Jun 20

Taxonomies vs Tagging: High Context, Low Context

We have to keep reminding ourselves, in taxonomy work, (a) how idiosyncratic and innovative human beings are in the way we structure our worlds; and (b) the difference between “high context” organisation systems (where you have to be educated into the original context/principle of ordering in order to be able to navigate it) and “low context” organisation systems (where it’s self-evident as soon as you get into it). I’ve taken this useful distinction from Edward T. Hall’s 1977 book Beyond Culture.

We have an experiment we do sometimes in taxonomy workshops. We ask participants to collect all the different ways they organise their music CDs. So far I think we’re up to 20 different ways, including one guy who organised his music in order of the girlfriend he was going out with at the time he bought it. That’s what I’d call a high context approach, obviously not self-evident to the general user (in fact, there’s probably a post-modernist Casanova movie idea in there somewhere). But there are other high context taxonomic systems that work quite well: engineering or scientific taxonomies, for example, where users can tolerate deep and specialised taxonomic hierarchies because they have been educated into them.

This issue of idiosyncratic or high context taxonomies isn’t new. David Weinberger recently blogged about Douglas Wilson’s 2001 book on the 18th century US president Thomas Jefferson’s bookish habits. (Thanks David, have just ordered from Amazon!) Apparently Jefferson compiled reading lists for law students, organised by the time of day that they should be read. David uses this example to push the “everything is miscellaneous” cause, and I’m not sure this is completely right… at least from the point of view of people who are trying to structure content for predictable access within organisations. Internet web content is a different story.

By chance I’m also reading Richard Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 and here’s a phrase from Ramana Rao that struck me this morning as much more on the mark:

“Use the ‘grain of the wood’. Information has inherent structure, a grain. Trees, tables, time, documents, calendars, these are the spines that organise information. By designing tools based on such canonical information structures, they become potentially applicable in a wide range of situations.” (p.167)

Rao could be describing low context taxonomies when he refers to “canonical information structures” – take one look, and pretty much everyone will know how they work. Most of the corporate taxonomist’s work must be in discovering the shape of these canonical information structures within an enterprise, and shaping their taxonomies around them.

The exhilerating serendipity and scale of the web should not distract us from the virtues of (and need for) structuring and predictable patterns within a corporate environment. As Clay Shirky observed so accurately at the birth of the social tagging boom, the hierarchical taxonomy works fine on small content collections, but becomes increasingly unwieldy as the scale of content and community amplifies; social tagging on the other hand, amplifies ambiguity and confusion on small scales, but produces beneficial patterns at very large scales.

So maybe the enterprise taxonomist’s strategy needs to be like this: emphasising structure and relative control when collections and active communities are small, well defined, or relatively homogeneous; accommodating social tagging (used to be called “free” tagging in the good old days), and exploiting it more as content and active community grow?


Jun 20

Knowledge is a Thing

The idea of knowledge as a thing and knowledge transfer as an almost physical process seems to be deeply embedded into the human psyche. Here’s a very unpleasant video illustrating this.

Jun 19

Does KM Have a Place for Fate?

Over the weekend several events happened that made me realise our limitations in knowledge management. Some things we can never know for sure and recently I had posted something about humility and I think in our profession, that is something we need to have. I think we can only help people know things up to a point and the rest is really “fate”. KM can certainly help us, and perhaps most of the way but it can’t help us all the way.

I spent a weekend in Bali, just a 3 day-2 night getaway. Our holiday package included a half-day tour which our guide said we could do in the morning or afternoon. He proudly listed all the places we would visit in that half day and what we could do. We opted for an afternoon tour and started out at 3 p.m. After the visit to a supposedly famous art gallery and parting with a somewhat significant amount for 2 beautiful paintings by the so-called “Master” (we could only hope it was true), we changed the plan and decided to skip all the remaining places. They were craft-making sites and we had seen these before. My husband suggested dinner at Jimbaran Bay. I shuddered at that name. I was hesitant, at first, as I remembered it being one of the 2 bomb-blasts places “by the you know who” (shall refrain from mentioning their name in case search engines they are using picks this up!). I realised that it was a Saturday and the place would probably be crowded that evening. Would it be likely that there would be a bomb-blast already masterminded for that evening at Jimbaran Bay? Would this sudden decision we made cost us our lives? What if we had stuck to the plan? What if it was safer to have changed the plan? I did not know and I could not know. No amount of KM (within my capacity at that point in time) could help me with that decision. I suddenly remembered how I read about this guy who had left his home that Sep 11 NY morning with two different shoes on each foot. He decided to stop by a shoe shop to get a new pair before going in to work, which meant he was delayed from the office. That mistake saved his life.

And then there was the issue of the rattan tissue box holder. At a shop in Bali, I spotted it and liked how intricately the rattan was weaved. I realised however that the height of the rattan box may be too short for the type of tissue boxes we typically buy back home. And so I picked another one which was deeper and cost just a little more. The girl who atended to me, after taking my money walked to the back of the shop to get a plastic bag to put it in and to get my change. Naturally I checked my change when she handed it to me. When I got home after the trip and unpacked my stuff, I realised she had switched the tissue box to the shallower, cheaper one. It was such a horrible feeling when I took it out from the bag. I had to restrain myself from expressing all the possible swear words in my head (I’m too much of a human). It was not the money but the feeling of being cheated, of havcing trusted her, of not seeing what else could possibly have gone wrong (i.e. apart from getting less change back). And it’s not like I could go back the next morning to sort the situation out. That said, I must qualify that she is probably the minority of the Balinese people. Everyone else we met were fair and peaceloving people. We even had a 20% discount from the brochure listed price for a spa treatment because we were recommended by the tour guide. They did not have to tell us about the discount but they did. So it seems like knowing what could have gone wrong is one thing but knowing in time is the challenge. How do we know when “in time” is when it is relative to an unknown future? Would it have been better to have known “just in case” rather than to know “just in time”?

I had a weird encounter at a 24-hour supermarket early hours of this morning. Caught in an awkward situation, having correctly read the signs before me and knowing the layout of the supermarket seemed to have helped me from facing what could have been a life and death situation. Thankfully, I avoided having to find out.

Jun 19

Search, Ambiguity, and Autotagging

At the beginning of this year, there was a burst of publicity around the development of a European public-private multimedia search engine project called Quaero. Billed as the European challenger to Google, the backers evidently didn’t like the publicity, because they took everything about the project offline. It was slated to be launched in the spring of 2006, but is still incommunicado, and there seems to be a fair degree of scepticism about the eventual success of the project.

What interests me is that this search engine uses pattern recognition to enable searching of images, audio and video files. The technique used is called “keyword propagation”. What happens is that when (say) a portion of an image is highlighted and tagged with a keyword, the engine crawls all other image content on the web, and assigns that keyword to any other similar visual patterns. Great leap forward for mankind, one might think, in doing image searches for photos of Albert Einstein, we no longer need somebody to have previously tagged that photo with his name. One of Quaero’s ambitions is to enable auto-tagging of vast quantities of audio visual archive material.

In a slightly different (and more public) context, Flickr competitor Riya is now applying similar technology to a social tagging context: you highlight your image, tag it, and hey presto, anything else in the Riya space with similar patterns will also get auto-tagged.

Now auto-tagging has been around for a while in the text world, and it’s still slightly problematic. You generally need hefty investments of expert’s time to train the engine to recognise the true subject matter of a document within the enterprise environment, otherwise the inherent ambiguities of language make the search results quite imprecise.

What I’m curious about is how this will work with images in an uncontrolled social tagging context. With sufficient volume of content and users, the social tagging phenomenon based on text has demonstrated an intriguing challenge to the taxonomist’s demand for vocabulary control. The subject ambiguity of text-based documents however is nothing when compared with the ambiguities inherent in images, not to mention more complex media such as video. In Flickr, a relative degree of control is achieved by having lots of people tag the same images.

How will ambiguity work with propagation? My guess is many less than useful words will be assigned to images by autopropagation (I can imagine “nose” “teeth” “smile” “ugly” “sweetoldman” could all be added to Albert Einstein-lookalike images).

I really want to see how Riya develops and responds to this (thanks Maish for the Riya link).

Jun 19

Seeing Your Visitors

We’ve started using the free version of Google Analytics. Here’s a pretty cool visualisation of where the visitors to Green Chameleon came from over the past couple of weeks. (In the report page, a mouseover will show you the town name and the number of visitors from there).

Jun 15

Why KM is Hard To Do

We recently did a small information management/knowledge management internal initiative at Straits Knowledge. The relative ease with which we did it, compared to the problems faced by several of our clients (much larger organisations) has got me pondering on the way that existing infrastructure impacts an organisation’s current effectiveness, both positively and negatively. In this article I use the case study of our internal initiative to analyse the way that infrastructure in large organisations imposes friction on the rate of change, and propose some project management and change management strategies to deal with that. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to cut to the chase, I’m using this blog post to summarise the takeaways for KM project planning that I ended up with.


Jun 15

Not a Matter of Life and Death

One of my favourite TV shows at the moment is one called Grey’s Anatomy. The show revolves around a bunch of medical interns at a Seattle hospital training to become surgeons. It’s funny in a way I can’t justifiably describe, so I won’t.

The show focuses on the trials and tribulations of medical internships, and one particular aspect that I’ve never seen in other medical dramas is this fierce competition amongst the five interns to assist the surgeons during operations. This is because assisting during operations is their only means of gaining practical surgical experience. In his awesome book, Complications, Atul Gawande talks about how few the opportunities are for medical interns to gain actual experience. Informed patients and their carers tend to prefer the surgeon over the intern, for obvious reasons. Hence, interns have to grab any opportunity they can to gain practical experience before they complete their internship.

The way the five interns on the TV show fight to assist during surgical ops always makes me think of my own learning journey as a KM consultant. I don’t need to fight with my colleagues to participate in client engagements. There’s enough work at the moment to go around. But even when there wasn’t, I don’t recall the same zeal to participate in engagements as the Grey’s interns. Why not? Maybe it’s because I’m a slacker. Maybe it’s because what KM consultants do is not a matter of life and death. But what if what we do makes a difference whether an organisation lives or dies? Wouldn’t KM consultants then all have to go through the same intensity of training as medical doctors before we practice? Wouldn’t junior consultants like myself then have to fight for opportunities to take part in client engagements so that we could become better at “operating” on our clients? Wouldn’t KM consultants then get the same respect as medical doctors? Wouldn’t there then be a TV show about the trials and tribulations of five interns at a KM consulting firm? Wouldn’t that be something?

Jun 13

Honourable Lurkers and Participating Parasites

About three weeks ago I posted a link to Miguel Cornejo Castro’s seminal paper reassessing the way that communities of practice are evolving in terms of participation, use of technology resources, and stakeholder involvement (Communities of Shattered Practice). His paper stirred up substantial debate on the com-prac dicussion list, much of it around his notion of the “honourable lurker”. He’s now followed up with another fascinating paper entitled “Revisiting Communities of Practice (II): The Honourable Lurker and the Institution”.

This paper is a little less polished than the first, but has some gems of insight, especially around the nature of a community as an institution. His consideration of the motivation of participants for their participation is very mechanistic and one dimensional. His transactional approach definitely needs more work, but probably the most important thing about this paper is his discussion distinguishing “honourable” lurking (the activity or lack of visible activity of those who are on a socialisation trajectory, on the way to becoming members) and “parasitic” or “free-riding” lurking where nothing is held in common with the community, and participation is purely exploitative.

I think this is a very important distinction to be able to make, because it has enormous implications for how we maintain the social instituton, share values and goals, and harness community energy. However, it’s not going to be as easy as Miguel’s initial paper suggests. For example, I may not always know myself whether my lurking is parasitic and free-riding, or whether I’m on an “honourable” trajectory towards participation. In my experience, that inward trajectory is often activated by apparently chance events and encounters with active members, and it can happen or not happen at any time. One day I’m a parasite, next I’m a member!

Another key thing I’ve learned is that parasitic participants are often, paradoxically, the ones whose behaviours, questions and claims, generate some of the most interesting participation behaviour from “real” community members. Miguel’s paper accommodates this, because he says that socialisation not alienation is the best strategy to use with free-riders and parasites.

Its gaps aside, this paper is a great start, and has a great deal more insight packed inside.

Jun 13

Spotting Useful Experts

A very nice post from Shawn over at Anecdote giving a list of heuristics for identifying an expert (and how useful they are likely to be):