Do We Want to Know?

Knowledge Management is everywhere. In discussions, blogs, corporate strategies, individual minds, etc. If one is unaware of or not convinced about the benefits, there is an army of consultants and vendors who can change that. I am a convert without needing any more help.

For evidence, one needs only to look at traditions passed from one generation to the next. The artisan/farmer/xyz made sure that the next generation understood and learnt the sum of their knowledge so that it may be built upon and improved. This was actually necessary for survival. Today, organizations are fighting for survival/success in a way they have probably never fought before. Every asset is being analyzed in order to increase the efficiency of usage. Knowledge is one such asset which is underutilized and can provide significant returns. The question then is, why is knowledge underutilized? To use any asset efficiently, the nature of the asset needs to be understood; the asset transformed to be usable in the manner desired; the asset used in an optimal manner; the asset maintained in a usable/relevant state and measurements of the benefits coming out of this. Let us apply this to knowledge.

The nature of “knowledge” has been well studied and classified and is constantly being refined. Most of the literature I read today relates to the transformation of knowledge into a usable state. Tools to capture explicit knowledge are widely available. There is also good direction on how to start capturing implicit knowledge; direct interaction and collaboration between the haves and have-nots being used to speed up this process. Curation and maintenance of this “library” is also an oft-touched upon topic. But what about the users of this knowledge? When there is a need for context based answers (typically quick problem-solving type things), people do approach other people. However, a large part of the problem is around re-inventing the wheel and re-learning lessons. My experience has shown me that the not built here syndrome continues to exist in this space. Large swathes of the organization (including and specially managers) do not believe that solutions created and lessons learnt by other people apply to them. Their problem is always different. (Code re-use & Service re-use anybody?). What is done to change this attitude will decide the pay-off from any KM strategy. Another issue is training. While internal corporate providers can play a just in time game with knowledge, vendor organizations and service providers need to be on the bleeding edge. They need to prepare people with knowledge in expectation of its use, not after they develop a need.

I have seen multiple organizations repeat mistakes or re-invent things because people do not want to talk to the people with the knowledge. I have also seen different groups at different levels of preparedness with knowledge (within and across organizations) which they know will be needed. Unfortunately, this depends on the attitude of individuals. We need to work on the culture to spread the “correct” version of the attitude.

We know that Po’s father would confide the secret ingredient to him at some point. But, we need the whole organizational kitchen to know it. What can be done to make it happen? Any thoughts from the 9-to-whatevers?

Getting from Data to Decisions

This blog is the outcome of thoughts, discussions and interactions which began with the last two posts on The Velocity of Information Part 1 and Part 2.Given that information needs to flow into the decision matrices and the speed is important, the thought has been dubbed with this title.

The insights obtained from these discussions resulted in the below chain of thought.

  • Data as an end state is of no use. It needs to be converted to a usable format. i.e. Information. This conversion is best done by the people who are close to and understand the data
  • Information as an end state is of no use. It needs to be analyzed and insights created. These creations are motivated from the perspective of  the results. In other words, the analysis and insights need to be drawn (or at least vetted) close to the decision makers
  • Insight as an end state is of no use. It becomes an academic exercise if it does not flow into any decision matrix. Remember, a decision to do nothing is also a decision
  • It is difficult to predict which piece of information will be relevant to which decision a priori. Therefore, the appropriate approach would be to de-couple the information creation and the information use stages. These two stages would then be connected through context

As we increase the velocity, the idea is that decision making will be more effective. The context of the decision will drive what information/insights get into the matrix and the increased velocity will improve the coverage and recency aspects.

So, the question is what does this mean. We need to dig deeper into 3 areas.

1. Information Creation

There are a plethora of tools available for this step comprising the first two layers of the proposed model. The “Business Intelligence” world is exactly about being able to extract information about data sets (which are getting ‘bigger’ all the time). The majority of this world revolves around structured data and structured analysis, but unstructured data analysis is beginning to come into its own at this point. There are strengths and weaknesses in this area which need to be addressed, but there are already several threads on that.

In my mind, the importance here is to ensure that the information extracted is rational. This means accurate, timely and correctly categorized. Categorization relates to defining the context(s) within which a particular piece of information could be useful along with the standard tagging/metadata pieces.

2. Information Delivery

This is also a critical stage of the process. This is represented by the cloud (layer 3) in the previous posts. However, this layer defines the contextual language, provides for connecting the suppliers of information to the buyers of information, is the plumbing in the scheme of things. In essence, it is a marketplace to make decision-making more effective.

3. Insight Creation

At the heart of decision making is converting information to insight represented by layer 4 in the model. This is a process which is completely manual and is often the basis of what people mean when they say “out-of-the-box”. This layer will need to have bright, experienced people who understand the context. But, the quality and coverage of the information coming into this is very important. A missed indicator or a false positive can throw the whole process out of kilter.

Therefore, the ability of these “experts” will be to create the correct contexts. What they need to depend on is the quality of information they get when they send a context into the Information Delivery system or the aforementioned cloud.

It seems to me that it is quite imperative that organizations look at what can be done to improve the velocity of information and make decision making more effective. De-coupling, as above, probably makes for a smoother implementation; technically, as well as organizationally.

However, the opportunity here is not necessarily limited to internal implementations. The power of this can be stretched a little bit. How many data-providers do we have in the world today? Can they improve the offerings by converting to information before they publish? The analytics can be done of their own accord or could be added as per the specification of the client. Further, they could publish the output (non client specific information) to somebody who runs an information mart! The information mart sets up the contextual language and provides fully baked information to clients who need it; the information could be a mix of the clients internal analytics as well as external open market feeds. The possibilities here are extremely intriguing…

So, how many of the 9-to-whatevers would be OK to take a plunge into something like this? Comments? Thoughts?

The Velocity of Information (Part 2)

There have been a few interesting offline discussions on this topic – thanks to those who helped shape the below thoughts.

Here a visual representation of the framework.

The Layers

The Layers

So, what are the thoughts driving the framework at this point?

  • The output desired here is a framework and not a product roadmap. Hence, the thoughts are limited to principles with an attempt towards completeness
  • The solution is not looking at a BI tool. While these tools today (including Big Data tools) are sufficiently advanced, they still represent only the bottom layer of this framework
  • Work should be done as close to the source as possible. Hence the ownership of the data, analysis and accuracy needs to be at the information curation layer. These concerns need to be satisfied before hitting the cloud
  • The two processes of generating the information and using the information for decisions need to be de-coupled. The impact of this will be shown below

If we look at the Analytics layer, we see several disparate data sets. This indicates that we could be creating information within disparate silos. As an example, the operations department could provide the information on production data, the marketing department on sales data; the macro-economic data for the geography and any relevant news tidbits could come from a completely different data set.

The silo generating the information should not limit themselves in knowing who needs the data a priori. Anybody within the organization should be allowed to access the information.

Similarly, the decision curators should not limit themselves to knowing the range of information that they would like as inputs a priori. A context search within the cloud should give them all that is relevant within the context. Then, their function would be to filter what is relevant from the results available. As an example, the decision on a product mix within a particular geography would not necessarily approach the legal department to determine if any new laws are expected. This structure would allow that information to be assimilated automatically. Don’t we all want to increase the serendipity within our organizations?

The basic underlying idea is to increase the velocity of information by getting it to the right place at the right time. This will also improve the return on investment in the creation of information; reduce duplication of datamarts and analysis across silos; improve the speed at which information gets incorporated as well as increase collaboration across the organization.

Do the 9-to-whatevers think that the objectives here are desirable? Do you think that this framework will move us in that direction? The time has now come to start thinking beyond the basics into some level of detail on the layers and the interactions between them. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share?

The Velocity Of Information (Part 1)

Decisions are made everyday. Actually, they are made several times a day by most individuals. This is also true within a corporate setting.

So, what are these decisions based upon? When we talk of taking “informed” decisions, they are typically based on information. Crisis management apart, decisions are typically taken after careful deliberation of the available information. The information may not provide a complete picture, but the more coverage you have, the better the decision.

How does information get to the decision makers? In yesteryear, careful paths were laid down to elicit this information. In a top down approach, the data to be analyzed was identified, the framework for analysis was agreed, and the data flowed from the point of data availability to the point of decision making. In this journey, it was collated, checked, summarized, categorized, sliced and diced, ad nauseum until it reached it’s destination. The time it took to reach the decision maker often made the information irrelevant, or at least resulted in lost opportunity. For information to be useful in decision making, it has to be timely.

Then, the technique advanced. Vast stores of data were made available close to the decision makers. They could apply the frameworks necessary to elicit the information in a more timely manner. However, the volume of data grew resulting in incorrect and irrelevant information being included in the decision. For information to be useful in decision making, it has to be relevant.

Also, in todays world, there are multiple sources of information and multiple decision makers to consume it, making pre-defined flows difficult to identify and implement. The question is what can be done to get relevant information in a timely  manner to the decision makers, even when they might not know they want it. This is what I would like to discuss and build on. My initial thoughts follow…

I am not big on industry jargon, but three things which are big today might contribute to the solution (not necessarily in the way they are understood currently though!). In my proposal, I create four layers. However, a lot of thought needs to be put in to how this will function. Early days yet…

1. The information creation layer represents the “big data” gang. However, this can be decentralized. This layer extracts information based on the data. The rules and frameworks used to extract information are in the hands of those who are closest to the data.

2. The information curation layer. These are the people/systems that validate and categorize the data for accuracy and relevance. eg. eliminating co-incidences and non-causal co-relations.

3. The “cloud” layer. This allows for multi-point to multi-point flow of the information.

4. The “decision maker curation” layer. These are people/systems who subscribe the information from the cloud, establish relationships and curate it for the decision makers.

Will this allow us to increase the Velocity of Information allowing for better quality decisions? What to the 9-to-whatevers think?

Can We Balance Process?

As we troll through history, technical or otherwise, we can clearly see that individual brilliance has dominated the field of development.  It is these individuals who have looked at the world differently, challenged the accepted and made a difference for posterity.  Does this also happen on a smaller scale?   I am personally witness to situations where individual brilliance has made a significant difference in day to day professional life.  Given that my day to day professional life has revolved around internal enterprise software, the examples emanate from the same arena.

However, despite the above observations, we are moving towards a more standardized and process-oriented world.  Will this trend allow for individual brilliance?  Does this framework allow for the flexibility needed to attain the quantum leaps we have seen earlier?  Let us analyze the two extremes here.

What is process and why is it needed?  Process is a defined way to do something.  It preaches a tried and tested way to do things which will lead to the successful execution of what we are trying to do.  In preaching, it provides no flexibility on part of any stakeholder to take a shortcut or do things differently.  It is needed so that all stakeholders only need be aware of their own actions; that they understand the timeline and effort involved to succeed; that they can depend on unknown people to deliver on their needs without having to take any specific action beyond.

Where is individual brilliance needed and when does it produce best results?  When the individual is very much in line with the organizational objectives; when they have the knowledge of what is to be achieved and the expertise on the tools needed to achieve it; when there is complete trust between the individual, organization and the client for whom the problem is being solved.

The above two elements, are fairly opposite in nature.  Process helps with standardization and adoption of best practices.  This reduces waste and results in optimization and increased efficiency.  The quantum leaps achieved  provide the competitive advantage on which company growth is based.  Both of these can be extremely beneficial.  But, how do we use them, individually and in concert?  Some factors to look at:

  • Value of the task: Is the task part of the core competency and gives the organization a competitive advantage?  Or, is it  part of the day to day functioning of an organization and represents friction.  A shade of gray in the middle?
  • Trust in the individuals: What is the quality of the individuals?  Can they provide the brilliance we are looking for?  Are they in line with the organizational aims?  Do they understand the tools being used well enough?  Do they understand the clients and the problem well enough to deliver?
  • Culture of the organization: Does the history of the organization favor process or individuality?  Would it be tough for managers to accept the preaching or would individual freedom be seen as cowboyism?

As the value that can be derived from the task increases, flexibility can be increased given the possible reward.  However, we should ensure that our best, most trusted, most creative people are in position to take advantage of this flexibility.  These people must also be close to the heart of the organization.  The farther they are (eg. outsourced), the less the alignment due to gaps in communication and differences in objectives.  Flexibility must be muted here, until enough investment in reducing these gaps is desirable and possible.  Also, the existing culture of the organization will provide the starting point for the whole exercise of moving to the correct balance.

A few pitfalls and lessons we need to be aware of:

  • Creating a process is not simple.  Not only should the process be efficient, it also needs to provide a value to every stakeholder (not just one or a few).  There is a need to ensure that the process does not become bureaucracy.  The process should also be revisited on regular intervals as well as on receiving feedback.
  • Ensure that the best and most capable individuals are put in position to take advantage of the flexibility.  This will be good for the organization as well as the individuals.  Different individuals flourish differently under process and flexibility.
  • Spend the investment $ on training and engagement differently based on the extent of process or flexibility.  Since the people are different and the objectives are different, the methods cannot be the same by default.
  • Do not go towards any one end too much.  An organization which becomes over-processed will lack the innovation to keep up with the competition.  An organization with too much flexibility is likely to become inefficient without sufficient accountability or governance.

I am sure that there are several gray areas that deserve much greater scrutiny and study.  Leadership here will involve determining the correct ending point for your organization.  Good management will then result in getting the right framework, people, processes and flexibility in place.

So, what do the 9-to-whatevers have to say on this topic?

Manager “Attitude”

What makes a good manager?  What makes a good leader?  These are questions that we often think about as we grow in our professional careers.  How do we find the answers to our quest?

In recent times, this has become big business.  Help,  in the form of self-help books/Gurus and (auto)biographies of those having tasted success have emerged.  These have become mandatory for all professionals.

So what do they show us?  They take snippets out of successful endeavors and provide them to us as life lessons.  We listen/read, imbibe, internalize and then execute; the quick-fix of all quick-fixes; management by blueprint; success at your doorstep.  All we need to do is develop 7 habits, or follow the patterns of Akio Morita, Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch or Steve Jobs.

Does it really help in our daily lives?  I think these resources are extremely useful, both in the content and their variety.  What really decides the answer to the question is what we expect from them and how we handle the life lessons.

There seems to be an extreme confidence crisis, bordering on an inferiority complex in our world today.  People seem to think that everybody else is better at doing what they should, than themselves.  This is what makes us treat the above resources as quick-fixes and a color-by-number guide.  We forget that what got us till that point is who we are.  Actors are really well paid because it is really difficult to be somebody else, somebody other than who we really are, for any length of time.  We all want to be an Akio or anybody else – we are looking do duplicate success, not create it.

What we need to observe is the behavior of people we respect around us.  The most common thread is a comfortable and confident demeanor, at least in my experience.  What this indicates to me is that they are comfortable in what they are.  Trying to be somebody else and achieving the same level of comfort would be something really worth commending for the effort it would take.

By all means, we should study what success looks like.  We should take direction on what has worked historically.  We should listen, read and imbibe.  What I want to say is that before we execute, we should select and adapt.  We should select what works for who we are as a person; we should adapt the lessons to our way of working.  “Be Yourself” should be a starting point to the image we want to project.  Injecting flexibility, enhancing skills, adding to the repertoire, etc is great, but only if we select the right starting point.

So, 9-to-whatevers, please let us pledge to ensure that Steve Jobs’ legacy is about excellence and not his behavior…

We Are in Safe Hands

I often wonder about the future of this country.  In my observation, while we do have stellar leaders, on average our leadership leaves a lot to be desired.  This is true in all fields from politics to sport to corporations.

Today, I had an experience which made me feel much better.  It all began when I was invited to give a talk on leadership to kids in my sons’ school.  The attendees would be about 20 boys and girls recently elected to the highest student positions that the school had to offer.  They would be from grades 5 to 7 – the seniormost in the school.  I was grateful to the school administration for providing me this opportunity.  I began to prepare with full vigor.

I scoured the net for information on leadership programs for kids.  I looked for enticing stories from the childhood of leaders to recite.  I looked for fictional and non-fictional tales which would communicate the ideas.  I was torn about how “adult” to treat them.  After all, I had not had a serious discussion with 10-12 year old children since I was their age.  I had also never held an official position in school and wondered what it felt like to hold one at such an early age.

All of the above work came to nothing.  I did not find a single article/story/game which I considered useful for the exercise.  I had spent a week and a half looking.  Now I had one weekend left.  I was nervous.  I finally decided to go back to the basics – look at what had been most important to me over my career in handling the situation that these “little adults” were facing today.  I came up with some very basic concepts which I decided to elucidate to the group.  I wrote 7 words on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket: Character, Service-orientation, Vision, Communication, People Skills, Bravery and Capability.  I decided that these were the most important characteristics that the students had to develop in order to succeed in the environment they were in – and in that order.

Still being nervous about this, I kept the paper close at hand.  After the initial introductions, I asked the students about who they admired as leaders and why.  I was very surprised at the answers.  The three selected were Barack Obama, Mahatma Gandhi and Franklin D. Roosevelt (no Shahrukh Khan??).  The reasons, to my elation, were very eloquent and encompassed 4 of the points that I had decided to talk about.  What a beginning!

From that point, it became a very interactive session with my job being to ask questions and the students, together, taking us from the point of having good character right through to being successful.  They were very articulate about their individual weaknesses, as well as how eager they were to work on them.  They were able to articulate the issues they were having today, and figure out what they needed to do about them.  It was a very enlightening experience for me; one which I will cherish for some time to come.

So the question is why do I consider us to be in safe hands.  Since children are the leaders of tomorrow, any organization would be lucky to have such students at the helm.  Being so aware of the needs of leadership; of their own abilities and weaknesses; being prepared to work hard to succeed; understanding that being leaders makes their own needs the least important in the group; and having the years of experiences left to hone their skills, I would not like to bet against these people.  A lot of credit, obviously, goes to the school administration for this.  If this school is even slightly representative of what schools in this country are doing today, I can happily say we are in safe hands.

P.S.  Never had to pull that sheet out of my pocket for the points.