Sunday, July 31, 2011

Signs of KM Maturation

More than three years ago (May 2008), I joined the Office of the Chief Knowledge Officer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  As a contractor rather than a civil servant, I was (and still am) working with a Task Order and slowly getting to assimilate how on-site contractors are supposed to work.  I had worked on Government contracts before, but in a very different context and not on-site.  At first, I thought I was responsible for expanding the reach of the center's KM practices so that it wasn't an ad hoc affair but a set of KM practices embedded into the projects' life-cycle.  Ideally, projects would complete a set of KM activities on a regular basis just like they go through key reviews and reach critical milestones.  It would be part of what they do.  In a perfect world, they would be doing it because they see value in it rather than because it's a requirement.  A lot of groundwork had already been laid by the Chief Knowledge Officer, so it made sense and at the time, it didn't look overly ambitious. I was naive.  The most important thing I have learned over the past three years is establishing a KM program takes time, even when you have a dedicated staff.  KM staff need to be resilient, persistent, and willing to constantly engage in small experiments to refine and adapt their approach, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, and avoid the traps of KM.

If everything works well, as of October, I will finally get to work more directly with the projects to embed some KM practices in their life-cycle.  This is happening now not just as the result of a fortuitous coincidence of budget issues, but made possible by the fact that in the intervening years, our office has worked very hard to make KM practices work in a critical strategic area of the project organization.  Having demonstrated a successful approach in one small, yet critical office, we are offered an entry into the big guys' world, the mission projects.

When KM is funded as an overhead function, KM is at risk of de-funding.  When the project office is willing to pay not just for an annual KM event but a full time KM position, you know you're doing something right.  I'm not sure this is an indicator that features prominently in KM maturation models. Is it possible that the source of funding is a better indication of success than the overall size of a KM office? I feel that I have just been given this opportunity and I don't want to miss the boat. 
Of course, a lot could go wrong between now and October.  It is still very much a contractor position, therefore subject to a lot of budget uncertainty in the medium to long term.  If this opportunity moves forward as planned (I'm optimistic about it), there are no guarantees that we will succeed. There are no guarantees that what we did with that one small office can be a blueprint for other efforts, yet we have learned a lot with that effort and with three years under my belt in the organization, I am now much better equipped to assess the environment and admit that it is ambitious.

Working directly with the projects, rather than being perceived as a separate office, is an important step forward.  It has a lot to do with ownership of the KM activities.  When KM is something that the KM office does, it is typically an overhead, disposable activity.  When KM is embedded in projects, it becomes part of what they do, a way of doing work.
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Curse of Knowledge: A Challenge for Experts and Fiction Writers

The “curse of knowledge” refers to the difficulty experts have in teaching less experienced or knowledgeable individuals in their field. At the expert level, a lot of background knowledge and tacit knowledge is taken for granted and becomes so unobtrusive to the expert that he/she doesn’t think of it as something that needs to be explained or discussed. As a result, the expert tends to speak at too high a level and can’t communicate well with non-experts.  This goes beyond the communication issues related to excessive use of professional jargon and it applies within fields, not just across fields. That is why mid-level professionals make better teachers and mentors than top level experts. Mid-level professionals haven’t lost touch with all that background knowledge necessary to climb the knowledge ladder. This is a relevant lesson for anyone trying to convey an important message to others. Are you paying attention to what the target audience for your message already knows? If not, you could be speaking over their heads.

Fiction writers face a similar “curse of knowledge.” They know a lot more about their characters than the reader will ever know, and the key task of the writer is to put just the right amount of information on paper to convey the essence of the character without sharing the full character development sheet (something that could include details such as their favorite food and the titles of the last three books they've read). Certain actions by key characters won’t make sense unless some relevant information has been provided beforehand (I've caught myself at times wanting to tell the readers to just "read it again" to catch what they missed on the first read). The sequence in which information is provided is therefore critical, yet the writer can’t dump all that background in the first few pages either.

The main difference is that experts can keep talking to fellow experts, be brilliant, and go on to win Nobel Prizes.  As long as they're not asked to teach college freshmen, they'll be fine. A fiction writer who is brilliant in his/her head but can't transfer that magic on paper is not going to be very successful.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

The History of Information: a course and a Pearltree

I've spent the past month devoting ~an hour a day to "The History of Information," a Berkeley course with reading list and webcasts available online. This is my first experience completing a full set of online video lectures. I can't say I did all the readings, but I listened attentively to all the webcasts (most of the time).

I took some notes, but without a precise goal (like passing the final exam), I was mostly interested in getting a bird's eye view of the topic and in typical "collector" mode, I bookmarked a significant number of resources mentioned in the reading list or in the lectures, most of which I scanned but did not read. I collected and organized these resources in Pearltrees.

 The History of Information 

So, what did I learn?
Did I learn less, as much, or more than the average student in that class who attended the face-to-face lectures, interacted with the professors, and presumably, did all the assignments? I suspect I learned less, but that's just fine. My goals were different and my goals were met.

Besides the course materials, I learned a lot about what I like and don't like about Pearltrees.