Monday, 11 August 2008

Some thoughts on Collaboration, Sharing, Managing knowledge and project management

Over the last six months, I've been experimenting with some of the many tools available on the web that enable groups to share knowledge, collate stories, learn and problem solve. I think we are on the verge of a revolution in how the web can be applied to changing how we work, how we learn and especially how we work and learn together.

The dominant practice in the field of knowledge management over the last decade or two has been the building of databases - libraries of information - which are then made available to staff online in closed networks or intranets. What we know about libraries is that they need librarians (ie dedicated 'knowledge' resources), very detailed and fixed systems (eg index systems), and codified entry, with each item having a fixed form - most books fit on standard library shelving, they have titles, authors and ISBN numbers, not to mention indices. But few organisations have the resources or appetite to create and maintain such systems and resources. Even where they have, encouraged by the major consultancies and the major hardware and software houses (ORACLE, IBM, SAP for example), they have often reported that the expected improvements in productivity have not materialised.
Now lets look at project management. Over the last decade, project management has become a powerful discourse in large organisations and small as they look for tools to manage processes that cross functional management structures. As Tom Peters says, everything now is (and should be) a project.  As with knowledge management, the literature is littered with tales of disappointment  in trying to get people in an organisation to follow the protocols of project management disciplines, completing scoping documents, using planning tools such as microsoft project, and especially, following project closure processes which include documenting learnings so that the knowledge gained is available to others in the organisation, today and in times to come. I know whereof I speak! As a leader in an organisation of some sixty people, I introduced project management processes into our organisation and tried to encourage managers and professionals to adopt them with mixed results. 
So what is the problem? Initially, training was included when new systems were implemented. But that didn't deal with the issue. Over the years, some have argued that the source of the problem is people's resistance to change. So if we can change individuals' and groups attitudes to the changes required to use these tools, then they will work. But is this the wrong way around? Is it rather the tools themselves?

Its interesting to consider the history of the platforms on which these tools have been developed. The first generation of office computers were terminals - they gave access to a central computer, so all information was shared and the tools used were central tools (as still is the case with tools like SAP and Oracle). PCs changed the situation radically. They were individual machines, and not very good at connecting to each other. (Newsrooms in many countries in the world used Macs rather than DOS PCs mainly because they were relatively easy to connect together). In many offices still, the vast majority of data in the organisation actually sits on the drives of the individual PCs. In our organisation I remember how hard it
 was to convince people to use the 'common' drive for filing their documents. The tools that most of us use are also individual - we have our own copies of word, excel, etc sitting on our own machines. The PC represents our own space. Like our own desk. And as with attempts to get people to share space (think hot desking and open plan offices), its proved difficult to get people to share digital space well in the workplace. In fact, the dominant means of moving data between users in most offices is email, which as a protocol is fundementally a private one to one system, rather than a platform for sharing. Incidentally, one of the major challenges in many organisations now is that, for so many users, email has become their main filing system. A use for which email was never conceived and for which it is poorly suited.

But meanwhile, there's three things going on in cyberspace that are interesting and relevant to solving the problems of knowledge and project management. 

The first is the web as a whole... 
As a knowledge management model, you could say its knowledge without the management. There is no structure, no index, no fixed relationships between one piece of knowledge and the next. Of course the other, often raised, point is that much of it (most of it?) may not be knowledge at all. But it has succeeded in one respect where so many knowledge management systems have failed... millions of people contribute trillions of pieces of knowledge,  for free and of their own free will - without having had the benefit of any change management programmes to make them do it. 

The second is the 
phenomenon of social networks. Social networks are in fact structured knowledge management systems. They are run from central servers. In that sense all information is centralised. But they allow a lot of control from the point of view of the individual user. She can determine exactly how much of her information she shares and with whom ('friends', 'groups' etc etc). She can add information to other people's sites on the network. She can choose synchronous and asynchronous means of communicating (this distinction,  with tools like twitter, has become more a continuum.) She also has access to tools that mine data across the network.
The third is the growth of internet applications and especially collaboration  software... 
igoogle,, digg, basecamp, backpackit, wickis, and more. Much of it, though not all, is open source. Much of it, though not all, is free. 

My favourite collaboration tool of the moment is 'basecamp' - a tool produced by a US company, 37 signals. Its a flexible online project collaboration tool that enables workgroups to share information, communicate, and track work with minimal training. 

It's not free but you can achieve much of its functionality by using free tools... see  roll your own office for some useful tips. 

My University school  uses basecamp as the main platform for us to communicate with each other and with our students. I also use it for community projects I am involved in. Having used (much more expensive) corporate project management tools, most of which require a lot of training and a lot of change management to actually get people to use them, I've realised that offering people simple collaboration tools is much more important than trying to force them to obey complex project management (or knowledge management) processes. 

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