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Now, everything is fragmented

I used the phrase "everything is fragmented" for the first time last year at KMWorld & Intranets in San Jose. I was picking up on the title of Dave Weinberger’s useful book Everything is Miscellaneous. Dave dealt with the shift from hierarchical taxonomies to the free form tagging of social computing. I wanted to build on that by pointing to the shift during the life span of knowledge management from the "chunked" material of case studies and best-practice documents to the unstructured, fragmented and finely granular material that pervades the blogosphere. So when I was asked to contribute this column to KMWorld magazine, it seemed an appropriate title; it allows me to talk about not only trends in technology but also social issues, the scientific use of narrative, and to fire off the odd invective about over-constrained and over-controlled systems.

So what do I mean by the idea of fragmentation? Well, it’s simple really: The more you structure material, the more you summarize (either as an editor or using technology), the more you make material specific to a context or time, the less utility that material has as things change. For years now I have asked this question at conferences around the world: Faced with an intractable problem, do you go and draw down best practice from your company’s knowledge management system, or do you go and find eight or nine people you know and trust with relevant experience and listen to their stories?

With the odd exception (generally IT managers who have just spent a few million dollars putting a best-practice system in and think people should use it), everyone goes for the stories. So why for the last decade and more have we focused on chunking up best practice? These days I add a few references to the way I and others use blogs to link and connect to insight and learning. Increasingly unstructured material, blended in unexpected ways, provides a richer source of knowledge.

Over the last decade as I have worked on homeland security, we have had the chance to run some experiments that show that raw field intelligence has more utility over longer periods of time than intelligence reports written at a specific time and place. In other experiments, we have demonstrated that narrative assessment of a battlefield picks up more weak signals (those things that after the event you wished you had paid attention to) than analytical structured thinking.

I think there are two reasons for those findings. First, we live in a world subject to constant change, and it’s better to blend fragments at the time of need than attempt to anticipate all needs. We are moving from attempting to anticipate the future to creating an attitude and capability of anticipatory awareness. Second, we are homo sapiens at least in part because we were first homo narrans: the storytelling ape. Dealing with anecdotal material from multiple sources and creating our own stories in turn has been a critical part of our evolutionary development.

The free flow of the blogosphere, ad hoc collaboration, Facebook and many other tools work because they conform with the patterns of expectation that arise from our evolutionary uncertainty. Have you ever heard anyone ask Wikipedia or the blogosphere, "How do we create a knowledge sharing culture?" No, but when I visit the knowledge management practitioners in organizations around the world, it is the dominant question. It’s not natural to chunk up material, to make it context specific; it is natural to share, blend and create fragmented material based on thoughts and reflections as we carry out tasks or engage in social interaction.

The big problem for the knowledge and information management functions in an organization is that their governance structures were developed in an earlier, more ordered time when we focused on transaction systems for accounting and process. The essence of such systems is to remove ambiguity; the evolutionary pressure of natural human knowledge exchange is  to embrace ambiguity. Narrative, social computing, the open source movement are all comfortable with ambiguity, embrace it and use it. Organizations need to do the same, but the old patterns of control persist beyond their natural utility.

How we do this, what prejudices and difficulties we have to overcome to achieve this change, will be the theme of this column over the months. How can we use social computing within a corporate environment when we don’t have millions of participants? What is the relation between the formal transaction systems and this new fragmented world? Above all, how do we manage necessary uncertainty?

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