PKM to KM initiatives is the missing link in terms of motivation.

I'm wondering if the key to a successful PKM approach isn't to be embedded in existing Human Resources programs. I'd also work it through any ongoing social media intervention.

PKM Resources on Diigo.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

KM Strategy Development: Smorgasbord vs. Acupuncture

Here are a few slightly random thoughts about a KM smorgasbord, centers of gravity, complex systems, acupuncture and "friendlies." It all started with a little personal brainstorming around KM strategic planning.

You can develop a KM strategy that is very broad based and tries to cover everything KM. Be very inclusive in your processes, listen to everyone, try to please everyone. What you'll probably end up with is a big smorgasbord of KM activities that make it look like you can't possibly have missed anything and everyone should be happy. Why are buffets not as satisfying as they might appear to be? First, you can't possibly try everything on the buffet. Second, if you ask people what was on the buffet afterward, you'll get as many different answers as there were diners. You will not have a coherent understanding of what KM is within the organization. You will not have a common view of benefits either? Perhaps it doesn't matter if everyone finds what they want on the buffet. You may find people to be satisfied with their meal but it's not clear they'll come back for more. In addition, when budget cuts come, you don't have a clue what to cut down on. Do you cut across the board and provide half the previous quantities or do you pick and choose which dishes to remove? Perhaps I am too pessimistic in thinking about budget cuts rather than a budget increase. The same question would emerge with a budget increase. Do you just provide more of the same, more of specific activities or new dishes on the table? You have no clue because you're just trying to do everything at once to please everyone.

You can develop a KM strategy that is focused on making the leadership happy and responds to the needs of the leadership or whatever the leadership thinks the needs of the organization are. You'll get leadership buy-in, perhaps even a good amount of resources to go ahead and implement. What you won't get is any kind of systematic, broad-based impact. You'll get resistance from front-line workers because it's likely you've managed to increase the burden on them without providing any kind of benefits to them.

So, the key is to develop a KM strategy that addresses the needs of front-line workers, leverages whatever opportunities already exist within the organizational environment, and present a convincing strategy to the leadership -- something that brings benefits to front-line workers AND in the process, addresses the needs of the organization and satisfies the leadership's perceived needs. Easier said than done, right!

This is where Centers of Gravity come in. You need to look beyond the concept of "leadership". Centers of Gravity are sources of power. For a KM initiative to be truly successful, you need to leverage Centers of Gravity, get them on board. Who has power within the organization? It's not just a question of individual personalities and positions within the organizational hierarchy. Where are the core nodes of the organization's? If you had a Smorgasbord of KM activities available and you could closely monitor the buffet table to see 1) what's getting the most traction; 2) what impact the activities have on organizational goals, which of the dishes on the menu would become the staples? Of course, we don't have the luxury of trying out the Smorgasbord approach first just to identify what's most useful. In addition, documenting impacts of KM activities on organizational goals is much easier said than done. Still... we need to make educated guesses about what would be most effective.

Think of the human body as a complex system. What are the core elements that make things work? The heart, the brain, the nervous system, muscles? Now think of an organization as a complex system. What are the elements of the systems that make things happen? What are the key functions? Forget about the organizational chart.

In a complex system (the human body or any organization), it may be difficult to pinpoint one or two centers of gravity. As soon as one element breaks down, others are affected. You can't seem to treat one without affecting the other. Now think of acupuncture as a way of reaching out to specific systems of the body and very precisely targeting them. Where are the pressure points within the organization?

When I think of being "strategic", I think of being in a situation where resources are limited and some decisions have to be made about how to proceed. There are alternatives to ponder and "trades" to be made. Do you spread all your resources across a smorgasbord of KM activities? Do you go all out with a broad-based outreach campaign to make sure everyone in the organization knows the types of KM services that are available? Or... do you deal primarily with "friendlies," those who are already sold on the KM idea and who are already on board, hoping there will be some trickle effect and organic spread of KM ideas? Or... do you deal with the "friendlies" AND go after Centers of Gravity.

This falls into the "half-baked" category of blog posts. They're fun to read six months later, once my thinking has evolved into something a little more polished.

KM Strategy - Diigo List

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Tweet, a Parker 75 and a Flat Tassie

ORIGINAL POST (9/13/2009)
Today I learned that I own a Parker 75. Among people who know anything about fountain pens, it's a well known model. I don't know much about fountain pens. I've always owned one or two that I use regularly. The Parker 75 belonged to my grandfather before it was handed down to me. I've had it for many, many years and I just called it "my grandfather's fountain pen." Now I know it's a Parker 75 with the crosshatch grid design.

It all started with a tweet that I caught early this morning. The tweet was pointing to the website of a fountain pen repair expert. A few clicks later I was entering the world of fountain pen collectors and discovering an entirely new vocabulary. I looked for photos of my grandfather's pen and it didn't take long to find it. It's a Parker 75 but there are many variations of this model. I have the crosshatch grid design that was common with the original production in the mid 1960s. Mine also has a flat tassie. Do you know what a tassie is? I had to look it up in the pen glossary.

There's a wonderful website where I learned all there is to know about the Parker 75.

I'm sending my Parker 75 (and its little brother, the matching mechanical pencil) to be repaired and cleaned up... all because of a tweet.

UPDATE (12/9/2015)
I lost my grandfather's Parker 75 on a trip last Spring.  I was missing it a great deal and decided that I needed to replace it, so I went online and found the same model on eBay over the summer. It feels exactly like the old one.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

What's Your Signature?

A while ago I wrote a post titled "What's Your Element?." In it, I talked about my reading of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, by Ken Richardson. In this post, I am talking about a signature as something related to a person's element, yet distinct from it. A signature represents the unmistakably unique mark of someone's element. When someone is truly working with their element, the results have a unique signature. The results have their DNA or fingerprints all over.

I've worked on a number of projects in the past few years that have played a key role in my professional life. In the cases I'll mention below, I was the primary "architect" and the projects took on what I've come to recognize as my "signature."

Writers want to develop a unique voice, artists work to refine their unique style. Why wouldn't the average professional want to develop their own professional "signature"?

When something is uniquely yours, it's both your genius and your blind spots that are embedded in that unique signature. Ideally, collaborative work can help identify and address the blind spots and in the process, improve the final product or outcome. Yet collaborative work means compromise. Most artistic masterpieces are not collaborative works but rather the works of individual artists.

Here are four projects -- far from masterpieces -- that have my signature.
Two of the projects listed above were developed based on client / employer requests. The other two were developed purely on my own time. It's as if when I am assigned a significant project of this type at work, I make one up at home.

All four required substantive investments in research and synthesizing of knowledge. They are all signature products for me. Three out of the four required some innovative use of technology either in the development or dissemination of the product.

The first project, the ICT4D course, available on my website for several years since I stopped teaching it, continues to draw a significant number of hits every month. All of them have a didactic element. They are knowledge products. All of them involved doing something that had not been done before, an element of experimentation and pushing of some boundaries. Making the Connection is probably the best of the four because it got the benefit of significant help from a co-author and I had nothing to do with the final production process. It's definitely a finished professional product. The others have an amateurish look and feel to them.

A personal signature isn't the same as branding. Branding is about claiming some kind of ownership and you can brand products with your name even though they don't reflect anything like a signature. A signature isn't something you tag on to a product after the fact to claim it as yours. A signature is something about the product that claims you as the originator or creator.

Now if I could only look at these products objectively and identify my blind spots....

PS: This post falls in the category of half-baked insights that may or may not make sense. I have a feeling it's mixing apples and oranges. But then, isn't that were creative juices come from? Mixing apples and oranges? :)

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Playing with Pearltrees: social bookmarking meets web navigation

Joined a group on Diigo 24 hours ago, opened an email telling me about what other people are tagging in that group, followed a link, discovered Pearltrees. Next step: play for a couple of hours. Let the creative juices flow. How can I use this tool? How does it work?

That's how things happen. Copy some script and voila... click on the pearl below to visit my first Pearltree map.


Try it out for yourself! Discover Pearltrees' website! Watch a YouTube introduction to Pearltrees.

Disclaimer: I have no personal or professional connection to Pearltrees.

What's YOUR Social Media Policy?

As social media enter the workplace, intentionally or not, organizations in the public and private sector are rushing to develop social media policies and/or adding social media sections to their employee handbook. Some of it is preemptive, some is reactive.

An organization launches an enterprise social networking tool and various groups consulted raise concerns. Human resources has concerns. The legal team has concerns. There are so many unknowns. Let's dig up all existing policies and make sure we add to it to cover all eventualities -- most of which we can't predict. Those we can predict are typically already covered by existing policies.

An organization just had a negative experience with some internal abuse of social networking tools and decides to clamp down on anything and everything that might happen in the future. You can spot a policy that emerges from such a situation if some of the language refers to situations that would only apply to a small number of employees.

Whether the policy work is preemptive or reactive, I wonder whether the authors of such policies ever consider how their words might be interpreted by employees.

Employee Reactions
* "That's just the official policy, nobody cares about what the policy says. Just be careful and don't get caught. They can't monitor everyone all the time anyway."
* "Wow! They can use that to fire me if they want to. As a matter of fact, they can probably find something in there to fire anyone if they really want to get rid of someone."
* "They're just targeting employees who get caught watching porn at the office or who spend their days surfing the web and don't do the work. It doesn't really apply to me."
* "Fine. I get what this is all about. Security, productivity, I get it. I think it's time I develop my own policies." :)

Here are some ideas -- not restricted to social media:

* I shall not share links to my personal social bookmarking site with my employer even if 99% of my bookmarked resources are work-related. By extension, I shall not share any relevant web-based information with my employer or co-workers if the information was found during off-hours.
* I shall never use my personal computer to do any employer-related work. It doesn't matter if my computer has the necessary software and the work site computer doesn't. Downloading free software to the work site computer is an obvious no-no.
* By extension, I shall never use my own pens, paper or other supplies to do any employer-related work.
* I shall never try to bypass red tape / bureaucratic processes in order to get the work done. Forget about common sense. It's a myth. Policy rules!
* I shall make sure I understand policy thoroughly and send as many clarifying emails as I feel necessary to my supervisor. Better swamp their email box than get fired over some misunderstanding.
* I shall limit the number of times I check my work email during off-hours. I shall never respond to a work email during off-hours. I shall never check my work email on weekends.
* I shall not think about work too much during off-hours. 15 minutes a day is the limit.
* I shall not mention my employer (especially not in any favorable way) on my blog or other social media tool. By extension, my employer's name shall appear only on my CV.
* I shall not arrive at work early or leave late. Any encroachment on personal time is totally unacceptable.
* I shall make sure to separate employer-related knowledge from what I really know. Only employer-related knowledge is relevant at work.
* I shall investigate surgery or mind-control techniques that might allow me to better separate the part of the brain that deals with employer-related work and the rest of my brain. We wouldn't want too much collaboration between the two. There is no such thing as a gray area of professional interests that isn't directly job-related. That gray area is a danger zone. The brain has two sides: job-related brain vs. personal brain. Everything that is not strictly job-related is personal and therefore should not be used at work.
* Self-censorship is the best policy. Anything that might be misinterpreted should be deleted, never spoken and forgotten.
* I shall make sure that no one reads my blog. If one person reads it, it's one too many. Who knows what they might read into this post?

Get it? Obviously, I'm taking it a little too far and I can laugh at it, but I wish employers would lighten up a bit too. What do we really need? Training? Yes. Policy-driven fear of termination? I don't think so.

Oh, by the way, this has obviously nothing to do with my own employer. I wouldn't want this post to be interpreted as criticism -- that would be against official policy. :)

Oops! I am in clear violation of my own policy. Just spent more than 15 minutes thinking about work-related issues during off-hours... on a Saturday, no less!

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Diigo Lists

A while ago, I had to transfer my bookmark collections from FURL to Diigo. While the process was automatic, my tags turned into a mess. I had developed a clever way of organizing my tags in FURL. At the time, I thought it was quite clever. It worked very well for me and I even wrote a little paper about it (Learning from Doing: Social Bookmarking).

I should write a Part II to explain why it turned out to be very dumb. I certainly didn't anticipate having to transfer the bookmarks to another service and what that would mean in terms of "portability." Here's a quick example. I used tags like these:
"ICT -- Access"
"ICT -- Education"
"ICT -- eGov"

In the transfer, these tags ended up split into three parts: "ICT", "--" and "Access". I had 800+ meaningless "--" tags. It will take a while to clean up the mess. There's probably a bigger lesson to be learned here but I haven't figured it out yet.

By the time I'm done with the clean up and I've learned to use all of Diigo's capabilities, it will be time to transfer to the next best thing!

Why bother cleaning up? I would like to be able to link the relevant collections (KM tags in particular), to my Learning Log business novel.

I now have a "didactic fiction" bookmark list on Diigo.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Boss, by Andrew O'Keeffe

Here is another business novel I came across last week, downloaded to my Kindle and just finished reading: The Boss, by Andrew O'Keeffe. I've read a good number of business novels and business parables in the last couple of years. This is the best to date, and probably the first I wouldn't mind reading again, and again. In fact, I might put a reminder on my agenda to read it every year a week or so before my employee appraisal meeting. And if I find myself in a job interview, I'd want to read it again as part of my prep work.

The story is written from the point of view of an employee facing a great cast of horrendous executives and according to the author, based on true stories. I find it hard to believe a company run by these executives would survive long but for the purpose of storytelling, it works.

Here are some quick lessons about what works in the business novel genre:
* get to the point (the learning point), move on.
* a quick description of the setting, to the extent that it relates to the core of the story, is good, but there's no need to overdo it with beautiful prose. Simple prose, relatively short sentences, common vocabulary. It's meant to be read by busy business people, not for a day at the beach.
* keep it simple: No need for subplots or an extended cast of characters. Stick to what's needed to tell the story and not more.

This particular novel makes good use of Aesop's fables (an early form of didactic fiction), connecting individual fables to situations the main character is encountering at work.

frontispiece: The Original Fables of La FontaineImage by Carla216 via Flickr

I grew up with the Fables of La Fontaine rather than Aesop's fables but it's the same idea.

The story starts with a good amount of whining about how bad bosses can be, but slowly, the main character learns to handle her reactions to the three "Bs" (bad boss behavior) and how to not be a victim. The cases of bad boss behavior she confronts are a little exaggerated. They may all be based on true story but I would hope no one would be so unlucky to be exposed to all of them at once in one job.

I wrote in an earlier post about the role of the advisor in the business novel. This business novel doesn't have an advisor. There are a couple of people around the main character who provide useful insights and encouragement, but no single individual has all the answers. That worked very well in the story and it's much more realistic than the "all-knowing" advisor.

There are many parallels between this business novel and what I am trying to write in Learning Log. At the end of the book, there are discussions questions for facilitation, and sections meant for specific audiences (employees, leaders, etc...), something I've also tried to incorporate in Learning Log. In many ways, it's telling me that I'm on the right track and I have more work to do to make my novel as good as The Boss.

PS: I've also found 3-4 other business novels and discovered that Japanese business novels are quite popular. I wonder if the French have written any.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Organizing Your Desktop

I used to accumulate folders all over my desktop and over time, it became difficult to find what I needed. I've found a way to make a little easier to find my stuff quickly. It revolves around three elements:
1. A core visual on my desktop that helps to organize folders according to key work-related tasks. I use Cmap to do the diagram.
2. Shortcuts to folders I need to access most often
3. Regular review and reorganizing based on how work is evolving.

The diagram below is based on my real world job.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vanity Awards

Here's how the email starts:

"I am pleased to announce that Knowledge For Development LLC has been selected for the 2009 Best of Arlington Award in the Computer Operator Training category by the US Commerce Association."

And then there's a nice image of the award plaque.
Wow! Awards are nice, aren't they? Except this one might be embarrassing to display.

Step one: Read with both eyes open to spot the red flags all over it

The message was sent using an email address only posted on my website.
* The sender doesn't seem to know my name.
* My company, Knowledge for Development, LLC, although technically still registered, hasn't been operating for several years.
* Since when would any of my activities qualify as "Computer Operator Training"?

Step two: What's the US Commerce Association anyway?
They do have a simple website. I won't even point you to it. Anyone can have a website.

Step three: What are other people saying about it?
The following article was found just one item below the US Commerce Association website in a simple Google search:

All That Glitters? US Commerce Association Awards to Biz May Not Be What They Seem
I didn't go beyond that. I don't want to know how much they wanted to charge me to send me the award plaque. That's essentially what they are in the business of, selling you vanity awards. They're just not very upfront about it.
A few months back, we received in the mail a very fancy package addressed to "The Parents of ______." They had my daughter's name and even the name of one of her teachers who had supposedly recommended her for a prestigious and highly selective -- not to mention expensive -- leadership program. That took me a little longer to spot because my daughter happens to be a straight "A" student and a teacher did indeed recommend her for the program. The program's website was very similar to what I found at the US Commerce Association site. Other sites talking about the program were providing conflicting information about whether it was a fraud or not. Some parents seem to think it had been a great learning opportunity for their kids. Sometimes it's not a straightforward fraud but you are getting manipulated into buying something you would not have bought if you had not been told how great you (or your kids) were.
In any case, you were paying a high price for the program and you were inclined not to look at the price because your kid had been selected and not sending them would be to deprive them of a great opportunity they had earned. I explained the whole thing to my daughter and we agreed the money would be better spent on some other great opportunity she could pick herself. I also suggested to my daughter that she should keep the fancy mailing package as a reminder that all that glitters isn't gold. Great lesson for her!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009

I don't usually get that excited about new bills presented to Congress but I figured I had to read this one. The Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009 is out.

I printed all 60+ pages of it (sorry!) and went at it with a pink highlighter. In some sections, I found myself highlighting everything, so I stopped the highlighting procedure.

I was particularly interested in the section below:

(p. 9)
"Sec.624B Office for Learning, Evaluation and Analysis in Development.
(1) Achieving United States foreign policy objectives requires the consistent and systematic evaluation of the impact of United States foreign assistance programs and analysis on what programs work and why, when, and where they work;
(2) the design of assistance programs and projects should include the collection of relevant data required to measure outcomes and impacts;

(3) the design of assistance programs and projects should reflect the knowledge gained from evaluation and analysis;

(4) a culture and practice of high quality evaluation should be revitalized at agencies managing foreign assistance programs, which requires that the concepts of evaluation and analysis are used to inform policy and programmatic decisions, including the training of aid professionals in evaluation design and implementation;
(5) the effective and efficient use of funds cannot be achieved without an understanding of how lessons learned are applied in various environments, and under similar or different conditions; and
(6) project evaluations should be used as source of data when running broader analyses of development outcomes and impacts.

None of this is very new, particularly aggressive or revolutionary. It's common sense. The problem I sense is that it fails to acknowledge that M&E as it has been practiced in international development, isn't necessarily going to provide the answers we're all looking for. Evaluation is done when the project is over. That's too late to change anything about how that particular project was run. Something has to be done while the project is being implemented. Something has to be done to ensure that the team implementing the project is fully engaged in learning. Technically, that's what the "M" for monitoring is meant to do.

Instead of putting so much emphasis on the "evaluation" part of the M&E equation, and trying to do "rigorous impact assessments", I would want to focus much more on developing more meaningful monitoring. Meaningful monitoring could use some insights from knowledge management. You don't do knowledge management around projects by waiting till the end of a project to hold an After-Action-Review and collect lessons learned. If you try to do that, you're missing the point. However, if you hold regular reviews and you ask the right kinds of questions, you're more likely to encourage project learning. If you have a project that is engaged in active learning, you are not only more likely to have a successful project but you will increase your chances of being able to gather relevant lessons. Asking the right kinds of questions is critical here. You can limit yourself to questions like "did we meet the target this month?" or you can ask the more interesting "why" and "how" questions.

Traditional monitoring involves setting up a complex set of variables to monitor, overly complex procedures for collecting data.. all of which tends not to be developed in time, and is soon forgotten and dismissed as useless because it is too rigid to adapt to the changing environment within which the project operates. [I may be heavily biased by personal experiences. But then, don't we learn best from personal experience? ]

I know the comparison is a stretch but at NASA, the safety officer assigned to a project is part of an independent unit and doesn't have to feel any pressure from the project management team because he or she doesn't report to project management. If something doesn't look right, she has the authority to stop the work.

If monitoring and evaluation is to be taken seriously within USAID, I suspect that it will require a clearer separation of M&E functions from the project management functions. If the monitoring function is closely linked to project reporting and project reporting is meant to satisfy HQ that everything is rosy, then the monitoring function fails to perform. Worse is when monitoring is turned into a number crunching exercise that doesn't involve any analysis of what is really going on behind the numbers. Third party evaluators need to be truly independent. The only way that is likely to happen is if they are USAID employees reporting to an independent M&E office.

I would also want more emphasis on culture change. As long as the prevailing culture is constantly in search of "success stories," and contractor incentives are what they are, there will be resistance to taking an honest and rigorous look at outcomes and impacts. Without an honest and rigorous look at outcomes and impacts, the agency will continue to find it difficult to learn. If you can't change the prevailing culture fast enough, you need to establish and independent authority to handle the M&E functions or train a new breed of evaluation specialists who don't have to worry about job security.

My first hand experience with USAID-funded impact assessments has led me to question whether those who ask for impact assessments are willing to acknowledge that they may not get the "success story" they are hoping for.

Hmm.... I guess I still have strong opinions about M&E. I tried to get away from it.

I've always thought that M&E was closely related to Knowledge Management, but I also thought it was the result of my own career path and overall framework. (See my core experience concept map on my new website)

Watch out for these M&E and Knowledge Management connections:

(p 12)
(6) establish annual evaluation and research agendas and objectives that are responsive to policy and programmatic priorities;

If you're going to do research, why not make it "action research". Keep it close to the ground, make it immediately useful to those involved in implementing projects on the ground . Then you can aggregate the ground-based research findings and figure out what to do at the policy and programmatic levels. Otherwise you'll end up with research that's based on HQ priorities and not sufficiently relevant to the front lines. If you're going to try to capture knowledge that is highly relevant to the organization, make sure you're doing it from the ground up and not the other way around. Knowledge needs to be relevant to the front lines workers, not just to the policy makers.

(p. 12)
(11) develop a clearinghouse capacity for the dissemination of knowledge and lessons learned to USAID professionals, implementing partners, the international aid community, and aid recipient governments, and as a repository of knowledge on lessons learned;

I'm glad at least the paragraph doesn't include the word "database". I'm hoping there's room for interpretation. I'd love to be involved in this. Knowledge management has a lot to offer here, but we need to remember that knowledge management (an organizational approach) isn't exactly the same as Knowledge for Development. Knowledge management can be an internal strategy. As indicated in para. (11) above, the dissemination of knowledge and lessons learned needs to go well beyond the walls of the organization itself. That's both a challenge and an opportunity.

(p. 12)
(12) distribute evaluation and research reports internally and make this material available online to the public; and

Do project staff really have the time to read evaluation and research reports? Do the people who design projects take the time to read evaluation and research reports? I don't mean to suggest they're at fault. What probably needs to happen, however, is that report findings and key lessons are made more user-friendly, otherwise, they remain "lessons filed" rather than "lessons learned."

In my current job with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, I've been very fortunate to witness the use of case studies as a very powerful approach to transmitting lessons learned. Case studies often originate from a massive Accident Investigation Report that very few people will ever read from end to end. Case studies extract key lessons from a lengthy report and present them in a more engaging manner. It's also not enough to expect people to access the relevant reports on their own. There has to be some push, some training. The same case studies can be used in training sessions.

These don't feel like well thought out ideas but then, at least they're out of my head and I can get back to them later when something more refined comes to mind. If I waited for a perfect paragraph to emerge, I wouldn't write much at all.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Learning from Success and Failure (a follow up)

I am tired of reading statements like "We learn best from failure" and "We learn best from success." No. We learn best when we pay attention to what happened, how it happened and why? Whether it was a success or a failure doesn't make a difference in terms of our capacity to learn from an event.

A caveat or two:

  • The organizational culture and existing processes within an organization may make it easier or harder to systematically learn from either success or failure.

  • There may be a natural propensity to learn from failure (simply because it hurts and we don't want to do it again). Even if that can be demonstrated, it certainly doesn't mean that we can't learn from success. If we choose to learn from success and we put the right processes in place, there's no reason we can't do it.
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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Organizational Learning and Fading Memories

Warning: Learning doesn't last.

Lessons learned can be slowly forgotten over time. Memories fade. When something is "learned", is it permanently imprinted in our memories? No. We become complacent again. We forget. We may not forget everything but we forget the details, the how and the why. Lessons may be institutionalized through new rules and processes as a result of an accident -- to ensure it doesn't happen again -- but with the passage of time, it's just another rule, soon disassociated from the original incident or accident. As soon as people no longer understand the "why" associated with a rule or process, it can be dismissed as bureaucratic red tape and soon ignored or frequently bypassed.

Remember Chernobyl? Remember Bhopal? Remember the Tenerife double aircraft disaster?
What do you remember about them?

Everyone remembers the Titanic, but what exactly do we remember about it? Do we need to be reminded of the details of why and how it happened on a regular basis?

We pay most attention to the why and how just after an accident happens because everyone is focused on "how could it possibly happen?" and "who is responsible?" What we really need is a process for reminding people of the why and how when they think they least need it, when everything is going well and they start thinking it could never happen to them.

I'm also wondering about other factors:
1) Proximity: What's the relationship between an individual's "proximity" or level of involvement with an accident or related lessons on the one hand, and the declining memory curve? Does first hand "learning" last longer?

2) Intensity: What's the relationship between the intensity of the failure (i.e. human lives lost vs. a failed project that didn't achieve its objectives), the extent to which the causes of failure are investigated, and the speed with which memories of the failure fade and lessons are unlearned.

3) Dynamic nature of Lessons: Lessons need to be "updated" regularly based on most recent history and discoveries. Even if you've learned something based on first hand experience, you still need to "update" that knowledge.

Rules and mandated processes need to remain linked to their original rationale. When someone is told that they need to follow rule x, y, z, they should be able to ask "why" and to get a straight answer other than 1) that's how we've always done it, or 2) that's the rule. If you understand the why and the rationale makes sense, you're much more likely to follow the rule.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Defining Success and Failure, Managing Risks

When I started working as a NASA contractor more than a year ago, I quickly noticed the differences between NASA and international development. No kidding! I didn't expect much in common but I wasn't sure at all what to expect with NASA.

NASA's daily routines, all the hard work that gets missions into space, revolves around minimizing the risk of failure. Risk management is a big deal. You build a spacecraft that costs a lot of money, you can't afford to have it blow up or become floating space debris. A lot of attention is paid to ensuring success by analyzing every possible failure mode and coming up with mitigation strategies when there is a residual risk. There are methodologies and full time risk manager positions handling all this.

Failures tend to be obvious, even when they are not catastrophic. Either something is working as planned or it is not. You can have a partial failure but you know exactly what is and what isn't working. It's not something you can hide.

As in the transportation industry, catastrophic failures are studied extensively to understand the causes of the failure and to make sure that this particular type of accident isn't repeated. NASA tries very hard to learn from its failures. Accidents in the human spaceflight program may get the most public coverage, but all accidents and failures in space and on the group are dissected to understand root causes. Ensuring the lessons learned from such detailed studies are embedded in project routines to avoid repeat failures is a more difficult task. Many of the contributing factors to a failure are soft issues like team communications that don't have an easy technical solution ready to apply uniformly across missions.

On the success side, the typical discourse sounds very much like PR and has little to do with trying to understand what when right when a mission is successful. There is little attention being paid to all the factors that made it possible for a particular mission to succeed. Success is defined as the absence of failure and doesn't seem to require extensive "study." Success is normal, failure is the anomaly to focus on.

I should add that success is defined very clearly and early on in a mission's development. How that success is defined early on has important implications on how the mission is designed and the types of risks and mitigation strategies that are developed, including what gets chopped down when the budgets are cut.

Turning to the field of international development, it's as if all of that is reversed. Failure is something projects / donors hardly ever admit to because they can get away with it. Failure is often far away, relatively invisible, easily forgotten. Success and failure are not clear cut because, among other things, projects (and their multiple stakeholders) often fail to come to a common understanding of what will constitute success. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) meant to document progress and, eventually, "success" is underfunded or not funded at all, as well as very difficult to execute in a meaningful and unbiased way. There are no incentives to openly talk about failures and why they happen.

There is no "risk management" beyond perhaps spelling out some assumptions in the early design of a project. In a NASA project, risk management is an ongoing process, not something handled during the project design phase.

Writing the statement above about the absence of risk management in international development prompted me to go check. I discovered that AusAID, the Australian development agency, does talk about "risk management." See AusGuidelines: Managing Risk. And this turns out to be very timely since the Australian Council for International Development is doing a workshop on the topic July 29th in Melbourne and July 30th in Sidney.

My previous experience in international development circles has been that few project managers have been trained as project managers and are aware of or applying project management methodologies such as those promoted by the Project Management Institute (PMI). That's just not how international development projects are designed and implemented. I did see a trend, especially in IT-related projects, where more sophisticated project management approaches were becoming a requirement.

So, if NASA needs to learn how to analyze its successes as much as it analyzes it failures, I would suggest that the international development community needs to pay more attention to defining what success and failure mean for any given project or program, and start applying risk management principles more systematically. Risk management methodologies would need to be adapted to existing international development practices and requirements and to the specifics of different types of projects.

See also:
Charles Tucker, "Fusing Risk Management and Knowledge Management," ASK Magazine, Issue 30.
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Friday, July 24, 2009

Personal Learning Plan - July/August 2009

I don't update my learning plan on a very strict schedule and I don't worry too much if I haven't exactly done everything I planned to do. Just thinking through where I want to focus in the next couple of months is useful. Every other month or so a need to refocus emerges but most of the map is stable. Click on the image for a larger version.
The new areas of focus are all related to the didactic novel, Learning Log. I don't want it to languish in never-ending revisions. I want to keep the momentum going.
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Saturday, July 04, 2009

The END is just a new BEGINNING

What do you do when you've posted something on your blog and when you read it again just a few days later your thinking has evolved significantly and it no longer reflects what you really want to say? Do you edit your original post or do you write another post contradicting the first one?

I'm opting for contradicting my earlier post titled "THE END." This is happening partly as a result of watching Jay Cross and Dave Bray talking about unbooks, and partly because in the process of making "final" revisions to version 1.0 of my manuscript, I am already considering future revisions and getting a better understanding of the current status of my manuscript.

My earlier post titled "THE END" was all about the exhilaration of writing the two words at the end of a manuscript, declaring that the story was all there and readable. At the time, I called it FINISHED. That is where my thinking has evolved and where I can clarify. Version 0.9 is finished but will not be published. Version 1.0 is the version that will be published. It will be a finished version 1.0, not necessarily the final version of the manuscript.

In other words, even if you see your manuscript as an unfinished product, there are finished versions that become published versions. And then at some point there will be a final version even if it is still an unfinished product.
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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Embedded Links in Ebook

* Publisher Offers Tips for Embedding Web Links in Ebooks
* Harlequin Embeds Hyperlinks in New Book

I was assuming Ebooks didn't have hyperlinks. I was wrong.

This is exactly what I need, the ability to put embedded links in the manuscript so that readers can follow links but also have an experience closer to turning pages than to reading sections of text on a webpage.
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Saturday, June 27, 2009


There's something very rewarding about writing "THE END." It's all about that moment when you know the piece you're writing is ESSENTIALLY DONE. The story has been put down on paper from beginning to end and it's readable. It may need some polishing and an additional round of revisions but it's essentially done. It's also the point when you have to make decisions about how much more needs to be done so that the work on it is FINISHED. Perhaps a piece of writing is never truly finished but continuous editing and revision is not something I could easily get used to. I need to be able to say something is FINISHED and move on to something else. It doesn't have to be perfect to be FINISHED.

I wrote "THE END" earlier this week when I completed the first round of revisions to the didactic novel I've been writing for the past 6 months. It felt really nice to get to that point. I am now entering unfamiliar territory since this is the first time I manage to complete a first round of revisions and still be interested in the manuscript. I'm looking at all my notes trying to figure out how to prioritize revisions.

What I really need now is to create the right incentives to complete the entire process. I know I'll complete the second round of revisions. I might get a little lazy and find excuses for calling it FINISHED sooner rather than later but I'll get to the point where I can call it FINISHED.

The real question is whether I'll actually ask anyone to read it and what to do with it once it is FINISHED. I don't think the process will really be completed if I just shelve it as a FINISHED project and never get it out for others to read.

This is how this blog is going to help me create the incentives to complete the process: The more I write about it here -- not just the writing process but the novel itself -- the more I build the necessary confidence to do something with it (... have someone read it).

So... here is a piece of information: The manuscript is titled "Learning Log -- A Didactic Novel about Knowledge Management, version 1.0". The "version 1.0" might suggest that I would consider making revisions to turn it into version 1.5 or 2.0. It's a possibility but mostly the "version 1.0" is there to indicate that while it is finished (it's not a beta), I still see the project as an experiment to learn from and not necessarily something that needs to be perfect. {a not so subtle attempt at lowering expectations}

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Playing with Code

I am NOT a programmer and I don't know a lot of HTML. Yet I am playing around with pieces of code to try to customize the TiddlyWiki I am using for my novel. Today, I've achieved one tweak. I've added a plugin that allows the reader to adjust the font size. I didn't create it, of course. I'm a codes scavenger.

I spent most of the afternoon trying to figure out how to automatically indent the first line of every paragraph. I still can't figure it out.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Didactic ... in a good way

I've come to realize that the term "didactic fiction" has negative connotations. The more I look for it, the more I encounter it in the context of someone defending a piece of fiction by saying... "it wasn't didactic at all." In that sense, "didactic" is taken to imply something "preachy" and annoying, something that ultimately distracts from the main function of fiction, which is to entertain. Imagine a novel written with a strong Global Warming theme or some other controversial theme and the main character is a scientist who fights to get politicians to listen to him. The story could easily turn very preachy and "didactic". If the main objective of that novel is to entertain, but use a theme likely to get some traction, then it makes sense to stir away from something too "didactic."

I could try to avoid using the term, just to steer away from the negative connotation but to be perfectly honest, there is a strong didactic element to what I am writing and I am not comfortable pretending otherwise. My task is to explain how a piece of fiction can be didactic in a good way and sufficiently entertaining to keep the reader's attention.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Kissing the Problem

I'm reading Annette Simmons' A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths: Using Dialogue to Overcome Fear and Distrust at Work.

I'm finding a lot of quotable passages and some nice expressions. Here is one: "Kissing the problem". When groups in an organization constantly complain about a problem and do absolutely nothing about it, they may have acquired a sort of complaint habit that they've become comfortable with. They're "kissing the problem." I've noticed a lot of this behavior going on. It's usually enveloped in a larger conversation about bureaucracy to make sure that nothing is actually done about it. A new employee might notice this but a long-time employee will not even notice because the behavior is part of the culture.

How about trying to "slap the problem" and wake up everyone?
And... what am I doing about it?
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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Top Tools for Learning

I was trying to come up with my "Top 10" to contribute to Jane Hart "Top 10 Tools for Learning 2009" but I can't get to ten if I sticking to the tools I truly use regularly. So here are my Top 8 tools for learning, the tools that are part of my personal knowledge management system.

* TiddlyWiki (portable wiki) - excellent to develop a searchable notebook and many other things, including writing a novel.
* iGoogle - excellent to organize your desktop, quick access to Gmail & quick links. I've created three tabs in iGoogle (home, office and KM). That way, if I'm at the office and my screen shows my iGoogle desktop, anything on that screen is work related. The KM tab is for everything that is related to knowledge management and/or professional development that isn't directly work-related.
* Google Reader (organize rss feeds) - the key is to regularly review what's useful and what's not and not be afraid of unsubscribing. Once in a while I also go hunt for new interesting feeds.
* CMapTools (concept mapping): I use Inspiration at work because that's what our office uses but I have a strong preference for CMapTools for concept mapping. I've been slightly obsessed with concept mapping and it's become a hammer looking for nails.
* Captura (screen capture) - I don't know that it's really a "learning tool" but I use it regularly.
* Diigo (social bookmarking) - I love it since I discovered its highlighting and comments capabilities. I was using FURL for a few years, they were bought by Diigo and the transfer of my bookmarks went relatively smoothly.
* Blogger - I've added Zemanta to it recently, an easy way to enhance my posts with related links and to automate the process of creating hyperlinks.
* iTunes (for podcasts and audiobooks) + iTunes University

If I had to pick the top 2, it would be TiddlyWiki and CMapTools.

That being said, I don't use any of these things when it comes to supporting my youngest daughter's learning. For that task, I rely on a white board, index cards, and the local public library.

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