I just read this very excited article about the use of wikis and blogs to revolutionise the US intelligence community: SSRN-The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community by D. Andrus. Its giddy praise of Wikipedia amused me (especially as I found it as a linked reference from a Wikipedia article), but it does include a clear exposition of the principles of complexity theory. Dave Snowden at the ISKO event in April discussed complexity theory, and I remember an emphasis on “light touch” control of complex systems. This seems to be an emergent paradigm at the moment. Obvious examples are “shepherded folksonomies”, which seem to be working better than uncontrolled folksonomies (one example is the Records management 2.0 - thanks Danny - another is the occasional tagging suggestions made by the editors of ravelry.com - thanks to Liz for this tip - and even Flickr’s category clusters are an attempt to impose a little bit of order on chaos).
The theme is also cropping up in a number of posts on the future of knowledge management. For example, Should Knowledge Managers look for a new job? emphasises the need to allow individuals to become custodians of their own knowledge stores rather than teaching them to access centralised repositories. This has been bewailed as the end of the Knowledge Manager as a role. I think this fails to understand how difficult “light touch control” actually is in practice. Authoritarianism is big clunky expensive and arguably inefficient, but at least within it people know what they are supposed to do and how to do it. You can learn the rules and follow them. Anarchy is also easy - it might make a big mess and not get you what you want - but nobody has to worry about whether or not they are doing the “right thing”. Applying this to KM, the anarchic system simply lets individuals sink or swim - if they are very skilled in their own area of expertise for example - but hopeless at managing their personal knowledge repositories or accessing information - they will gradually become less effective and productive (presumably ending up losing their job). It may seem like a cheap and easy solution for organisations, but actually the lost productivity (not to mention human potential) has a serious cost. Under complexity theory, the most creative, flexible, and adaptive systems are those on the “edge of chaos”. Keeping a system balanced on a knife-edge is far harder than just letting it stagnate in authoritarianism or fragment into anarchy. Identifying those individuals who aren’t doing so well, figuring out what they need to help them, and making sure that each individual intervention contributes to the improvement of the whole system is actually fantastically complicated and difficult. It requires all sorts of skills ranging from the ability to notice who needs help in the first place, how best to help them on a personal level, and how to leverage technological and social developments to keep everyone moving forward. The Knowledge Manager of the future therefore needs to be more highly skilled, multitalented, and personally adept than ever before. This strikes me as an upskilling and increase in the importance of the role, not a downgrading. The fact that individuals are doing a bit of self-organising as well doesn’t diminish the KM role, it makes it more sophisticated, subtle, and critical.
The Fractal Nature of Knowledge « Not Otherwise Categorized… is Seth Earley’s response to a question about whether we “need more categories” as knowledge becomes more specialised. He points out that “categories are only meaningful given a specific scale” and that the level of abstraction you need depends on the context.
The metaphor of the fractal nature of knowledge strikes me as quite a good one in this respect - a knowledge organisation system should allow you to pan out or zoom in to get different views, but obviously there are practical limits (Borges’s map of the empire that is the same size as the empire itself) so you have to make a selection - in both breadth and depth. Seth Earley notes that “Communities of Practice can coalesce around extremely arcane branches of knowledge” and they could well need a very “fine grain” that no-one else in their organisation would ever use.
He adds that “there is no ’standard’ way of organizing knowledge even for a specific process in a specific industry” and describes the way different organisations (businesses, libraries, universities) have different “knowledge consumers” and therefore different classification needs. He also argues that for businesses to gain maiximum value from their knowledge, they should find the “sweet spot” between chaos and control - allowing people to “self-organise” while contributing to the overall goals of the business.
Battle of Ideas: Privacy is Dead. Long Live Privacy? is a long video but well worth watching (it is divided into sections so doesn’t have to be seen in one go). The description says: “For many of us, divulging intimate details of our private lives via social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook has become the norm. But information and communication technologies have also facilitated surveillance and data gathering by government and big businesses. While in some contexts we seem so ready to give up our privacy, in others we seem increasingly anxious to protect it.”
The debate was hosted by the Institute of Ideas and features six excellent speakers who talk about designing technology so that it doesn’t violate privacy, the social and political debates - or lack thereof - around notions of what is public and what is private, and the effects of social media and new technology.
I found this very interesting as bridging a couple of themes that have been on my mind after hearing a talk by Matthew of 6consulting - a social media monitoring and engagement company. Firstly, the blurring of the lines between private and public in online spaces, which was also raised in relation to the national web archiving initiatives by the British Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF -which I wrote about in October) and secondly the idea that social media are taking over from traditional knowledge management. It has all left me wondering if social media will eat itself. It makes me think of science fiction stories about telepathy driving everyone crazy because actually knowing what people are thinking about you all the time is a nightmare!
I am a frequent user of social and real world networks and am also happy to have an online presence that is a public “performed” persona. However, I also like to have spaces where I can try out new and possibly crazy ideas in the company of friends without worrying that every off the wall idea is going to be preserved for ever more. I don’t want the world to see me “in rehearsal”, so does that mean I shouldn’t use social media spaces to experiment with ideas? If so, I can only try out ideas with the people I am geographically close to, which again seems to undermine part of the wonderful global connectivity of the online space. Closed, private networks, where we invite only people we can trust, get round this, but then you lose the power and appeal of the mass open networks.
So, how does this relate to taxonomies? Jeffrey Rosen talks about surveillance cameras being used as a tool for “classification and exclusion” of people - e.g. you are categorised as a shoplifter, so you are banned from the city centre, which links to Bowker and Star’s work on the politics of catgorisation of people in Sorting Things Out. I think that as knowledge workers, we are perhaps more aware than others of the potential uses and abuses of personal data and so we should be contributing to the debate on what information should be collected, classified, archived, and destroyed.
Lorcan Dempsey’s weblog: Amplification around a tag offers an interesting perspective on vocabulary control. Dempsey’s well-referenced article highlights the power of designating a tag for an event so that blogs, tweets, etc. are consistently labelled - pulling them all together and amplifying their impact. He says: “in a sense, the tag becomes the virtual venue for the event’s digital legacy”.
This “gathering around a flag” in the infosphere strikes me as an interesting example of an intersection between branding, marketing, and knowledge management.
I was drawn to Venkat’s post on the Enterprise 2.0 blog via What Ralph Knows. Venkat suggests that Knowledge Management and Social Media are in conflict, with younger people preferring an anarchic, organic approach to building knowledge repositories, while older people prefer highly planned structures, and Generation X (of which I am one) remain neutral. I’m always a bit suspicious of generational divisions, as there are plenty of older innovators and young reactionaries, but I must admit I take a “best of both worlds” approach - so I conform to my generational stereotype!
I think the “battle” mirrors the taxonomy/folksonomy debate and experts I’ve asked about this suggest that the best way is to find a synergy. It all depends on the context, what is being organised, and what is needed. So social media are obviously great for certain things, but I’d hate to trust the company’s financial records to a bunch of accountants who said - “oh we don’t bother sorting and storing our files - if we need to prove your tax payments we’ll just stick a post on a forum and see if anyone still has the figures….”