More on Storytelling

Picked up the Matrix Reloaded DVD yesterday. Didn’t have time to watch the movie (that’s OK – I’ve seen it already), but I did have time to check out some of the extras. Unfortunately, the quantity of extras leaves something to be desired, but the quality is pretty good.

My favorite is the breakdown of how they prep’ed for and executed the huge (I should say HUGE, since the budget and time required for this one sequence probably rivals most full movies) freeway chase. As with any good story, they talked about what they were trying to do, how they set out about doing it, the challenges along the way and how they overcame those challenges.

What struck me while watching this, though, was the fact that this story was not told in retrospect – as in, “This is what we wanted to do, this is what we did, etc.” – but as the story developed.

If you are familiar with DVDs today, you know that these making of features are pretty much expected, especially for big movies like the Matrix or Lord of the Rings. In the early days of DVD, before this caught on, many of the making ofs were somewhat retrospective. And if you look at new, special-edition releases of older movies, they’ve gone back to create these featurettes because they know that is what people want.

But today, making the making-ofs is as much a part of making the actual movie as any other part, again especially for big movies that are doing things that have never been done. Obviously, some movies don’t lend themselves to a making-of featurette. Romantic comedies, for instance, are enjoyable to watch but very rarely have anything so new and cool in terms of film-making that make a making of worth making (or watching).

And this leads me (finally) to my point(s):

When considering story-telling as a component of your knowledge management or organizational learning strategy, are you looking at it primarily from a retrospective viewpoint (“Wow, this project worked out pretty good, we should tell the story to others so they can learn”) or do you plan to tell the story from the beginning (“Well, we don’t know how this is going to work out, but we’ve never done anything like this before so we should document it as we go so we can share with others”)?

Do you consider the value of the story you are going to tell in terms of uniqueness of the event? In other words, do you bother trying to tell stories of things that have been done before, or do you focus on the new things that can bring value and competitive advantage?

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Knowledge management and organizational learning – part 1

This is going to be a long running, multi-part stream of thought. Just a warning….

When I think of Organizational Learning, I can’t help but start to think of an organization as something, an entity, that can learn. It doesn’t have to be a conscious entity, think of ant colonies. But why not look at it from the context of it being a “conscious” entity?

Acknowledging the risks and short comings of anthropomorphism, I can’t help but look at an organization – say a corporation – in the context of a complex, conscious system such as a person. Once you’ve taken that leap, you can start to consider all sorts of analogies and metaphors for how an organization works.**

To the point: If an organization is a complex, “conscious” entity, then I submit that knowledge management is the sub-conscious of the organization. Individual members, teams, etc within the organization make up the neurons, organs, etc., and knowledge management is what pulls it all together so the “mind-body” connection works.

The obvious example for people is driving a car. How often have you arrived at a destination only to wonder how you got there because you don’t remember the drive?

In an organization, the analogy would be some process, any structured rote process. The ‘know-what’ of the process would be explicit knowledge that each member of the organization acts on, consciously determined by the organization: You do this, they do that, etc. The ‘know-how’ of the process, however, is the tacit knowledge of the organization, something that is embedded in the way the organization works. The organization just does it, with no conscious thought at the organizational level, only action at the ‘neuron’ level.

to be continued…

** It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway): Just because I am looking at an organization as “conscious” for the purposes of this discussion does NOT mean the individual consciousness of the members of this organization is unimportant. If you stick around long enough in the discussion, I hope to get around to how to keep all that in mind to help an organization do what’s best for the organization as a whole and for the individual members of that organization.

Personal mastery

I really don’t like washing cars. I like having a clean car, but get no joy out of the process of getting to clean, so I usually go to a car wash.* For my wife’s birthday not too long ago, I got her car professionally detailed to make it look like new.

Those guys spent all day on the thing (it is a fairly large SUV), I don’t know how they do it. But at the end of the day, when I was there to pick up the car, they weren’t quite finished and I had a chance to talk to the guys a bit.

Turns out there is a lot more to “car washing” than meets the eye at first glance. There are different types of materials to use for washing and drying, the various different compounds and waxes and detergents for different types of finishes and types of dirt. And that is just the OUTSIDE of the car.

I guess my point is that any job, no matter how ‘trivial’ it may look to someone not involved in it, has a lot involved. Encouraging and making use of an individual’s personal mastery in these areas can only help your company and the individuals improve (whatever that means to you.)

* The car care industry is much bigger than I ever thought, check out Car Car Central.

Intranets must support several different types of users

When looking at how you are going to design your intranet, a key thing to remember is that you have several different types of users of the intranet, and what works well for one of them may not necessarily be appropriate for the others.

The two main types of users of an intranet are producers and consumers. Common sense tells us that the design should be optimized for consumers of information, but obviously you want to make it as easy as possible for producers to publish their information as well.

Otherwise, you end up with something like e-mail: it looks good in the short (very short) term, but causes serious big-picture, long-term issues.

Every team needs a coach

We all take for granted the fact that professional sports teams have coaches (a whole bunch of them, as a matter of fact). Coaches help individuals perfect their own skills and, more importantly, help individuals work together as a team to achieve the common goals of the team. In many cases, this means that the needs and desires of individuals are secondary to achieving the goals, because if the team achieves it goals all members of the team will benefit. On the other hand, if the team fails, so do the individuals no matter their own individual achievements. (In other words, it doesn’t matter how good an individual football player is – if the team isn’t good that player will never get to the Super Bowl.)

The need for coaches isn’t limited to professional sports teams. Every professional team, which includes a wide range of organizations and groups, could benefit from a coach. Seems simple enough, but then comes the issue of figuring out who is the coach.

  • Who should be the coach?
  • Should it be someone from the team?
  • If so, it will probably be the team leader?
  • If not, should it be a consultant of some kind?
  • Or what?

When you look at coaches on sports teams, they are usually not a “member of the team”, IOW someone actively involved in “playing” the game. Of course, they are “playing”, just not on the field.

Look at the “team” you are on at work. Is everyone actively involved in “playing” the game that is your work? Is your team leader more of a team captain (kind of the quarterback) or is your team leader more of a coach (sitting on the sidelines and keeping you going in the right direction)?

Do you think a coach could help your team?

10 Best Intranets of 2003 (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox)

A list of this years winners and the critieria used to select the 10 Best Intranets of 2003 (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox). As important, or more important depending on your perspective, Nielsen discusses trends of intranet design and where things are going.

Of course, you can also purchase a detailed report of Intranet usability guidelines, etc.

Good stuff.

The entropy of daily living

When did people stop taking shopping carts back? When did they stop driving in the right lane except to pass? More importantly, WHY did they stop? As the title of this post implies, I think it is simple entropy.

Here’s my reasoning:

  • In the beginning of any man-made system there is, almost by definition, order imposed on the system.

  • At first, this order remains intact, much as if their is an external force keeping things together.

  • As the system becomes commonplace and grows, there is not enough energy in the system to keep it orderly.

  • The system degenerates into, effectively, chaos. You have some pockets of order, but for the most part you have a system at equilibrium, where each piece just does its own thing.

Very simplistic, but makes sense (to me). The same type of reasoning can be applied to just about any social system (and I’m sure someone somewhere has done that before I ever thought of this), especially in the corporate environment. In your change management planning, don’t forget to consider the inevitable effects of entropy.

Do what? Make the interface more difficult – on purpose?!?

Everything I can remember ever hearing about interface design has included, at one point or another, the basic rule, “Keep it simple.” And yet Craig Standing and Stephen Benson from the School of Management Information Systems at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, argue that there are some times when “complex, less easy to use interfaces will tend to produce better results.”

In their paper Irradiating intranet knowledge: the role of the interface published in Volume 4 Issue 3 of the Journal of Knowledge Management, Standing and Benson propose a view of knowledge that includes both internal and external aspects of knowledge. As anyone familiar with the field of Knowledge Management is aware, the first (and probably biggest) hurdle you have to jump to get into the field is answering the question, “What is knowledge?” As the authors describe in detail (and I simplify here), knowledge can be broadly characterized into two types: knowledge that can be “externalized”, or made explicit; and knowledge that is “internalized”, or tacit.

Knowledge that can be externalized lends itself very well to an easy interface, since all you are trying to do is find that knowledge so you can make use of it. Internal knowledge, on the other hand, comes from the process of figuring things out, and there is very rarely an “easy” (i.e., standardized) way to go about this.

To use a sports analogy, consider rock climbing. The very basic skill/ability that is required is incredible upper body strength. A simple measure of this strength is your ability to do pull-ups, and doing a lot of pullups is a very good – and simple – way to get this strength. But just because you can do a lot of pull-ups doesn’t mean you are, or ever will be, a good rock climber. Climbing on uneven, unknown rock is much more difficult than simply doing pull-ups. Where pull-ups are rote exercises (very little thought required, you just do it), climbing involves a lot of thought. Do I use this hand or this hand? Do I move my legs now or later? Should I go right or left? etc etc etc.

If you want to learn how to rock climb, you have to just go out and climb. Or, if you make the training “interface” challenging (i.e., “less easy to use”) enough, you will learn what you need to know so you can go out and effectively apply the knowledge – tacit, internal knowledge – that you have developed.

Traffic Signal Math

The other day, for some reason (maybe because I was sitting at a traffic signal, or rather quite a distance back from a traffic signal), I remembered that I had written a paper in high school about the way traffic behaves at a traffic signal. I’m sure it was written as part of an English class, but that is about the extent of what I can recall about it. This got me thinking, “If I were to write a paper today about traffic behavior at a traffic signals….?” So (you guessed it), I wrote one.


Sitting at traffic signal the other day, I was about 15 cars back from the signal. I was at the top of a hill looking down on the line in front of me, so had pretty good visibility of what was happening. As I’m sure we all have at one time or another, I noticed that the light would turn green, a few cars would go through, then the light would turn red again, all before the cars directly in front of me ever began moving. After seeing this happen a couple of times, I started thinking about why this happens.

Remembering from my youth (and some quick Googling) that a perfect reaction time off the line for drag racers is .500 seconds, and figuring in a bunch of other considerations, I thought I might be able to figure it out.

Obviously, if everyone in line at the light were to react to the light changing from red to green at the same time, all the cars in the line would start moving at the same time. Since I’ve never seen all the cars in a line start moving at the same time, I am going with the assumption that drivers at a traffic signal will, in general, react not to the changing of the traffic signal itself but to the reaction of the car immediately in front of them.

I did a (very unscientific) survey of response times at the neighborhood traffic light and found that response times vary from just over a second (for the guy sitting there watching the cross traffic light go from yellow to red) to about 4 seconds (for the cigarette smoking, coffee drinking, cell phone talking general menace). For ease of use, I’ll use an average of a 2.5 second reaction time.

Once you have the average reaction time, simple multiplication will tell you how long it will be before you start moving. So being 15 cars back, it would take about 37 seconds from the time the light changes to the time I start moving. If the light only stays on for 30 seconds, you won’t even begin moving until 7 seconds after the light changes back to red.

I’ll leave it to you figure out, based on this and a little bit more info you’ll have to gather for yourself, how many cars will actually get through the light.

Storytelling at its best…

I recently picked up and watched (a couple of parts several times) Neil Peart – A Work In Progress on DVD. If you are not familiar with Neil Peart (Google search results), he is the drummer for the band Rush. If you’re not familiar with the band Rush, they’re…. Well, if you are not familiar with them then shame on you.

Anyway, I had just heard a presentation on the value of storytelling as a component of an effective knowledge management system last week, and as I watched A Work In Progress my thoughts kept going back to something like, “If the stories they told at the office were this good, and this entertaining, everyone would jump right on the storytelling bandwagon!”

At its heart, A Work In Progress is a drumming lesson from the “professor of the drum kit,” but if that was all it would not be that different from any other How-To video you can get at the local music shop. Basically, the DVD is the authorized biography of how Peart created and performed the drum parts for the band’s Test For Echo CD. (It is worth noting here that in addition to being the band’s drummer, Peart writes all the lyrics for the band’s songs. This DVD, however, does not really talk about the lyric writing for the album.) At the beginning of the story, Peart talks a little about the overall background of the album, the process the band follows to put songs together, etc.

The remainder of the DVD goes song by song with Peart explaining how he came up with the various rythms and ideas he used, occasionally playing a little snippet to show what he means. Then he performs each song, with all the non-drum parts playing from tape (or whatever) and him playing the drum part.

The best kind of story: Here’s what I wanted to do, how I went about doing it, and the final product.

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