Categorising knowledge: beyond phone numbers.

Cody Burke, of Basex, blogged recently on “Overload Stories” about problems caused by the process I might call mechanisation of knowledge. Here’s his scenario:

Your cell phone runs out of battery power, and you need to make a call.  A friend graciously offers to let you use his phone, but as you attempt to make the call you realize that you have no idea what the actual number is of the person you are trying to reach.  Now flash back 15 years and try again.  Odds are you would have had much better luck, because you would have had to memorize that number, instead of relying on the contact list in your phone.

Well I’m not sure. Fifteen years ago you’d certainly have had a handful of numbers you remembered, but the rest of those you wanted to have handy would have been in your address book. If you left that behind, you’d have been in exactly the same trouble. And for wider contacts, I had shelf space for a whole row of phone books.

Burke refers to an academic study testing knowledge retention, discussing and updating the concept of “transactive memory”. If I’ve understood it correctly, this is the way that memory operates when the datum being remembered is connected to a working group or shared task (this isn’t quite the impression I got from Burke’s summary ; if the idea catches your attention, follow the link to the original paper).

ITasITis always goes back to the original sources. Sparrow, Liu and Wegner, writing in Science, define transactive memory thus:

In any long term relationship, a team work environment, or other ongoing group, people typically develop a group or transactive memory [my italics], a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information.

It’s murderously difficult to accurately summarise academic research, but this isn’t quite the impression I got from reading Burke’s summary. What’s interesting is Sparrow et al‘s conclusion: they believe their careful statistically-based investigation provides

preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with Internet access), we are more likely to remember where to find it than we are to remember the details of the item. One could argue that this is an adaptive use of memory – to include the computer and online search engines as an external memory system that can be accessed at will.

Cody Burke is fighting against the concept that we’re becoming internet zombies – as if, somehow, the provision of vast online repository capability removes our human ability to recall. On the contrary, he says: we capitalise on it. There is “a natural (and uniquely) human tendency to learn where information resides and leverage that knowledge to be more effective”.

Or as Sparrow et al put it:

“people forget items they think will be available externally, and remember items they think will not be available … [They] seem better able to remember which computer folder an item has been stored in than the identity of the item itself … We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools … [We] remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found”.

Two comments. When I was a student (we had computers, but not databases) I had a tutor who used to point to a row of folders on his book-case and say “There’s knowledge I know; and knowledge I know where to find”. Raymond Dwek predated Sparrow et al by some 45 years! And there was always, and still is, a third category: knowledge I know how to find. In the manual age this was the difference between referring to a specific article in a learned journal, and working through a whole range of likely sources to check for relevant information. Today, it’s the difference between a categorised index and a relatively unstructured search. I used Google Scholar to find the Sparrow et al article, by the way – I didn’t know where to find it, but I knew how.

Certainly, these days, we shift the content of those categories. Categorisation, whether it’s a database structure, email folders, or keyword search, expands “knowledge I know where to find” by providing new access routes. Search is about “knowledge I know how to find”. We may now not retain so many actual phone numbers in our heads, and may not even recall our own mobile number (after all, we never call our own phone!) but  it’s probably in the address book on our Google account or in iCloud. Information no longer lives in just one place.

And secondly: I don’t speak to a phone number. I speak to a person (or sometimes, to a service). The phone number isn’t information; it’s meta-information (so also, sometimes, is an email address). It’s the means to get to the item you really want, which is the person. And phone numbers were always artificial constructs; we’re gradually doing away with them. On my desk phone, my really-most-frequent contacts are stored by name. On Skype, or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or Facebook, you contact people by their name or some hash of it, or by some identifier they’ve chosen to describe themselves. Not “unable to remember phone numbers”; moving beyond their use!

Human beings are tool-users. In my first IT job I used to teach programming to postgraduate students (and others) and I always emphasised that the computer is a tool; it extends the power of the human brain in the same way that a crane, for example, extends the power of the human arm. We take advantage of new tools and concepts as they arrive; and our modern array of electronic tools are no different. But this research is a good reminder to be aware of how we are developing in our use of these tools, so that those whose responsibility is to develop the tools themselves can effectively support knowledge workers and facilitate their activities.

• Memory in the Age of the Internet – The More Things Change, The More They Remain The Same? Cody Burke, Overload Stories, 21 Jul 2011
• Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D.M., Science, 14 July 2011: 1207745; published online [DOI:10.1126/science.1207745]
Google Effects on Memory: Interview with Betsy Sparrow: Science podcast, 15 Jul 2011
• How sweet to be iCloud, ITasITis, 16 Jun 2011

News International and Analyst Relations

A thoughtful piece by Aditya Chakrabortty in today’s (printed) Guardian newspaper caught my attention because it analyses a feeling I’ve long had about the developing phone hacking scandal. Phone hacking: a classic case of corporate failure? explains succinctly why those at the top may be genuinely ignorant of specific abuses undertaken in their name; but the culture which they engender is nonetheless directly responsible for it. Chakrabortty uses the phrase ethical fade to capture the slide from honest journalism (or policing, or politics) to a culture where results are all that matter and the means are not questioned.

The same edition covers the death of the News of the World reporter who first let the cat out of the bag. A very personal tribute by Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter who pursued the story, shows how ethical fade operates. Sean Hoare was part of it: but recognised, in the end, what was happening.

And a flashback to less than three weeks ago gives a snapshot of the relationship between the various groups now at the heart of the scandal: politics and media together at a Murdoch party.

Charkrabortty’s article widens the discussion. He uses an example from the Ford Motor Company where, rather than recall and fix an identified safety problem with a particular car, they set aside money for lawsuits. They ended up having to do the recall anyway. My own favourite example is the Challenger space disaster: same cause, in that nobody would tell the project leaders what they needed to hear (and this included the inquiry; it was Richard Feynman’s famous minority report which nailed it). We saw it last year in BP, in the Gulf of Mexico, after then-CEO Tony Hayward had told the AGM in so many words that “BP is now a safe company”. Somewhere down the line, the pressure for results drives disastrous mistakes to be made. There’s even a question now whether News Corporation will follow Enron and Lehman down the tubes.

But this is an IT blog. What’s it got to do with us?

The political dimension to the News International crisis is about influence.And about the way people work at influencing the influencers. Well, that activity is a major part of the enterprise IT ecosystem. Unlike some, we don’t hide it: we call it Analyst Relations or AR.

One of the things I learned when managing an enterprise IT insight services portfolio was to look behind the claims of objectivity and independence that all insight services people offer – everyone from Gartner and Forrester to the smaller providers. I remember first encountering AR in the person of an AR professional at a METAmorphosis event (that dates it!): someone who worked for one of the major software companies and whose role, quite openly, was to present that company’s products and strategies in the most positive light. Because the insight companies influence buying decisions, sometimes very strongly: so AR is a crucial element of an IT vendor’s marketing strategy.

As a purchaser, user and advocate of insight services, I needed to know this stuff. You observe that a significant element of the costs of larger and smaller insight events is met by vendors through direct sponsorship, through buying space at the associated expo, by providing speakers, through their attendance fee levels and more. You observe that their Consulting arms do commissioned work for vendors – and in a line of work now where I don’t have a subscription, those reports are valuable sources, but for the providers they’re an income stream. You realise that vendors will try and ensure good outcomes from the lab tests that deliver marketplace assessments such as the well-respected Magic Quadrant, insofar as the process will let them. There’s this whole ecosystem dedicated to influencing the influencers.

Well, by no means am I saying that AR is unethical. In fact, far from it. The point about the current political mess is that we are realising how much has been going on away from the public view. Analyst Relations is an overt process, with colleagues such as Lighthouse and KCG offering training and certification in its activities. No-one pretends it isn’t happening, though I’d guess that a lot of enterprise buyers don’t realise how extensive an activity it is.

But let’s not believe “it couldn’t happen to us” or that we couldn’t undergo ethical fade. In Chakrabortty’s words:

… managers, shareholders and staff [don’t] necessarily set out to do bad things. They simply [get] swept along on a culture of hitting targets – and not asking too many questions.

Feynman, in his context, put it succinctly:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

It’s not just technology where this applies. Reality is hitting the influencing industry now. So read Chakrabortty. Let’s make sure we keep on asking the questions. And for enterprise buyers out there: learn more about your insight provider’s influence ecosystem (InformationSpan has a model for it, if you want to ask!). Read the piece; it’s worth it.

Links (Guardian articles appeared in print 19 July)

• Phone hacking: a classic case of corporate failure? Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• Sean Hoare knew how destructive the News of the World could be, Nick Davies, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• How the phone-hacking scandal unmasked the British power elite, John Harris, Guardian, 18 Jul 2011
• Appendix F – Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle, Richard Feynman, NASA, 1986
Lighthouse Analyst Relations
Knowledge Capital Group

Google+ initial impressions

G-plusSo I now have my Google+ profile up, and found a handful of friends already there. Just from a quick look round, here are some first impressions.

First: the Circles concept is potentially the most useful new idea. Neither LinkedIn nor Facebook allows you to partition your set of contacts in this way. So, for the first time, there’s a place where both professional and personal contacts (and, perhaps, subdivisions of both) can co-exist without all your feeds going willy-nilly to all of them (yes, it has the “friends” and “friends of friends” concept t00).

Second, it offers chat. There’s also an invitation to “hang out” with friends on a webcam; not yet tried, but presumably could be used for things other than “have fun”. Watch out Skype, as my circles expand.

Third, you can “follow” people you don’t know directly and who you don’t include in your circles. Target: Twitter, I assume, as well as LinkedIn.

Oh, and you can “go mobile” – Android is the only native version right now, iOS will be supported, and other phones can get access through the browser.

We’ll see how it goes!

Total Economic Impact: a full case study

Forrester’s Total Economic Impact methodology has been around for some time now; Chip Gliedman and his colleagues must have trained many IT executives in its application, its models, and its succinct elevator business case (“We are doing X to make Y better, as measured by Z, which is worth $N to the company”).

But training, and the examples within the training course, only go so far. A note in one of my regular alerts led me to a full case study, commissioned from Forrester Consulting by Cisco. It’s a valuable read. It’s a fictitious case, of course (“Company A” style), but it goes right through the whole analysis, as well as including a summary of the methodology itself

Cisco wanted to illustrate the case for their “Borderless Networks” technology. I’ve long been a believer in this methodology, not least because it captures opportunity costs and benefits, and puts cash value on risk. So it’s interesting that Cisco chose TEI as the vehicle to make this case.

Read it if:
• you want to know more about TEI than is available in Forrester’s summaries; you have to pay for the training course (or get access through a subscription)
• you know about TEI and want to see how a full evaluation works
• you’re looking at facilitating what Cisco describe as “secure, reliable, and seamless connectivity to any device, [to] any person, and in any location”

You’d need to research the Borderless Networks concept separately; this document is about the business case, and might well be useful independent of Cisco’s own technology.

• Total Economic Impact of Cisco Borderless Networks, Forrester Consulting, November 2010, available through Cisco website (no registration required)
• The Total Economic Impact Methodology: A Foundation For Sound Technology Investments, Chip Gliedman, Forrester Research, 4 Aug 2008 (subscriber access or purchase)
• Borderless Networks, Cisco overview

PS – forward reference, Google’s makeover

Following on from my posting about Google+ (which I’m now subscribed to, thanks to Zachary Reiss-Davies of Forrester, so watch this space …) – you’ve probably also noticed that your personal Google pages have had a makeover.

Read this informative article from TechRepublic for a bit about the whys and wherefores, where Google is going with its apps, and what the connection is to the Google+ development.

• Gmail’s new look: Why did they do it and what’s next? Susan Cline, Tech Republic, 6 Jul 2011

Will Google+ finally turn the search giant social?

Some time ago, when the Web was first emerging as a transformational force for business, the CIO of our company envisaged a tsunami wave that could overwhelm companies who didn’t recognise the impact of the change. Google didn’t exist then. But a year or two later, as the quantity of information available online exploded, the new effectiveness of their search strategies became part of what made the Web usable.

When the telephone was invented, people thought it would be used to broadcast concerts and church services. But this, and every network technology from then on, has been taken over as a medium for social communication. The Web is no different. Yes, search and online commerce and enterprise operations are all there. But social computing is the big one. And somehow Google has never quite made it in that space; think Open Social, the attempt to create a single transferable identity; or Google Wave, aiming to re-invent email. The “place to be” is Facebook (or, in the professional space, LinkedIn) and Google doesn’t have a stake there.

So the fairly muted announcements of Google Plus, this week, have been greeted mainly with a “wait and see” response from commentators and from the press pundits. Partly because, at the moment, Plus is available only on a limited trial released to those same pundits. And partly because the project – apparently codenamed Emerald Sea – is much wider than what’s been released so far. Google are aiming for a slow feed, this time, rather than a razzmatazz announcement.

From the reviews (I haven’t seen the real product) it does look as if Plus has taken some of the Facebook thinking back to first base. It provides an easy ability to organise your network into different “circles” with a clean visual interface (“Drag people to your circles to follow and share”). Jason Hiner, in TechRepublic, picks on this straight away as a vast improvement over both Facebook and Twitter; not all your feeds need go to all your friends, which makes a lot of sense. And some of your Circles can be two way (mutual follow, like Facebook) while others can be one-way (Twitter).

In the longer term, Hiner sees Plus in a different arena to Facebook or Twitter. He reminds us that Google’s goal is about “making the world’s information accessible and useful”, so social information helps search deliver effective results. Hence Plus will not be a “walled garden” like Facebook, but will need to extend across the Web. He sees it operating across everyone else’s websites: not so much a service you “go to” as one that turns up as an overlay on everything you do. You need to read down the review to find this vision, but it’s worth thinking about.

Read the Google Blog post (and perhaps watch its several embedded videos) alongside Hiner’s review. Envisage the possibilities – for business personal interactions as well as personal personal ones. Gartner have a short more formal note out, which (at the moment at least) is accessible to those with guest accounts on But its recommendations are targetted at other providers in this space, not at consumers. There’s more information in the news articles or Google’s own information. But those who are thinking business might want to look at Zachary Reiss-Davis’s discussion thread in the Forrester Community: his take is that “For B2B marketers, I think you should join it, and experiment with it, simply to see what the new tool is, and how you can potentially use it to collaborate with your your peers and colleagues, as its privacy settings (via circles) are extremely well done.”

And just a footnote. This week’s events in UK journalism have reminded us that the tsunami you don’t see coming can wipe out a major brand overnight. What happened to the News of the World is, in those terms, the same as happened to Lehman Brothers. And it doesn’t have to be through malfeasance. Not seeing the way the world is going can have the same effect. Google seems to have seen the social tsunami coming. Will Plus enable them to ride it?

• The Google+ Project, Google
• Introducing the Google+ project: Real-life sharing, rethought for the web, Google Blog, 28 Jun 2011
• Why Google Plus is about to change the Web as we know it, Jason Hiner, Tech Republic, 5 Jul 2011
• Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social, Wired Epicenter, 28 Jun 2011; thanks to Euan Semple for this link
• Experimenting with Google+ personally? Want to? Early thoughts? Zachary Reiss-Davis, Forrester Community, 20 Jun 2011
• Google+ Shows Google Has Learned From Previous Social Networking Efforts, Gartner, 1 Jul 2011 (if this link doesn’t work, search for document reference G00214687)

Notes from the consumer cloud

Catching up after a holiday and a very busy patch, there’s some informative stuff in my inbox which I haven’t had time fully to digest yet but which is worth a mention. I’m hoping some readers might spend time on it and comment, or link to your own posts!

First, Amazon’s Cloud forum in London last month. I registered for this but unfortunately wasn’t able to attend. However, the content’s now up on the Web and there are tracks there for the Cloud newbie, the established developer, and the strategist/architect looking for a guided tour. There are strategic surveys, customer case studies, and discussion of the practical issues like Microsoft licensing (which always comes up). Take a look.

Secondly, the Cloud Leadership Forum hosted by IDC and its parent company IDG. Again, useful strategic material; not all the presentations are on line but some are. A couple of key messages from the opening keynote. First: we move to delivering services, not appplications; I’ve heard this transformation described in exactly these terms from other enterprise IT executives. Secondly: architecture moves beyond the firewall. Leaders have caught on to this; but the challenges of doing it are still leaving others in denial and aiming to host everything in-house (though of course, some sensitive areas will always have to do this). Internal IT, these IDC leaders think, will become brokers for Cloud services. It’s thoroughly disruptive, demanding understanding and exploitation of the public cloud, mobile services, the online social revolution, what they call “big data”, and more. There’s stuff about governance, effectiveness and more. Authoritative, and worth a look.

Then in a related space, another IDC blog note reviews the contribution made by the outgoing US Federal CIO in espousing (not to say pushing) not only cloud, but leverage of employee-owned devices (particularly mobile) and the public application support infrastructure (app stores) that now surrounds them; and for open-ness with data. If US government can do it, what does that say to the reluctant adopters in the enterprise? There’s also Gartner research, at the moment on open access to Guest accounts, under the heading “iPad and Beyond”; there are separate tabs there for “Tablets in Business” and “Enterprise Applications” and featuring Gene Alvarez and Dave Cearley. A chance to catch up on what Gartner are thinking, for those without subscriptions, following their conversion from the anathema position!

• AWS Summit 2011
• Thoughts from the 2011 Cloud Leadership Forum, David Potterton, IDC Financial Insights, 24 Jun 2011
• Cloud Leadership Forum 2011, IDC/IDG Enterprise
• Goodbye to our Nation’s First CIO, Adelaide O’Brien, IDC Government Insights, 16 Jun 2011
• iPad and Beyond, Gartner