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Connecting the Dots Connecting the Dots

Connecting the Dots

by Adam Richardson

January 14, 2010

How wedding blogs and brides can help us fight terrorism.
design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. Find new posts every Tuesday and Thursday.

In the wake of the failed bombing attempt on the Northwest Airlines Detroit flight, "connecting the dots" is all the rage. How can security agencies do a better job of connecting pieces of data together to head off similar terrorist attacks in the future? Even in small- and medium-sized organizations, corralling, analyzing, and disseminating disparate pieces of information is fiendishly difficult. For a loose affiliation of huge organizations at the governmental level it is much more difficult.

This is the challenge of the discipline known as knowledge management, or KM. In today's information-rich and competitive world it is absolutely vital. But traditional approaches to knowledge management, where databases and wikis allow staff to upload files for others to look at and comment on, rarely live up to expectations. The problem lies in translating information into true knowledge-connecting the dots to create insight out of raw data.

There are some common issues with conventional knowledge management systems. Often relatively few people actually contribute to them, leading to a dearth of content for others to use; people don't know how to search for relevant knowledge contributed by others; and contributors tend to taper off as both contributors and users lose interest.

But if we look outside the walls of business and government we see numerous examples of KM systems that are thriving, active, and highly valuable for contributors and users alike-indeed the line between user and contributor disappears. Blogs and forums are in many ways knowledge management systems. Contrasting how blogs and forums work with traditional KM systems shows why they succeed where KM systems often fail.

1. Audience

In a typical corporate knowledge management situation, the contributor doesn't know who will be making use of their knowledge-will they be in the same discipline, same division, same government? Will they be looking for the big picture or the gory details? Not knowing who the audience is makes it hard to feel an empathic connection that fuels the virtuous cycle of knowledge contribution and usage.

By contrast, in most blogs and forums the audience is well defined by a common interest, whether it's photography, weddings, politics, or healthcare. This immediately gives contributed knowledge a context, helps focus what to talk about, and provides an empathic connection to the readers.

2. Relevance

In corporate knowledge management systems the contributor doesn't know the context in which their knowledge will be used. How does the contributor know what to prioritize from the almost infinite quantity of things they could say? This problem is exacerbated by the unclear audience.

Blogs and forums have much greater relevance, often because the problems for which people provide feedback occur over and over in fairly similar ways. For example, brides gather a tremendous amount of experience and hard-won knowledge when planning their weddings. There is a good chance they will never have to use that knowledge again (at least in an ideal case!). As a result they are often enthusiastic about passing it on so that others can benefit from their experience. The information stays relevant because many brides encounter the same questions and challenges. Sites like OneWed give brides places to share their knowledge in ways that are clearly relevant and immediately useful.

Traditional KM systems are poor at providing feedback about which information has been used, how useful it was, and giving positive reinforcement to contributors that encourages them to keep contributing. By contrast, blogs and forums are all about creating snowball effects of feedback, and facilitating ongoing exchanges of communication that give a sense of community, shared goals and values, and positive reinforcement to encourage continued participation.

3. Anecdotes

Personal anecdotes or "war stories" are also often a key means of sharing knowledge. In The Social Life of Information John Seely Brown and John Hagel looked at how Xerox service engineers (back when Xerox used to send out technicians to fix broken copiers) would share anecdotes about specific copiers in specific buildings, but do it over coffee before the official day started. KM systems should allow people to communicate these stories effectively, and in a manner that isn't extremely time-consuming or requiring great skill?

So much nuance can get lost in the transcription from face-to-face conversation to pre-fabricated form and database. When the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Detroit flight bomber, called the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria with concern that his son was becoming dangerously radical, what kind of official report form did the embassy official have to fill out while he was listening to Mr. Abdulmutallab? Would it have allowed for the "soft" anecdotes that tell about the father's expression, the desperate tone of his voice, or the background stories he told about his son?

Forums and blogs are almost entirely anecdotal. The writer of each anecdote has a clear focus provided by the question being posed by another forum member (e.g. "Yes, my router was hard to set up too because..."), or by the experience they wish to convey ("I found this great caterer..."). There is no attempt to codify or organize the knowledge except in the loosest of manners (tags, forum categories), which often leads to a lot of repetitive questions. (But in fast-moving knowledge areas this is not necessarily a bad thing.)

4. Ongoing value

Will the knowledge contributed even be relevant in the future? In many areas, knowledge has a short shelf life and quickly becomes out of date, so putting a lot of effort into exhaustively capturing it may not make sense, or may feel like pointless work by the contributor. At frog design, we struggle with this constantly as many of the fields we work in evolve rapidly. Research done even 12 to 18 months before is largely useless in the present day.

Wedding planning knowledge is fairly durable and changes slowly, but knowledge about which digital camera or home theater receiver to buy (or which people are emerging as attack risks) changes very rapidly. The "just in time" nature of blogs and forums means that they can fluidly keep up with these changes. The downside is that there is often considerable effort required on the part of the user to put the various pieces of knowledge together in order to arrive at a perspective that works for them.

Where do we go from here?

Can we simply employ a blog and forum approach to our pressing organizational and security needs? Of course not. But the dry, laborious way we have been approaching sharing information is clearly not working, and the lessons from the dynamic world of social information sharing may help us find a better-and safer-way forward.

Image from Flickr user misterbisson (cc)

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Connecting the Dots