From September 1-3, 2010, I will attend the 10th International Conference on Knowledge Management and Knowledge Technologies (I-KNOW 2010) in beautiful Graz, Austria. I will use my blog to do a daily report on my captured notes and ideas.
And now for something completely different
In the last few years I have put a lot of effort into becoming a participating member in the global learning technology community. This means that when I visit a “learning” conference I know a lot of the people who are there. At this conference I know absolutely nobody. Not a single person in my online professional network seems to know let alone go to this conference.
One of my favourite competencies in the leadership competency framework of Shell is the ability to value differences. People who master this competency actively seek out the opinion of people who have a different opinion than theirs. There are good reasons for this (see for example Page’s The Difference), and it is one of the things that I would like to work on myself: I am naturally inclined to seek out people who think very much like me and this conference should help me in overcoming that preference.
After the first day I already realise that the world I live and work in is very “corporate” and very Anglo-Saxon. In a sense this conference feels like I have entered into a world that is normally hidden from me. I would also like to compliment the organizers of the conference: everything is flawless (there even is an iPhone app: soon to be standard for all for conferences I think, I loved how FOSDEM did this: publishing the program in a structured format and then letting developers make the apps for multiple mobile platforms).
Future Trends in Search User Interfaces
Marti Hearst has just finished writing her book Search User Interfaces which is available online for free here and she was therefore asked to keynote about the future of these interfaces.
Current search engines are primarily search text based, have a fast response time, are tailored to keyword queries (that support a search paradigm where there is iteration based on these keywords), sometimes have faceted metadata that delivers navigation/organization support, support related queries and in some cases are starting to show context-sensitive results.
Hearst sees a couple of things happening in technology and in how society interacts with that technology that could help us imagine what the search interface will look like in the future. Examples are the wide adoption of touch-activated devices with excellent UI design, the wide adoption of social media and user-generated content, the wide adoption of mobile devices with data service, improvements in Natural Language Processing (NLP), a preference for audio and video and the increasing availability of rich, integrated data sources.
All of these trends point to more natural interfaces. She thinks this means the following for search user interfaces:
- Longer more natural queries. Queries are getting longer all the time. Naive computer users use longer queries, only shortening them when they learn that they don’t get good results that way. Search engines are getting better at handling longer queries. Sites like Yahoo Answers and Stack Overflow (a project by one of my heroes Joel Spolsky) are only possible because we now have much more user-generated content.
- “Sloppy commands” are now slowly starting to be supported by certain interfaces. These allow flexibility in expression and are sometimes combined with visual feedback. See the video below for a nice example.
- Search is becoming as social as possible. This is a difficult problem because you are not one person, you are different people at different times. There are explicit social search tools like Digg, StumbleUpon and Delicious and there are implicit social search tools and methods like “People who bought x, also bought…” and Yahoo’s My Web (now defunct). Two good examples (not given by Hearst) of how important the social aspects of search are becoming are this Mashable article on a related Facebook patent and this Techcrunch article on a personalized search engine for the cloud.
- There will be a deep integration of audio and video into search. This seemed to be a controversial part of her talk. Hearst is predicting the decline of text (not among academics and lawyers). There are enough examples around: the culture of video responses on YouTube apparently arose spontaneously and newspaper websites are starting to look more and more like TV. It is very easy to create videos, but the way that we can edit videos still needs improvement.
- A final prediction is that the search interface will be more like a dialogue, or conversational. This reality is a bit further away, but we are starting to see what it might look like with apps like Siri.
Enterprise 2.0 and the Social Web
This track consisted of three presentations. The first one was titled “A Corporate Tagging Framework as Integration Service for Knowledge Workers”. Walter Christian Kammergruber, a PhD student from Munich, told us that there are two problems with tagging: one is how to orchestrate the tags in such a way that they work for the complete application landscape, another is the semantic challenge of getting rid of ambiguity, multiple spellings, etc. His tagging framework (called STAG) attempts to solve this problem. It is a piece of middleware that sits on the Siemens network and provides tagging functionality through web services to Siemens’ blogging platform, wiki, discussion forums and Sharepoint sites. These tags can then be displayed using simple widgets. The semantic problem is solved by having a thesaurus editor allowing people define synonyms for tags and make relationships between related tags.
I strongly believe that any large corporation would be very much helped with a centralised tagging facility which can be utilised by decentralised applications. This kind of methodology should actually not only be used for tagging but could also be used for something like user profiles. How come I don’t have a profile widget that I can include on our corporate intranet pages?
The second talk, by Dada Lin, was titled “A Knowledge Management Scheme for Enterprise 2.0”. He presented a framework that should be able to bridge the gap between Knowledge Management and Enterprise 2.0. It is called the IDEA framework in which knowledge is seen as a process, not as an object. The framework consists of the following elements (also called “moments”):
He then puts these moments into three dimensions: Human, Technology and Organisation. Finally he did some research around a Confluence installation at T-Systems. None of this was really enlightening to me, I was however intrigued to notice that the audience focused more on the research methodologies than on the outcomes of the research.
The final talk, “Enterprise Microblogging at Siemens Building Technologies Division: A Descriptive Case Study” by Johannes Müller a senior Knowledge Management manager at Siemens was quite entertaining. He talked about References@BT, a community at Siemens that consists of many discussion forums, a knowledge reference and since March 2009 a microblogging tool. It has 7000 members in 73 countries.
The microblogging platform is build by himself and thus has exactly the features it needed to have. One of the features he mentioned was that it showed a picture of every user in every view on the microblog posts. This is now a standard feature in lots of tools (e.g. Twitter or Facebook) and it made me realise that Moodle was actually one of the first applications that I know that this consistently: another example of how forward thinking Martin Dougiamas really was!.
Müller’s microblogging platform does allow posts of more than 140 characters, but does not allow any formatting (no line-breaks or bullet points for example). This seems to be an effective way of keeping the posts short.
He shared a couple of strategies that he uses to get people to adopt the new service. Two things that were important were the provision of widgets that can be included in more traditional pages on the intranet and the ability to import postings from other microblogging sites like Twitter using a special hash tag. He has also sent out personalised email to users with follow suggestions. These were hugely effective in bootstrapping the network.
Finally he told us about the research he has done to get some quantitative and qualitative data about the usefulness of microblogging. His respondents thought it was an easy way of sharing information, an additional channel for promoting events, a new means of networking with others, a suitable tool to improve writing skills and a tool that allowed for the possibility to follow experts.
During lunch (and during the Bacardi sponsored welcome reception) I had the pleasant opportunity to sit with Michael Granitzer, Stefanie Lindstaedt and Wolfgang Kienreich from the Know-Center, Austria’s Competence Center for Knowledge Management.
They have done some work for Shell in the past around semantic similarity checking and have delivered a working proof of concept in our Mediawiki installation. They demonstrated some of their new projects and we had a good discussion about corporate search and how to do technological innovation in large corporations.
The first project that they showed me is called the Advanced Process- Oriented Self- Directed Learning Environment (APOSDLE). It is a research project that aims to develop tools that help people learn at work. To rephrase it in learning terms: it is a very smart way of doing performance support. The video below gives you a good impression of what it can do:
Failures of organisation-driven approaches to technology-enhanced learning and the success of community-driven approaches in the spirit of Web 2.0 have shown that for that agility we need to leverage the intrinsic motivation of employees to engage in collaborative learning activities, and combine it with a new form of organisational guidance. For that purpose, MATURE conceives individual learning processes to be interlinked (the output of a learning process is input to others) in a knowledge-maturing process in which knowledge changes in nature. This knowledge can take the form of classical content in varying degrees of maturity, but also involves tasks & processes or semantic structures. The goal of MATURE is to understand this maturing process better, based on empirical studies, and to build tools and services to reduce maturing barriers.
I was shown a widget-based approach that allowed people to tag resources, put them in collections and share these resources and collections with others (more information here). One thing really struck me about the demo I got: they used a simple browser plugin as a first point of contact for users with the system. I suddenly realised that this would be the fastest way to add a semantic layer over our complete intranet (it would work for the extranet too). With our desktop architecture it is relatively trivial to roll out a plugin to all users. This plugin would allow users to annotate webpages on the net creating a network of meta-information about resources. This is becoming increasingly viable as more and more of the resources in a company are accessed from a browser and are URL addressable. I would love to explore this pragmatic direction further.
Martin J. Eppler from the University of St. Gallen seems to be a leading researcher in the field of knowledge management: when he speaks people listen. He presented a talk titled “Challenges and Solutions for Knowledge Sharing in Inter-Organizational Teams: First Experimental Results on the Positive Impact of Visualization”. He is interested in the question of how visualization (mapping text spatially) changes the way that people share knowledge. In this particular research project he focused on inter-organizational teams. He tries to make his experiments as realistic as possible, so he used senior managers and reallife scenarios, put them in three experimental groups and set them out to do a particular task. There was a group that was supported with special computer based visualization software, another group used posters with templates and a final (control) group used plain flipcharts. After analysing his results he was able to conclude that visual support leads to significant greater productivity.
This talk highlights one of the problems I have with science applied in this way. What do we now know? The results are very narrow and specific. What happens if you change the software? Is this the case for all kinds of tasks? The problem is: I don’t know how scientists could do a better job. I guess we have to wait till our knowledge-working lives can really be measured consistently and in realtime and then for smart algorythms to find out what really works for increased productivity.
The next talk in this talk was from Felix Mödritscher who works at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. His potentially fascinating topic “Using Pattern Repositories for Capturing and Sharing PLE Practices in Networked Communities” was hampered by the difficulty of explaining the complexities of the project he is working on.
He used the following definition for Personal Learning Environments (PLEs): a set of tools, services, and artefacts gathered from various contexts and to be used by learners. Mödritscher has created a methodology that allows people to share good practices in PLEs. First you record PLE interactions, then you allow people to depersonalise these interactions and share them as an “activity pattern” (distilled and archetypical), where people can then pick these up and repersonalise them. He has created a Pattern repository, with a pattern store. It has a client side component implemented as a Firefox extension: PAcMan (Personal Activity Manager). It is still early days, but these patterns appear to be really valuable: they not only help with professional competency development, but also with what he calls transcompentences.
I love the idea of using design patterns (see here), but thought it was a pity that Mödritscher did not show any very concrete examples of shared PLE patterns.
My last talk of the day was on “Clarity in Knowledge Communication” by Nicole Bischof, one of Eppler’s PhD students in the University of St. Gallen. She used a fantastic quote by Wittgenstein early in her presentation:
Everything that can be said, can be said clearly
According to her, clarity can help with knowledge creation, knowledge sharing, knowledge retention and knowledge application. She used the Hamburger Verständlichkeitskonzept as a basis to distill five distinct aspects to clarity: Concise content, Logical structure, Explicit content, Ambiguity low and Ready to use (the first letters conveniently spell “CLEAR”). She then did an empirical study about the clarity of Powerpoint presentations. Her presentation turned tricky at that point as she was presenting in Powerpoint herself. The conclusion was a bit obvious: knowledge communication can be designed to be more user-centred and thus more effective, clarity helps in translating innovation and potential of knowledge and can help with a clear presentation of complex and knowledge content.
Bischof did an extensive literature review and clarity is an underresearched topic. After just having read Tufte’s anti-Powerpoint manifesto I am convinced that there is a world to gain for businesses like Shell’s. So much of our decision making is based on Powerpoint slidepacks, that it becomes incredibly urgent to let this be optimal.
Never walk alone
I am at this conference all by myself and have come to realise that this is not the optimal situation. I want to be able to discuss the things that I have just seen and collaboratively translate them to my personal work situation. It would have been great to have a sparring partner here who shares a large part of my context. Maybe next time?!