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Technologies on the street

This article appears in the issue November/December 2004 [Volume 13, Issue 10]


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Over the summer, Dave Snowden and I co-hosted an Association of Knowledgework (kwork.org) dialogue about personal and collective approaches to KM. Thanks to the vibrant participation of so many association members, the exchanges were enlightening.

A question arose about which technologies and techniques over the last decade had the biggest impact on how people manage their knowledge and relationships. Normally, I'm uncomfortable talking about technologies rather than tools. To me, "technologies" are typically imposed by the system and are often seen as oppressive rather than productive. Technologies are about design and intentions, but once implemented, information systems almost never resemble their original prototypes—especially if they are successfully adopted by their users. If successful, they become tools. As novelist William Gibson says in "Neuromancer"--his cyberpunk novel, "tools" are what happens when "the street finds its own uses for things."

One reason I harp on personal knowledge management is that I think adoption and use of tools for knowledge work is a personal thing. For example, many people have absolutely no use whatsoever for tools I can't live without. But one of Peter Drucker's fundamental characteristics of knowledge work is that people have to figure out for themselves what their jobs are and how to do their jobs.

So for me, this question was a chance to think about which innovations have proven most adaptable to my knowledge work needs. That is, not so much for how they were originally intended but for how their usage and utility have evolved.

Here are my candidates--really the first three categories that popped into my head. The first won't be a big surprise, though we tend to think of them too narrowly. However, the popping of the last one came as a surprise to me.

1. Pervasive synchronous and asynchronous communication

By this category, I mean the whole range of communication-enabling technologies from the humble landline to the long-range jumbo jet. Today, I work as much with colleagues and clients on other continents as with people in North America. Instant, affordable communication makes that possible—makes it possible to find the best possible matches of knowledge workers to collaborate on any given project, regardless of location.

A lot of people tend to champion one form of communication over another. Right now, for example, people are rushing to prematurely pronounce the death of e-mail in favor of instant messaging. But we need the diversity of choices at any given moment to pick the communication modes and bandwidth most appropriate to the conversations we need to have.

E-mail is instant enough, almost free, and concise—since a lot of the actual message traffic of knowledge sharing is very small pings. At the other end of the cost spectrum (not counting airplane seats) is my global mobile phone. The ability to have any of my peers whispering in my ear any time anywhere I need advice, sympathy, a sounding board or plain-old instructions about how to do something is nothing short of a miracle.

2. A searchable global memory

By that I mean not just the vast global directory/library of digitized artifacts, but also increasingly sophisticated search tools to zero in on things I'm looking for at any given moment. Frequently I'm looking beyond the posted documents to their authors as people I possibly want to communicate with directly.

Global memory spirals out from the hard drives and memory chips of my own devices to the networked storage of my team members, the protected servers of my organizations, to the information and ideas available elsewhere on the Web. Only a decade into the Web, we already take for granted how much is out there. Nevertheless, we already complain about how hard it is to find what we're looking for. But as long as search at least tries to keep up with supply, the value of a searchable global memory grows daily.

3. Business casual

As I thought about the changes in my own knowledge work over the past 10 years, I realized that the biggest differences had much less to do with any communication or information technologies at all. They had to do with an increasing openness in how people ask questions and express opinions.

My feeling (though I'm biased) is that this has been California's most important export. That is, the increasing popularity of all kinds of structured and spontaneous informality that facilitates sharing in so many ways that we never might have imagined. I know it's not universal yet, but even corporate HQs of Japanese conglomerates have gone to business casual dress codes.

While there are still huge differences from one culture to another, I firmly believe that human society overall is more open and conscious of what it takes to communicate. Perhaps it's one of the consequences of globalization. Even in hierarchically organized companies, taboos against speaking to people outside of official channels are breaking down. Emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, psychological safety and other approaches to better communication were once shunned as unbusinesslike, but they are making steady progress with bottom-line results to show for it.

Or maybe it's just that it's so much easier to think when you don't have a knotted necktie cutting off the blood and oxygen from your brain.


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