Next Gen KM

Knowledge management is something that really interests me, and it’s something that I think governmental organisations at all levels in the UK need to start seriously addressing. Of course, being a social media fanboy too means that I like to see where web technology can help with this stuff: to make it easier, more effective or just more fun.

So, I thought it might be useful to run through a few of the more popular KM tools and techniques and see where web 2.0 can improve things. I have linked to Nancy White‘s great resource on KM tools for each one for background material.

1. Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are groups of people with common interests or goals, who come together to share best practice, information and experience – fundamentally, knowledge. They can exist on and offline, but when brought online you need to be careful that your provide the right interfaces for people to be able to connect with one another in an organic fashion – in other words to replicate real life interactions as accurately as possible online.

Why would you want to do this? Well, while I would agree that face to face meetings are always the best ways of building trust and getting things off the ground, they do have their weaknesses. For a start, there is a limit on the number of people that can attend at any one time, and geographical issues means there is always someone that will miss out. By providing an online alternative, these people can still engage with the community. Another consideration is the fact that not a lot goes on between meetings generally, and the online community provides the glue that sticks people together in between these get togethers.

For example, mailing lists cannot be used to create a community of practice – the conversation is too one-dimensional and there is no way of discvoering people with common experiences or problems. Web forums are better, but they are still organised in a top-down fashion, with people completing limited profiles and having limited means of sharing information: the threaded conversation.

Social networks, however, provide the right level of interaction, with personal profiles with wider scope and a range of different discussion and collaboration means. The great example of this, of course, is the IDeA’s Communities of Practice platform which provides a social network backed up with blogs, wikis, forums and document libraries to enable knowledge to be shared in whatever way the user feels is appropriate.

2. Knowledge Cafes

Knowledge Cafes are informal discussions, usually in small groups on a common theme, with plenty of coffee on tap. It’s an opportunity to explore ideas as part of the group, a mixture of brainstorming and discussion. Some structure tends to make knowledge cafes more effective, and one way is to have a facilitator not to lead, but rather shape the discussion to draw the best out of all the participants. At the end it’s usually nice to have a rap-up, where each group feds back their thoughts on the topic, and for them to be captured, perhaps onto paper or a word processed document.

One of the best things abut knowledge cafes is the fact that the small group allow everyone o have their say, but with everything being drawn together at the end, and this intimacy is difficult to replicate online. An additional difficulty is in whether you choose to make the online Knowledge Cafe synchronous or not – does each group need to be online at the same time, or can they log in and add to the discussion when they want, maybe during the course of a week?

One way of running a (for want of a better term) synchronous online knowledge cafe would be to make use of instant messaging technology. For example, Meebo is a browser based instant messaging platform which allows anyone to log in using their preferred IM protocol, whether it be MSN, AIM, Jabber, Yahoo! or Google. Further to that, Meebo allows you to create rooms where several people can participate in a discussion. It could work really well, with a Meebo room for each sub-group within the cafe. Another option is to use Campfire from 37 Signals. However, to have more than one room, and more than four people involved in a conversation, they you will need to pay for an upgrade to the standard service.

If you prefer to run an online knowledge cafe that people can dip in and out of, and don’t all have to be online at the same time, then the obvious solution is a forum, where the threaded conversations can accurately represent a conversation online. However, forums (which you can probably start to tell I am not awfully keen on…) can’t really mirror the organic nature of human conversation. The linear representation of the discussion means that tangents can’t easily be developed – and often that is where the real value lies. Wikis aren’t much use either, because while they are really easy to use and to get content online to share, they aren’t so hot at replicating structured conversations. Perhaps the best way of doing this therefore is to use a mind mapping service like Bubbl.us, which allows mind maps to be edited by members of a group, who are invited via email. This way, thoughts can be added, with responses added as nodes coming off the originating ones. Tangents can be followed up, while still keeping the whole conversation trackable and in one place.

3. Peer Assists

A peer assist is a pretty simple idea: someone has a problem, and they ask their friends to help out. In reality, it’s a bit different from a simple chat, as someone leads the discussion and helps to keep things on track, to ensure the conversation achieves, as much as is possible, the objectives of the session which are clearly defined at the outset. The objectives of a peer assist are going to be more specific than the more general discussion of a knowledge cafe, for example, and it is important to regularly check that the ideas being offered are suitable for the problem being discussed.

One of the key elements of running a successful peer assist is that you have people involved with the knowledge and experience to make useful contributions. Finding such people can be a difficult task, and social networks provide a great way of discovering people based on their interests, whether through the subject they write about on their blogs, or what they list on their LinkedIn or Facebook profiles as stuff they are good at. The chances are that you will already be ‘friends’ with these people and so they are entering the exercise as an already trusted source.

In terms of actually running the peer assist using the web, I think this is where the wiki really comes into its own. You can put the original problem at the top of a wiki page and invited contributions from those taking part to appear underneath. Those that the orginator thinks are potential solutions can be developed further, those that are unsuitable can be archived to elsewhere on the wiki. In terms of a good wiki system to use, my favourite is WikiSpaces, which allows for the easy integration of a range of content types and is really simple to get started with.

Another option might be to write the problem up as a blog post, with suggestions coming in through the comments, though this might end up being a little linear.

4. After Action Review

An after action review is a simple enough idea: a team takes a look at a recently completed piece of work, and collaboratively works on what went well, and what not so well. Key questions are: what could be done better next time; and what can we do better elsewhere as a result of good stuff done in this project. They don’t have to be held at the end of a project though, and can be used at various stages so that continuous improvement is possible.

In the real world, an after action review would be run with everyone around a table, so that all the necessary views and experiences can be aired. This can be replicated like the knowledge cafe with instant messaging, forums or online mind mapping. If you are really stuck then even email will do it.

However, a more interesting method might be to combine collaborative authoring with discussion, using a system like WriteWith. This allows you to jointly edit some text, in a Google Docs or Zoho stylee, but also has a threaded discussion running alongside it. So the facilitator of the review could post a document detailing some of the aims of the project, with actual performance results and outcomes. These could then be discussed alongside the text, which can then be updated and turned into the after action review report. What’s great about WriteWith is that it will then let you export to PDF, Word or OpenOffice format – or even send the text straight to a blog!

5. Knowledge Market Place

A knowledge market place, or fair, is an opportunity to learn what it is that folk know, and what they would like to know. The ideal end result would be a big grid with a list of people with their skills and their needs on, with some contact details so that folk can easily get in touch with those they can help. Face to face methods of running a knowledge market place can include getting people to team up and ‘interview’ each other, writing down the wants and offers on post-its, which can then be stuck on the wall for viewing later as well as being typed up.

An online version of this would suit any kind of site which allows details profiles, so people with certain skills can be tracked down easily. Another way would be to have a wiki page, laid out as a grid which people can add to as they see fit. It might be possible for a blog to be created, with a post per person. These could be completed by the person concerned themselves or (more fun) someone they have just been speaking to. Tags could be added to outline the wants and needs, so that groups of people with similar interests could be identified with one click.

Any more? 

There’s five from me, then. Anyone got any more ways that web 2.0 can be used to develop KM in new and interesting ways?

It’s Not Just the Blog

As part of some notes I have been putting together for getting started with blogging, I’ve written about some of the other services that it might be a good idea to register with, in addition to your blog:

No blog exists within a vacuum, and if you to get the most out of yours, you need to be engaging with other online social services too.

1. Flickr

Flickr is a photo hosting and sharing site. What that means is that you can upload photos onto the web, and embed them into your blog posts without having to worry about whether you have them in the right size to suit your blog’s theme – Flickr resizes them all for you. You can then link back to the photo’s page on Flickr, allowing your readers to see larger versions, for example. You can also tag your photos with keywords that make it easier for people to find them and for you to find similar content uploaded by others.

Flickr is a social network in itself, of course, and therein lies another of its strengths for the blogger. If someone comes across one of your photos through Flickr and likes the look of it, the chances are that they will click a few links and find their way to your blog. Bingo! Another reader.

Along similar lines when it comes to media sharing are YouTube for video content and SlideShare, which allows you to embed and share PowerPoint presentations.

2. Technorati

Technorati used to be the number one search engine specifically devoted to blogs, but now it has pretty much been overtaken by the Google juggernaut. Having said that, though, it is still a pretty useful service.

Once you have claimed your blog on Technorati, it lets you track who is linking to you, which is both heart-warming and useful. You can assign tags to your blog, which can help people find you. Other things you can do include putting a little badge on your blog, linking people to your Technorati page and encourages them to mark your blog as a favourite. Other people are then alerted to the act of favouritisation, and so they too are aware of your blog.

It’s essentially another service to make your blog more discoverable.  And that’s a good thing.

3. MyBlogLog

MyBlogLog is a service from Yahoo! Which helps you both find out a little more about your readers as well as building a bit of community spirit around your blog. It does a number of things: it tracks where people are coming to your blog from, and where they leave it to; it logs members of MyBlogLog and displays their photos on your blog; and it allows people to join a community page for your blog and have discussions with one another.

It’s a great way of finding out more about your readers, what they are interested in and what topics, or styles of writing, attract are most popular.

4. Del.icio.us

Del.icio.us is a social bookmarking service. Rather than just save sites you see as useful to your browser, it allows you to save them to a publicly viewable website. Like Flickr, you can tag your bookmarks, which will help people to find them.

Del.icio.us also lets you integrate its service with your blog. So, you can have a daily posting of the links you have bookmarked that day to your blog. This is a great way of flagging up stuff you think your readers might find interesting but which you don’t have an awful lot to add to. You can also have a cloud of your popular tags in your sidebar, so folk can access links you have recommended on a certain topic.

You can also make it easier for your readers to add your posts and pages to del.icio.us too, by including links in each one which they can click to be taken straight through to the del.icio.us site. These can also tell you and your visitors exactly how many people have already bookmarked a particular posts, which is another great way of finding out what’s hot on your blog.

5. Twitter

Twitter is a micro-blogging service, which allows you to post updates on what you are up to that are of up to 140 characters. The limit is important because some people used text messages on their mobile phones to both provide their own and receive updates from others.

Twitter can also be used to inform people of when you have made a new posting to your blog, which is another effective way of publicising your content. Twitter regularly features as the top referring site for DavePress, for example – people do follow the links that appear there.

Defining social media & web2.0

Defining Social Media & Web2.0

The diagram (click it for a readable version) above is one I put together a while ago to try and explain what I think the terms social media and web2.0 actually mean, and how the two relate to one another. They are often used interchangably, but I don’t think that it necessarily is the case that they are synonymous.

Social media for me is media made social. That might be obvious, but you have to think what you mean by media. Text is media, photos are media, video is media. Maybe a web bookmarkcan be media, and a presentation file too. How we make that media social is by making it commentable, sharable, editable, embdeddable. By allowing others to interact with the media, we have made it social.

Web2.0, for me, is the means by which we make our media social. The blog make text social, as do wikis. Flickr makes photos social, YouTube does the same for video, and so on. The infrastructure used to enable this is stuff like tagging, RSS, AJAX, mashups and widgets.

I think just about every web2.0 service can be described in this way: Google Docs is word processing and spreadsheets made social, for example. The interesting bit is when it all works well, and that’s the ovallybit in the middle of my diagram – enhanced communication and collaborative, which at its zenith becomes community.

How do you define web2.0 and social media? Does it fit in with mydiagram? Feel free to borrow it, edit it and reuse it.

Social Media Risks

One thing that came out of the recent barcamp for UK government types is that as much as those who really dig this stuff do their best to champion its use wherever possible, it really comes down to how senior managers feel about it.

The issue, of course, is one of risk. Doing anything different is inherently risky, and when that something different is directly engaging with people through an online conversational medium, then it’s even riskier. I don’t think we social media enthusiasts should ignore the fact (and it is, I think, a fact) that there are some really quite persuasive arguments as to why government, or indeed any organisation, shouldn’t go near this stuff.

Shel Holtz has come up with five common reasons why organisations won’t risk social media:

#1 – IT won’t let us

IT doesn’t want to spend the time or money to test social media software on company networks, claiming it can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take up to a year to make sure applications don’t conflict with existing programs. They also resist external hosting, asserting that it puts company data at too much risk. (Makes you wonder how much they care about our 401(k) data, since that’s never housed on internal servers.)

#2 – It will be abused

Employees will say inappropriate things. Customers will complain. Bad language will appear on comments. People will insult management. We’ll end up spending time on issues we don’t really think are important. Care to add to the list?

#3 – Management fears loss of control

The company has invested considerable time, effort, and money to craft a brand image that will be completely destroyed if we open it up to the masses. Besides, transparency is a bad thing and we don’t need our internal workings on display.

#4 – Legal and regulatory risks

Nobody likes a lawsuit. Besides, the Securities and Exchange Commission will the company if an employee inadvertently makes a forward-looking material statement. Pharmaceutical companies fear the FDA’s punitive powers for promotion of unapproved indications while the financial services industry fears fines from the bodies that regulate their activities.

#5 – We don’t have the time or resources

Communicators are already overworked. Where are they supposed to find the time to do all this new stuff? How can they even stay on top of the ever-shifting social media landscape?

These are all valid points, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t convincing counter-arguments, or mitigating actions that can be made to minimise them. In a future post I will cover what we can do to convince people that these are issues that can be overcome.

Creative Connectivity Slides

I spoke last week at Creative Connectivity, a conference being organised by the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Support Centre, which is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee – on the subject of the risks and opportunities presented by Web 2.0 and social media for e-learning providers.

I was surprised by some of the discussions – college staff are really paranoid about things going wrong, perhaps justifiably, I don’t know. But issues were raised that I just hadn’t occurred to me before. Take online adverts, for example, which I have for a long time accepted as a necessary evil for getting access to great free web tools. But what if a college lecturer advises a student to use a certain website, which happens to have adverts for (say) online dating? Apparently, the college could end up getting a kicking from parents.

As with all discussions about risk, though, the key questions are “So what?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?”. Certainly when it comes to issues around personal data, the latter is most pertinent. I mean, what information is likely to be left on a social network by a student that an identity thief could really make use of? And what use would a 16 year old’s identity be, anyway?

Still, I think there is an opportunity here for someone to put together a closed, safe, ad-free social network for schools and colleges.

Here are the slides that I presented, in case they are of use.

If you would like me to come and have a chat at your organisation or event about any element of social media and web 2.0 tools – whether to communicate, collaborate or educate, do get in touch.

A social media software toolkit

Being a blogger is about far more than just words. To that end, you need tools which you feel comfortable with to enable you to create in any number of different media. Here’s some of the software I use to create my blogs and other online content. It would be cool to know what other options are out there, so do let me know what you use in the comments!

  1. Firefox. My window onto the web. Of course, the various plugins I use make Firefox into a better tool for blogging. But that’s for another post…
  2. FeedDemon. My RSS reader of choice. Of course, now it’s free, it should be yours too 😉 Being a desktop based reader, as opposed to web based ones like Google Reader and Bloglines, has a number of advantages – like downloading feed items to read when you are without the web – but to be honest I like it best because I am used to it. How pathetic is that?!
  3. Windows Live Writer. This is a new one for me as I always used to be a BlogJet fan. But I gave the latest version of WLW a try a month or so back and I love it. How come MS can get some stuff, like this, so right – and yet others so badly wrong? Using an offline editor just works better for me that using the inbuilt WordPress online offering. One advantage is that I can write blog posts without an internet connection, like right now when for some reason the connection’s dropped…
  4. Paint.net. A great free image editor. Much easier to use and more stable than the Windows version of the GIMP. Paint.net is easy to use and packed with features.
  5. SnagIt. Lee Hopkins tipped me off to this one and it’s the most recent addition to my toolkit.Snagit is a great little bit of software that makes taking screenshots a doddle. No relying on the PrtSc key any more! Snagit lets you copy just a portion of the screen, or even an entire web page that scrolls a number of screens. You can then use SnagIt to resize, crop and add effects as you see fit without having to fire up another image editor.
  6. FileZilla. A great little open source (free as in speech, as well as beer) FTP client.
  7. Audacity. It’s always cool when an open-source bit of software is also one of the best available, and Audacity is one of those. An audio editor which makes producing podcasts child’s play.
  8. BB Flashback. This lets me produce screencasts – videos of what I am doing on my PC screen. Great for producing demos and tutorials. Not sure if this is the best package on the market – lots of people use Camtasia – but this was more reasonably priced 🙂
  9. Windows Movie Maker. OK, so I need to get some better video editing software 😉
  10. Evernote. A lovely note-taking application. It lets me clip things as I am browsing through the web, whether text or images. Handy for pulling together thoughts for blog posts.

Photo credit: Saffanna