Philip Pullman, Identity and Crowds

“I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internaland double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious, even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike “identity” must include what we do. And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest (“gay”, “black”, “Muslim”, whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It’s crowd-thought”

– Source: Philip Pullman in the Guardian

Personal vs group memory

Nice spot by Will Davies which I’ve only just picked up. A team at Lancaster University looked at better ways for us to organise and retrieve information for shared use, and to do that the researchers investigated how couples catalogue and retrieve their digital photos

“There is a widely held belief that people benefit from working together to remember details of things” for instance, film storylines. However, research has shown that when they try to recall information which they learned individually, the overall amount remembered is less than if the same people were trying on their own. People mentally organize information in different ways, and cues that help one person recall may inhibit another. So retrieving information from computer systems, such as a keyword search in a library catalogue, may be impaired by a mismatch between the user’s mental organization and the cues provided by the system.”

Interesting given the personal vs collective arguments of KM, I thought.

Postcards from the Edge

I liked this [via an old post from Foe Romeo]. It comes from a New Statesman review by James Fenton (subscription needed) of Tom Philips’s postcard exhibition “We Are the People”.

The individual object is of no great worth on its own. It is only through accumulation, only by becoming one of a category, that it has any great chance of engaging our interest.

Fenton also decides that

There are two kinds of collecting: the selective and the accumulative. In the first, the collector seeks to assemble only the best examples of a class of object (paintings, sculptures, porcelain). The collection improves as its quality, but not its quantity, increases. With this method, sacrifices may continually be made, as objects of lesser worth are sold to acquire more desirable items. The number of entries in the inventory may remain static over the years, but the collection is seen to advance through substitution, or through a process of “trading up”.

…In the second, accumulative type of collection, the significance of the individual object is seen to grow through its keeping company with such a large number of items of a similar kind: one Gabon stamp may be neither here nor there, but 50 Gabon stamps act as a spur to the acquisition of 50 more. And as the ceiling is reached, as all the Gabon stamps seem to have been tracked down, a kind of restlessness sets in – Cameroon suddenly becomes interesting and desirable from the collector’s point of view. Soon it is no longer a matter of forming a collection. Multiple classes of object have begun to occupy the collector’s attention…

Made me think of Post Secret, a collection of cards with anonymous secrets written on them. It’s compelling reading, but after a while you begin to wonder whether anyone you talk to is “normal”. As a test, I took a card at random, and it looked like this.

And yes, on it’s own, without knowing that it’s part of a collection of similar cards, it’s just a little bit odd. But when you begin to look at all of them (a type 2 collection where categories emerge) then you do begin to see some trends, albeit fuzzy ones, and with those fuzzy trends, categories. Here are a few from a quick skim:

I tell people I’m an atheist, Miss feeling close to God, I deleted the recording of the Pope’s funeral for an episode of Survivor

Marriage and love gone wrong:

I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die, I considered Statutory Rape charges so he’d regret breaking my heart, I wanted the disease to be my punishment

Shit and piss:
I take extreme measures to poop in solitude, I want to crap on my Mum’s white rug, I only pick up dog turds when people are watching

Individuals in the Crowd: Obscure T-shirts to find best friend, Enigmatic Ceramic Blessings for stranger to find, I make everyone believe I like to be different

Anyway, there are certainly more ways of slicing and dicing them, but I stopped because I found it all a bit bleak quite quickly. What I found interesting was that multiple classes of object had begun to occupy my attention, just as with the type 2 collection. And this case with the postcards is another case of the emergence of classifications, however brittle. Read someone’s blog for a while and fairly quickly you being to spot types of post, often quite different from their writers’ given categories. Same with flickr. Same with

But what about type 1 collections, where the number of items collected remains static but you trade up? The obvious arena for this in social software-ish terms is either the wiki (wikipedia “trades up” sentences on a page until it gets a valuable collection of words about a topic) or the aggregator, though trading up may well be the wrong term. (If you’re just tracking what your friends trading up is probably not something you should admit to/do – your choice – but me I don’t like it) But what would it be like, and how would it affect you be allowed a maximum of, say, 200 posts? Maybe it would be a good thing?

And I suppose what I’m really curious about is whether Type 1 collections are a natural follow on from Type 2 collections. You tag/collect/post/whatever until classifications emerge (for you or your group) and when you focus on something you think is valuable in there and then you can start trading up.

Hmm. Not sure about the trading up, it’s sticking in my throat a bit …

Knowledge Retention and the Importance of Forgetting

Three things happened in conjunction this morning that made me wonder whether memory and experience have some underestimated drawbacks. In order,

  1. I saw Jack’s post about Knowledge Retention
  2. My server stopped working because it was full, and
  3. I read a paper by Martin Dodge on the ethics of forgetting in an age of pervasive computing

All of which conspired to tinkle a little – well, tiny – bell in my head, because a long time ago I remember being struck by something in Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control [online version], namely that death was an integral part of a healthy complex system.

Continue reading Knowledge Retention and the Importance of Forgetting

HP and the Dignity of the Individual

This from John Maloney (an ex-HP man)

“In the sixty years before ‘CarlyCo,’ HP led incredible growth through highly distributed, individualized models. The dignity of the individual was paramount. This single solitary value pioneered legendary worldwide practices as flex time, open-door, no-layoff, profit sharing, pay-as-you-go, community concern, product environmentalism, next bench engineering, distributed ‘loose/tight’ leadership, stock options/purchase plans, management by wandering around, beer busts, open offices, employee & spousal educational benefits, employee autonomy, etc., etc., aka, the HP Way. Did it ever work — from 1938 to 1998, HP grew more than 20% a year without a lossgiving it the longest period of fast growth in the history of American corporations.

[First emphasis mine, second his]

HR and Genes

As serendipity would have it, there’s a discussion over at AOK being hosted by Dave Ulrich. In it Dave and Jack Ring came up with this:

“… the key point … “Once we know the capabilities required, we
can begin to see how to organize resources to deliver them.” which prompts me to ask why we should presume that an HR function is appropriate for an enterprise intending to excel in KM before we are clear on the capabilities required to make KM happen.”

Not too long ago (and this is the coincidence) I snipped a quote from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. Perhaps it can now be rejigged:

“The message from HR to intellectuals and KMers is this: choose the organizational culture you want to promote then prepare to live with the way individuals react to it. Never favour the reverse, of promoting KM policies to change behaviours. For best results, cultivate individuals, not groups.”

Best Practice and the Excluded Middle

Martin picks up on a nice comment by Paul Burdick of AES:

“The minute you systematize something, you suck the life out of it… nobody asks questions any more – questions such as ‘why is it done this way?’ ‘Has the world changed in the interim? ‘Can it be done better now?'”

Martin goes on to suggest that

“KM lies in the human practice. It is about finding good ways of doing things. Quality lies in the organizational process. It is about deploying good ways of doing things.”

…and that KM and Quality as a result don’t get along too well.

It reminds me of something various of us talked about briefly at the Personal Knowledge Management Workshop in November, namely that if PKM is personal, then does it make sense to have best practices for it when they are innately impersonal?

There’s a big either-or, law of the excluded middle fallacy floating around in all of this, I think. To use Martin’s terms, I don’t understand how either human or organisational approaches can be sufficient on their own. Deploying rubbish seems to be as half-cocked an approach as finding gold nuggets but not being able to do anything with them.

The excluded middle in all of this I guess is balance. How to foster the finding and the deployment, i.e. balancing the skills of the individual (creativity) with the skills of the organisation (efficiency).

Martin highlights the example of Toyota as a company that seem to have found a balance [from John Seely Brown’s talk at this year’s KM Europe]. Surprise surprise, their production line looks like a ballet: creative, efficient and balanced.

Graceful, even without the tights 🙂

Personal Knowledge Management Workshop at KMEurope

In July, at Blogwalk 3, Ton, Lilia and I decided it would be good to run a workshop on Personal Knowledge Management during KMEurope. And thanks to the work of Ed Mitchell of Knowledge Board, Lilia’s persistence and patient technical aid from Ton, and some brainstorming between the three of us, it happened. Overall, it seems to have been a success – a little over fifty people turned up, and people seemed to enjoy it.
Continue reading Personal Knowledge Management Workshop at KMEurope