Data & Information Design

Information DesignI’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to find Giorgi Lupi. Fortunately, serendipity came to my aid and I stumbled across her almost by accident. And what a find! Anyone who does anything with data and information should read her postings, starting with this one: https://medium.com/@giorgialupi/data-humanism-the-revolution-will-be-visual…

I’ve picked out a few nuggets:

Embrace complexity. What made cheap marketing infographics so popular is probably their biggest contradiction: the false claim that a couple of pictograms and a few big numbers have the innate power to “simplify complexity.”

One size does not fit all. Business intelligence tools and dataviz tools for marketers have led many to believe that the ideal way to make sense of information is to load data into a tool, pick from among a list of suggested out-of-the-box charts, and get the job done in a couple of clicks. This common approach is actually nothing more than blindly throwing technology at the problem, sometimes without spending enough time framing the question that triggered the exploration in the first place. This often leads to results that are not only practically useless, but also deeply wrong, because prepackaged solutions are rarely able to frame problems that are difficult to define, let alone solve.

Sketching with data?…in a way, removing technology from the equation before bringing it back to finalize the design with digital tools ?introduces novel ways of thinking, and leads to designs that are uniquely customized for the specific type of data problems we are working with.

What a refreshing perspective on data and information design. It’s a fairly long article – about a 10-minute read, but well worth it, in fact worth reading at least twice because there’s so many insightful ideas here. If there’s an underlying message here, it’s that that we should devote the time to enhancing our human knowledge and skills for understanding complexity, and not relying on technology to do it all for us.

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Organisational Knowledge in a Machine Intelligence era

Artificial Intelligence

A preamble to the KIN Winter Workshop 2016, 7th December 2016.

According to Narrative Science, 62 per cent of organisations will be using Artificial Intelligence (AI) by 2018.

If you asked most people when they last encountered something that used artificial intelligence, they’d probably conjure up a mental image of robots, and might be hard pressed to think of something in everyday use. Machine intelligence and machine learning – the new synonyms for “artificial intelligence” – are on the rise and are going to be pervasive. Anyone using a smartphone is already using some sort of machine intelligence with Google Now’s suggestions, Siri’s voice recognition, or Windows Cortana personal assistant. We don’t call these “artificial intelligence”, because it’s a term that alarms some people and has earned some ridicule down the years. But it doesn’t matter what you call it; the ability to get computers to infer information that they aren’t directly supplied with, and to act on it, is already here.

But what does all this mean in a practical sense? Can – or should we –  rely on intelligent machines to do the heavy (physical and cognitive) lifting for us, and if so, what does the future hold for knowledge and information professionals?

The rise of the chatbot

It’s taken about 10 years, but social media has finally been accepted as a business tool, rather than just a means for people to waste time. If you look at any contemporary enterprise collaboration system, you’ll find social media features borrowed from Facebook or Twitter embedded into the functionality. Organisations have (finally) learnt that the goal of social technology within the workplace is not simply to maximize engagement or to facilitate collaboration, but rather to support work activities without getting in the way. Having said that, we still can’t extract ourselves from email as the primary tool for doing business. Email is dead, long live email!

Some progress then. But technology never stands still, and there’s more disruption on the way, led as usual by the consumer society. Early in 2016, we saw the introduction of the first wave of artificial intelligence technology in the form of chatbots and virtual assistants. This is being heralded as a new era in technology that some analysts have referred to as the “conversation interface”. It’s an interface that won’t require a screen or a mouse to use. There will be no need to click, swipe or type. This is an era when a screen for a device will be considered antiquated, and we won’t have to struggle with UX design. This interface will be completely conversational, and those conversations will be indistinguishable from the conversations we have with work colleagues, friends and family.

Virtual Assistants are personalised cross-platform devices that work with third-party services to respond instantly to users requests which could include online searching, purchasing, monitoring and controlling connected devices and facilitating professional tasks and interactions.

Will it be another 10 years before we see this technology accepted as a business tool? I think not, because the benefits are so apparent.  For example, given the choice of convenience and accessibility, would we still use email to get things done, or would we have a real-time conversation? Rather than force workers to stop what they’re doing and open a new application, chatbots and virtual assistants inject themselves into the places where people are already communicating. Instead of switching from a spreadsheet to bring up a calendar, the worker can schedule a meeting without disrupting the flow of their current conversations.

Companies like Amazon and Google are already exploring these technologies in the consumer space, with the Amazon Echo and Google Home products; these are screenless devices that connect to Wi-Fi and then carry out services.  This seamless experience puts services in reach of the many people who wouldn’t bother to visit an App Store, or would have difficulty in using a screen and keyboard, such as the visually impaired.

We’ll be looking at some examples of how chatbots and virtual assistants are being used to streamline business processes and interface with customers at the workshop.

Machine Learning

It is worth clarifying here what we normally mean by learning in AI: a machine learns when it changes its behaviour based on experience. It sounds almost human-like, but in reality the process is quite mechanical. Machine learning began to gain traction when the concept of data mining took off in the 1990’s. Data mining uses algorithms to look for patterns in a given set of information. Machine learning does the same thing, but then goes one step further – it changes its program’s behaviour based on what it learns.

One application of machine learning that has become very popular is image recognition. These applications first must be trained – in other words, humans have to look at a bunch of pictures and tell the system what is in the picture. After thousands and thousands of repetitions, the software learns which patterns of pixels are generally associated with dogs, cats, flowers, trees, etc., and it can make a pretty good guess about the content of images.

This approach has delivered language translation, handwriting recognition, face recognition and more. Contrary to the assumptions of early research into AI, we don’t need to precisely describe a feature of intelligence for a machine to simulate it.

Thanks to machine learning and the availability of vast data sets, AI has finally been able to produce usable vision, speech, translation and question-answering systems. Integrated into larger systems, those can power products and services ranging from Siri and Amazon to the Google car.

The interesting – or worrying, dependent on your perspective – aspect of machine learning, is that we don’t know precisely how the machine arrives at any particular solution. Can we trust the algorithms that the machine has developed for itself? There is so much that can affect accuracy, e.g. data quality, interpretation and biased data. This is just one facet of a broader discussion we will be exploring at the KIN Winter Workshop, and specifically those deployments of machine learning for decision making and decision support.

Jobs and Skills

The one issue that gets most people agitated about AI is the impact on jobs and skills. A recent survey by Deloitte suggested 35% of UK jobs would be affected by automation over the next two decades. However, many counter this by saying the idea is to free up people’s time to take on more customer-focused, complex roles that cannot be done by machines.

I think this video from McKinsey puts the arguments into perspective by differentiating between activities and jobs. Machines have a proven track record of being able to automate repetitive, rule driven or routine tasks. That’s not the same as replacing jobs, where routine processes are only part of a wider job function.  According to McKinsey, taking a cross section of all jobs, 45% of activities can be automated, and we’re not just talking about predominantly manual labour. They go on to say that up to a third of a CEO’s time could be automated.

Other research by the Pew Research Centre has said 53% of experts think that AI will actually create more jobs.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is what knowledge and skills do we need to develop now in order to make the most of this technology revolution happening around us and ensure we remain relevant. If organisations don’t find out more about these technologies and how they can be used to improve efficiency or productivity, they can be sure their competitors are!

If you haven’t yet registered for the KIN Winter Workshop (KIN Member’s Link) – “Knowledge Organisation in the ‘Machine Intelligence’ era, do so soon! If you’re not currently being affected by AI technology, you soon will be. Make sure you’re ready!

Steve Dale
KIN Facilitator

 

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Connecting Knowledge Communities: Approaches to Professional Development

Continuing Professional Development
Learning Concept

From the NetIKX website, details of the next NetIKX Seminar on 21st September.

A year ago, NetIKX, with the cooperation of a number of other organisations in the field of knowledge and information management, ran a meeting called “Connecting Knowledge Communities”, at which representatives of a number of professional membership  organisations, including NetIKX , talked about their membership, their focus and their mode of operation.

The organisations were: Henley Forum for Organisational Learning & Knowledge Strategies, the Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN), IRMS (the Information and Records Management Society), ISKO UK (the UK Chapter of the International Society for Knowledge Organization) and KIDMM (the Knowledge, Information, Data and Metadata Management online forum).

The forthcoming NetIKX seminar (21st September 2016) is intended to take that relationship one stage further by examining an area that is likely to be of interest to all these groups. Speakers will be Luke Stevens-Burke from CILIP, who will talk about CPD at CILIP and the PKSB (Professional Knowledge and Skills Base), and Christopher Reeves and Karen Thwaites from the Department for Education, who will also talk about CPD, particularly focusing on the new Government KIM framework and how it was produced.

Further details in the attached flier (PDF). Go to the NetIKX  website to register for the event.

Connecting Knowledge Communities: Approaches To Professional Development

 

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Connecting Knowledge Communities

Knowledge Communities

The forthcoming NetIKX event “Connecting Knowledge Communities“, scheduled for Wednesday 23rd September, is shaping up to be one of those ‘must attend’ events for anyone who is confused (or bemused) at the plethora of different groups and communities dedicated to the support of knowledge and information professionals.

To quote an abstract from the event promotion:

If you want to consider how membership organisations work and gather ideas and tips for your personal networking, this will be a good meeting to attend. You may also get information (and possibly knowledge) about the organisations that are concerned with knowledge and information!

It does appear to be something of a paradox that on the one hand knowledge professionals eulogise and promote the benefits of knowledge sharing, and on the other hand fragment into multiple organisational domains that – for a variety of reasons – operate more or less independently and with little opportunities for inter-organisation collaboration.  We tend to overcome some of these problems by joining multiple membership organisations in the hope that our personal knowledge integration will act as the ‘sum of the parts’. However, we can’t hope to join them all, and we’ve probably found that each organisation has a particular (and possibly unique) focus.

Currently appearing (in no particular order) are:

See  NetIKX75 – Connecting Knowledge Communities (PDF File) for further details of which organisations are appearing.

So, here then is an event which brings some of the organisations in the “knowledge” landscape together, in one place and at one time. An opportunity to learn about the different KM/IM communities, what they do and what they offer. Perhaps also an opportunity for reflection on our own professional development and the direction we want to travel.  Not least, it will be an opportunity to meet new people, to grow our personal networks, and to become better informed about the different professional communities and what they offer.

Can you really afford to miss this event? If not, register your attendance on the NetIKX website – soon, there is a limit dictated by the room size. I’ll be there!

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Content Curation Needs Humans After All!

Man and MachineAs I ponder my forthcoming session on the topic of “Content Curation” at the CILIP Conference in Liverpool this Friday 3rd July, I’m aware that the slides I was asked to prepare and submit to the organisers last month are already out of date. Unsurprising I guess given the rapidly changing business environment that underpins this discipline.  My notes did include mention of the emergent growth of fully automated content curation tools and platforms, and the inherent problems (as I see them) in thinking that technology alone will help us to make sense of the relentless streams of raw, unfiltered, context-free, data and information that pervades our senses during our working days.

I was therefore both surprised and encouraged by the recent announcements, coming hot off the heels from the likes of Facebook, Apple, Twitter, Google and Yahoo! that humans are in fact better than machines for sense-making and finding relevance. Facebook has announced a return to what Chris Cox, its chief product officer, calls “the qualitative”. This is an acknowledgement that real artificial intelligence needs humans at both ends of the input-output spectrum.

Facebook has hired several hundred people to rate the content that appears on its users’ news feeds. The music services offered by Apple and Google now offer their customers playlists assembled by human beings. Apple is also hiring a team of editors to work on the Apple News app unveiled during the company’s recent WWDC event, before the app’s launch as part of its iOS 9 software later in the year.

Twitter announced details of “Project Lightening”, which will provide collections of tweets curated from key events and trending discussions. They are recruiting a new team of editors who will use data tools to comb through events and recognise emerging trends, and pluck the best content for republishing from the ocean of updates flowing across Twitter’s servers.

So what does all of this tell us? I think it’s the dawning realisation that algorithmic systems (including AI) are not sufficiently advanced (and will they ever be?) to be able to understand the realities of modern life, its politics, its rapidly changing cliques, boundaries, rules and religions. The basic qualities of thought and reflection still elude the logic gates of even the smartest computers.

Though I started this post with a concern that maybe my month-old slides were out of date, on reflection they’re not. Maybe they don’t include incisive commentary about the latest updates from Apple, Facebook etc., but my session does focus significantly on the human elements of content curation, and the need for us to develop the disciplines, skills and competencies to be able to make sense of the world we live in.

Content Curation is done by people— information professionals, editors, writers, me, and perhaps you. It is NOT performed by tools, algorithms, robots or software.  When we curate content we can use these things to help us through the process of content curation, but we can’t rely on these things fully.

It’s a difficult job, but one which is in increasing demand by businesses the world over – as evidence from the likes of Apple and Facebook are demonstrating.

 

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Wider Horizons For Information Audit

HorizonIt’s a paradox of our time that the more information that organisations create or consume, the less they understand it. Specifically, most organisations don’t know what information they’ve got, where it came from, where it is stored, who owns it, how good it is (in terms of accuracy and relevance), and perhaps most importantly, what value it may have, if any. More often than not it’s only when there has been an unauthorised leakage of information, or when wrong information has been published that “management” sit up and take notice. In today’s litigious society, such mistakes can be expensive (just ask the BBC, in relation to the Jimmy Savile saga, or Rotherham Borough Council as a result of the child grooming scandal).

It is perhaps timely, therefore, to revisit some well established information management practices that address this particular facet of information governance, namely the Information Audit.

Pause here for a definition of which there are a number:

From a business point of view, an Information Audit might be the…..

“Analysis and evaluation of an organization’s information system (manual and/or computerised) to detect and rectify blockages, duplication, and leakage of information. The objectives of the audit are to improve accuracy, relevance, security and timeliness of the recorded information.”

(Source: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/information-audit.html#ixzz3GVqKkkAu)

Another definition for Information Audit, established by the Aslib IRM Network in London, has won acceptance by information professionals, information scientists and the academic community, and states that:

“The Information Audit is a systematic examination of information use, resources and flows, with a verification by reference to both people and existing documents, in order to establish the extent to which they are contributing to an organisation’s objectives”.

As part of its mission to encourage learning and sharing of good/best practice amongst knowledge and information professionals, NetIKX is running a seminar on 4th November on the topic “Wider Horizons For Information Audit”.

Sue Henczel, an internationally renowned expert on Information Audit, with support from Graham Robertson (Bracken Associates), will present and lead discussions on the evolution of the information audit process, the various ways that it is now being used within organisations and how this evolution of information audit aligns with the changes that are occurring within both the information profession and the broader business information management environment. A number of case studies will describe how the IA process has recently been used in Australia.

The intended learning outcomes of this NetIKX seminar are:

  • Recognising the current evolution of the information audit;
  • Accepting information audit as an enterprise information management tool; and
  • Understanding the alignment between the evolution of the information audit process and the information management profession.

More details and a booking form are available from the NetIKX website. The event is free to NetIKX members.

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Content Curation Primer

The Internet is a wonderful invention. We can find out almost anything we need to know, from cures for rashes to what’s on at the local cinema to the recipe for chocolate cake. We’ve come to expect that whatever we need to know, someone somewhere will have made it available on the Internet. Better still, with the revolution in mobile technology, we have access to this information more or less at any time, any place and on any device. We are truly an information-driven society, where news reaches us within an instant of it happening, anywhere in the world. We know what our friends are doing, where they are, and quite often – what they’ve just had to eat!

We’re also pretty adept at buying stuff online. Need a new TV? A quick search will give us many thousands of options. We can drill down to specific stores, do price comparisons and be swamped with options and technical specifications. No shortage of information there.

It should probably come as no surprise that information volume is now doubling every 11 hours [Source IBM], or that every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003 [Source: Eric Schmidt], and I’m guessing that most people will have seen the (in)famous infographic showing what happens in an ‘Internet Minute’ – reproduced below.

What happens in an internet minute

An Internet Minute - click to enlarge
An Internet Minute – click to enlarge

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Source: Intel]

So where is all of this leading?

To quote from IBM’s “The Toxic Terabyte”:

Knowledge is power – but only if it can be extracted quickly and effciently from an ever-growing mass of data. Businesses and other organisations now see their information stocks snowballing beyond their ability to manage them and beginning to work against the health of the enterprise by damaging effciency and bottom lines.

The stock answer to the data pile-up is more cheap storage and lots of it. But reflexively pumping everything and anything into an apparently limitless reservoir hurts the organisation in three ways:

  1. It becomes harder and harder to retrieve information promptly

  2. More people are needed to manage increasingly chaotic data dumps

  3. Networks and application performance are slowed by excess traffic as users search and search again for the material they need.

As we struggle to manage the Internet fire-hose, it has probably already occurred to many people that more information is not the same as ‘better’ information; that the volume of information is working on some sort of inverse relationship to ‘relevant’ information, and that having millions of choices and options hinders rather than helps us make the right decisions.

It seems obvious that with this proliferation of data and information we are in increasing need of systems to sort, maintain and re-purpose digital content in a systematic manner. For a while now we’ve been making do with search as a primary means of sifting through the pile. But search is only really good for “fast-food” information; getting you the answers quick and dirty, without much thought for context or quality. If you want quality information, then you need to go via a content curator.

The role of the curator has been valued for centuries, but it has been traditionally associated with the professionals who practice their art in the confines of the world’s museums and galleries. To suggest that digital curators all bring the same depth and breadth of knowledge as a professional curator might be stretching a point. But there are more similarities than differences. Curation is all about creating value from collections – which can be physical things such as art exhibitions or museum artifacts; or digital content, such disc jockey music mixes, website reviews of best TV buys, or a collection of the best educational videos. Curators know that the sum of an experience can be greater than the individual parts. And you don’t always have to be an expert to tell a decent story.

Digital content curation is becoming an increasingly valuable skill. Applying expert knowledge to a broad information domain in order to filter out the noise and identify useful and relevant information, possibly adding knowledgeable insight to the information to create added value, is all part of the role of the accomplished content curator. These emergent skills are increasingly in demand by information consumers (and especially managers and executives) who are drowning in a sea of information and want up-to-date, relevant, decision-ready information, delivered quickly enough for them to make use of it.

The knowledge and skills that underpin the content curation role would – it seems to me – be consistent with those of traditional “Information Professionals”, e.g. Knowledge and Information Managers, Community Managers, Data Analysts, Librarians etc., though they may not recognise this themselves. The problem of information overload can be addressed by good information management practice. For example: use of filters, advanced search techniques, categorisation, tagging, use of taxonomies and ontologies – bread and butter to most information professionals. The added dimension for effective curation is the interpretation of the information, adding meaning and insight to curated content, summarising key points, or providing a narrative or story to connect the pieces.

This, then is the essence of a series of courses on Content Curation that I’m running this year, specifically aimed at and for “Information Professionals”. The first course is scheduled for 20th June and has the following key objectives:

  • Be able to use powerful search techniques and aggregation tools to find and filter relevant information.
  • Know how to use taxonomies, folksonomies and tagging to manage and organise information and develop techniques to identify and validate trusted information sources.
  • Understand how to personalise appropriate content curation tools and services.
  • Publish curated content relevant to your chosen domains of expertise.
  • Be able to deliver decision-ready information to users, customers and stakeholders in order to demonstrate your value to your organisation.

Book now if this something that appeals to your personal development plan, or if it’s something that your organisation could benefit from.

If you’re still not sure what “Content Curation” actually means, check out the brief presentation below.

To conclude with one quote: “It’s not information overload; it’s filter failure” Clay Shirky.

And a recommended read about use of personal filters: Filtering – from Information Deluge to Context with JP Rangaswami

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Making The Most Of Online Information 2013

The countdown to this year’s Online Information Conference has begun, and with an anticipated 400 delegates from over 35 countries, and a line-up if internationally renowned keynote speakers, it promises to maintain the benchmark it has set for itself in becoming the year’s premier event for information professionals.

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The countdown to this year’s Online Information Conference has begun, and with an anticipated 400 delegates from over 35 countries, and a line-up of internationally renowned keynote speakers, it promises to maintain the benchmark it has set for itself in becoming the year’s premier event for information professionals.

The event runs for two days on 19th and 20th November at the Victoria Park Plaza, London.  Key learning opportunities from this year’s event include:

  • New strategies for using social media to collaborate and build relationships.
  • Making sense and creating value from Big Data.
  • New methods and business models for e-publishing.
  • How to create and structure content for a multi-device, multi-platform world.
  • New and emerging business models for open data and open access.
  • Keeping up with developments in search technologies.

See the full agenda for Day 1 and Day 2, and a short video of last year’s event.

bizzabo logo

There is also a great opportunity to network before, during and after the event with the fantastic Bizzabo event app. Available to download for iPad/iPhone and Android devices, it will give up-to-date information about the conference proceedings and enable users to share their experience, arrange meetings and discover new friends via its integration with the professional LinkedIn network. Details about the app on the Conference website or read a review of the app on Techcrunch.

I’m looking forward to meeting as many people as I can at this year’s event – either in person or via the app. If you want to make the most of the conference experience, I highly recommend downloading and using the app….now! Happy networking!

(Steve Dale – Chairman Online Information Conference Committee)

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Is Social Media Making Us Less Social?

Social Media Buttons

We are increasingly being flooded – bombarded even – by news and information from an ever-increasing number of social media channels. Increasingly, news is coming to us through our friend and interest networks, via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and LinkedIn especially. Our cognitive powers in making sense of it, finding the signal within the noise, have never been more challenged.

Some people talk of information anywhere, anytime, but in fact, isn’t it more a case of information everywhere all the time? You can’t get away from it.

There was an article in the press recently querying:  “Are you an “Infomaniac”?

According to the article:

  • 34% check their smartphone after sex,
  • 23% go on Twitter more than 10 times a day,
  • 51% check social network sites at dinner,
  • 62% use their phones while shopping and
  • 42% will stop a conversation if their phone beeps.

One person was quoted: “Sometimes I wake up in the night and reach for my phone so I can do a Tweet”.

And another: “I take pictures of my food, my feet….pretty much anything and post it online”.

Yes, I think I’m following a few people like that, which reminds me I must do a bit of ‘weeding’ on my Twitter account!

Some other useful (?) statistics that seem to reinforce this sense of  “information pervasiveness”:

  • The average Briton now has 26 Internet accounts for everything from email and bank services to online shopping, social media sites, Skype and Paypal.
  • The average worker checks his email inbox 36 times every hour.
  • 1 in 3 smartphone owners would rather give up sex than their mobile phone (Pew Research)
  • 90% of 18 – 29 year olds say they will sleep wit their phone in or beside their bed (Pew Research)
  • 1 in 10 say they are woken at least a few times per week by calls, texts or emails (Pew Research)

This all seems to reinforce the growing phenomenon of FOMO, pronounced FO-MO, meaning ‘fear of missing out’. These people want or need to be connected to their email and social media channels 24 x 7. And apparently there is another new phobia you can add to the list of human paranoia – Nomophobia. It’s the fear of losing your cell/mobile phone!

But whilst we complain about information overload and having no time to do the quality things in life, we are at the same time adding to the volume. Everyone has a voice and everyone wants to be heard. Which reminds me of the quote by Clay Shirkypublishing isn’t a job any more, it’s a button”.

And if it’s so easy to publish, it’s even easier to share – just one click of a button and it’s shared with all of your Facebook/Twitter/Google+ followers. And your network of friends and followers will in turn share with their networks. Tweets beget more tweets, which might stimulate new comments and new Tweets. And so it goes on. No wonder we’re drowning in information, and social media has made it all so easy. But are we losing something in this morass of news and information, made possible by simple one-click interfaces and frictionless sharing?

I only realised through a conversation with a friend that her relationship with her now ex-boyfriend, was predicated on a whole new protocol of ‘Unfriending’ on Facebook.  You no longer have to have a face-to-face discussion to end a relationship; it can all be done with a click of a button!

Perhaps this one-button-does-everything mentality that we’re now so used to is making us less social and more insensitive to the feelings of others? We have a paradox where social media is reinforcing anti-social behaviour.

It will be interesting to see what 2013 brings in terms of new and shiny social media tools and social networks, but it doesn’t take a philosopher to predict that the cycle of news and information propagation is going to get faster, more people are going to get connected to the Internet, more people will have a voice, and finding that signal amongst all of the noise is going to get that much harder.

Maybe we should think about what we’re losing – the social skills that help us establish trust and understanding with our fellow human beings, and rediscovering those quality conversations. A New Year’s resolution maybe?

Happy Christmas!

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Email is dead: Long live email!

Am I the only sceptic that is prepared to challenge the “great myth” that email is the root cause of worker inefficiency and the blight of our 21st century lives? Perhaps this seems odd coming from someone who is an advocate for social technology as an enabler for more effective sharing and collaboration.

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According to a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, the average office worker spends 28 hours a week – or nearly 1500 hours a year – writing emails, searching for information and attempting to “collaborate” internally. The report argues that wide adoption of social media technologies by businesses could cut down some of the time-wasting involved in emailing and improve worker productivity by 20 to 25 per cent.

This is all great stuff, and will perhaps incentivise some CEO’s to consider implementing social technologies into their organisations. After all, the prospect of a 25 per cent productivity improvement where money is tight and competition is avaricious is not something to be dismissed lightly.

But am I the only sceptic that is prepared to challenge the “great myth” that email is the root cause of worker inefficiency and the blight of our 21st century lives? Perhaps this seems odd coming from someone who is an advocate for social technology as an enabler for more effective sharing and collaboration.

I would agree that social technology is the engine that is driving today’s knowledge ecology and that we’re only just starting to discover the opportunities that a far more connected society can deliver.  However, email is just as much a part of this as – say – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yammer, Sharepoint, or any number of Enterprise Social Software solutions. It’s not an “either/or” choice between email and social technology. Email has been the foundation for how business gets done for the past 30 years or so, and I’m willing to predict it will be around for the next 30 years or so. Used properly, it’s still one of the most effective ways of communicating.

What is email good for:

  1. Email arrives near instantaneously. It can be accessed from almost anywhere. It brings not just text, but pictures, documents, links, and more.
  2. Email is great for non-urgent communication. Things that don’t require an immediate response that others can deal with on their schedule.
  3. Email can provide a powerful documentation trail. Unlike text messages or phone calls, email provides an authenticated audit trail of past communication. It is hard to deny past actions and messages when there is a clear history.
  4. Email is one of the best mediums for communicating across time zones. It allows people on different schedules to communicate at their leisure.
  5. Message formatting features come as standard.
  6. The email client is a personal information management database. It can be browsed, sorted, filtered, tagged and searched. Features which I’ve yet to see implemented in most Enterprise Social Software activity streams.
  7. Email can be closely integrated with business workflows, where an action or decision is required.
  8. Email provides an (almost) foolproof 2-way authentication, hence why it is still used by nearly all online service providers to verify new accounts.

What is it not good for?

This post in not meant to be a heralding cry for more use of email; I just wanted to add some perspective and balance to what I see as a rather misguided campaign to replace email with social technologies. Email is not the best medium for sharing knowledge with a large number of people, nor is it a very good tool for collaborating on a document or a project plan. In fact, if your starting point is to encourage more fluid knowledge flows and wider engagement with your workforce, stakeholders and partners, then you really need to be looking at social technologies, such as blogs, forums, wikis, social bookmarking, integrated activity streams etc.

A blended approach to “social business’

I firmly believe that the best approach for improving productivity is a blend of social technology and email. Social technology can break down silo’d working practices, join-up thematic knowledge repositories and help to flatten hierarchies. Email would still be the foundation for how business gets done and how decisions are made. Integrating the two is the key to a successful business. Anyone who thinks that a business can survive by consensus decision-making delivered by social tools is sadly misguided. Using social tools to inform the decision-making process is the model that makes most sense.

Life without email?

I think I’ve made my opinion on this quite clear – it will be around for the foreseeable future, and will probably outlive many of today’s social media products. It’s not “either/or” it’s both, and they can co-exist. Which is why I found the Atos strategy somewhat disconcerting:

Thierry Breton, CEO of the French IT services company Atos, announced at the end of 2011 that his company will become “a zero e-mail company within three years.” His reason: the volume of e-mail that he and his employees have to deal with is unsustainable and harms the business. Breton estimates that managers spend between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing e-mails. On average, each of Atos’s 80,000 employees was receiving more than 100 e-mails per day, of which only 15 percent were deemed “useful.” By shifting communications to social platforms, François Gruau, senior vice president for business development and innovation, expects Atos staff to be “able to collaboratively process information with more focus, speed, and precision.”

Atos is counting on social technologies to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing. The company estimates that employees spend 25 percent of their time looking for information or expertise. So Atos is pushing employees to use a social community platform to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation to sales. In the first few weeks after the initial announcement, these tools helped reduce e-mail volume by up to 20 percent.

There are so many issues with this statement that I don’t know where to start. It would be interesting to know how the “only 15% [of emails] were deemed useful” figure was derived. Presumably from the perspective of the receiver and not the sender.

Also, “….Atos is pushing employees to use a social community platform to share and keep track of ideas on subjects from innovation to sales”.  The statement might have sounded better if it was encouraging employees as opposed to pushing. In my experience, take-up of social community platforms is predicated on whether the user derives value from the platform, rather than from a dictum to use it.

It will be interesting to see how this strategy pans out over the next 2-3 years and whether they do achieve their goal of becoming a “zero email company”. If they succeed in their goal then I’ll be eating dollops of humble pie!

This may appear a paradox, but having made the case for email, I will conclude by saying that reducing reliance on it is probably the right strategy. I’ll clarify this further by stating that the root cause of wasted time is likely to be through misuse or poor use of email. In particular, the over-use of cc’s and bcc’s for mass-distribution. Features that were put there before the advent of social tools. Also the cascade of corporate/team/group newsletters, and anything “FYI”. Organisations that are deploying social platforms should prioritise these activities and behaviours as a means to reducing email volumes. One radical step might even be to remove the cc and bcc capability altogether.

Seven simple steps for reducing unnecessary email:

  1. Move all distribution lists that are not confidential to blogs (i.e. change the email address of the distribution list to post to an internal blog). People can subscribe and unsubscribe themselves thereby both reducing the need for an IT resource to do this and for individuals to manage the resulting emails.
  2. Give all project teams a closed group and encourage them to be more transparent, updating the group whenever they have accomplished something or need to ask a question.
  3. Turn off or discourage people from using cc or bcc features on email. Encourage anything that needs a cc to go into a social network blog or discussion board. Discourage bcc’s almost entirely.
  4. Disable or discourage emailing documents. They should all go into a shared space.
  5. Encourage people to answer questions that they receive through a blog post or Intranet forum. That way they only have to answer the question once and it is discoverable for others.
  6. Advertise and promote an “email-free” day, where no emails get answered. This may encourage workers not to send an email and to think of other alternatives. There may even be the option of actually talking to a colleague!
  7. Begin an education programme on email protocol. This should include:
  • Dealing with confidential information
  • Contact management
  • Personal information
  • Accepting email from external contacts
  • How to manage your inbox and folders

At the end of the day, it’s all about getting smarter with how we use and share information. The cost of managing this information today is mostly hidden. It’s the hours each of us spends reviewing, organising and deleting emails and the hours we spend answering the same questions over and over again. This waste is not really ‘seen’ by the organisation because it’s been absorbed primarily by individuals in their ‘free’ time.

Smart organisations will educate their staff and help them understand when to use email and when to use social technologies. Email is best for detailed exchanges, decision-making and information that require a high degree of accountability. Social tools are best suited for engagement, collaboration and knowledge sharing. All of this should ideally be embraced in the organisation’s social media policies and guidelines documentation.

Accomplishing all of the above will get people more comfortable with social software tools and dynamics and it will give them some relief from the information torrent.

The power of social

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