Information Technologies and Knowledge Management
Dr. Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist with a Seattle, Washington-based consulting and research practice, discussed the differences between information transfer and knowledge work and the implications for managers and others planning for and using information technologies. Dr. Karen Stephenson, a corporate anthropologist and the president of Netform Inc. of New York, described how informal networks of trust can be visualized and used to better integrate work space, information technology, and human behavior. J.Clay Dean, a consultant with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, discussed what can be done to facilitate the capture and dissemination of knowledge within organizations through facility design, intranets, and extranets.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGIES AND KNOWLEDGE WORK
Summary of a Presentation by Judith Heerwagen Principal, J.H.Heerwagen and Associates
When non-military, non-academic people began to use the Internet, there were great expectations of change in how work would be done. This, in turn, would result in increased innovation and productivity because there would be more information flow and communication. There was also the sense that, if people could communicate better and have more information, their knowledge would increase. At the same time, the need for physical space to work in and the need for face-to-face interaction would decrease, because they would be working in a virtual environment. Have these expectations been met?
Information technology has improved efficiency and productivity in such fields as sales and product delivery by improving work processes, but there is much less evidence that it has increased knowledge work. Although we have more ways of communicating—e-mail, cell phones—we spend more time managing this information rather than using it. We are also finding that electronic collaborations supplement but do not replace face-to-face communications.
Although the early thinking was that improved communications would reduce the need for physical space, we are finding that physical space may be more important, not less important, to knowledge work. Research indicates that memory is linked to features and attributes of the environment in ways that are not yet understood. Most of the
research has been performed on computer-user interface issues, but this has implications for real physical space as well.
We are also finding out that the environment—how we lay spaces out—has a great deal to do with social relationships and social networks. Design factors, such as the width of corridors, influence the communication potential of the space (i.e., the types of interactions people have, the potential to see people and meet spontaneously).
Researchers at Georgia Tech are examining this relationship, which they call spatial syntax. University researchers have developed software that analyzes floor plans to determine the communications potential of floor layouts. In Great Britain, researchers have found that the greater the communications potential the more likely a worker is to have useful interactions with other people. Physical space also affects a sense of belonging, the development of working relationships, and cognitive functioning.
Judith H.Heerwagen is an environmental psychologist whose research and writing have focused on workplace ecology. She has her own consulting and research practice in Seattle, where her current projects emphasize designing for teamwork and creativity. Prior to starting her practice, Dr. Heerwagen was a principal with Space, LLC, a strategic planning and design firm. At Space, she was codirector of research and helped develop metrics for the Workplace Performance Diagnostic Tool, which is being developed under the auspices of the Workplace Productivity Consortium, a national group of high-tech and financial firms. She was also a senior scientist at the Battelle Seattle Research Center, where she developed a protocol to assess the human factors and organizational benefits of green buildings.
Some of the key issues and challenges of integrating information technologies and collaborative social interactions include understanding the distinctions between information and knowledge, understanding what computers do best and what people do best, and integrating the technological infrastructure with the social and physical infrastructure.
The essence of information is that it can readily be translated into bits that can be detached, moved around, and transferred across time and space. This is the essence of the World Wide Web: information transfer and databases. They can be accessed instantly and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Knowledge, on the other hand, is connected to a person. It resides in our brains, not cyberspace. It is much more difficult to transfer. It requires relationships, talking, dialogue, mentoring, experience, what psychologists call tacit knowledge—knowing how to do something. It is associated with meaning, making sense, and understanding what it means. Knowledge cannot be produced or downloaded instantly, unlike information. What is produced when we click on a Web page is not knowledge. It is just information until we use it to change the way we think, change the way we do something. Once it is used, it becomes part of our experience, our way of doing things, our knowledge.
We frequently confuse the differences and think that if we send out information, we are sending out knowledge. The real challenge is to truly understand how we capture knowledge, not just information.
What are the implications of not recognizing these differences? One primary implication is that, because information exchange is so easy, we spend too much time sending e-mails, searching the Web, and downloading, and we do not spend enough time analyzing this information, understanding it, asking what it means for our work, for what we do, for what we produce and why.
Another concern is that this information frenzy is leading to a culture of urgency and a deficit of attention in the workplace. We have information anxiety, information overload, information addiction. We have a sense that we should be available all the time; because we have cell phones, it is okay to be interrupted everywhere we go.
This has serious implications. One of these is that we are losing the inherent rest cycles in work. The kind of downtime when we think, maybe just tune out, just go sit somewhere and watch the people go by. When we do that today, we are considered to be loafing.
When I worked at a research center in Seattle, there was a new facility with spaces between offices that had great views of the outside, comfortable chairs, lounges and tables, but no one ever used the space. I asked the center’s researchers why they did not use the informal group spaces. I was told that, if they sat in those spaces, managers would think they were not working, because the definition of working was being in your office sitting at your computer.
We are thinking of downtime for workers as being downtime in a computer (i.e., when it is not working). But downtime in humans is important, because creativity draws on the non-conscious mind for the kind of thoughts and ideas that are accessible to us primarily when we are relaxed, when we are in a totally different state of mind.
There is good psychological research being conducted on how the brain operates when people are doing non-conscious lateral thinking, which is what creativity is, as opposed to very focused analytical thinking. It shows that brainwaves during lateral thinking are much more like the patterns under relaxation conditions. So there is a need for these rest cycles, these downtimes, that we are eliminating to our own detriment.
If we look at the differences between social relationships in physical and electronic relationships, there are some real implications for the use of collaborative technologies. Social interactions in real space have “broad bandwidth” (i.e., eye contact, gestures, facial relationships, voice, smells). We can look at how others are responding. Even if we are just passively watching things go by, there is a very rich information intake that computers cannot do.
There is a rich context to our work in real space. There are stories, myths, interactions, past experience, history that wends its way into relationships and helps them make sense. In this environment, we use both central and peripheral processing, which enables learning by osmosis. And we allow people to signal their availability to others. If we do not want to be interrupted, we close our door, we sort of tune out, we turn our backs.
Electronic social interactions, on the other hand, are very task oriented. They lose the informal sociality that is associated with human interactions that turn out to be very important to relationship building. They lack a context. There is reduced peripheral processing, because all we can see is what is on the screen at that particular time. Turn taking is difficult and awkward.
It is also easier to lurk, vent, be angry, ignore, or withdraw from interactions in cyberspace, because there is less accountability.
Much work is being done in new technologies to add social and emotional context to electronic interactions. New collaborative technologies often have rooms with tables. People have little pictures they put at the virtual table to represent themselves. Some even allow people to put different facial expressions on their pictures to show if, for example, they are amused or irritated. Other technologies are trying to capture the information flow and knowledge behind discussions so that we can track how an idea evolved. At MIT’s media lab, researchers are analyzing the emotional characteristics of words used in chat rooms. They print these out as bandwidth so that they can see the emotional intensity and level of communication.
A key challenge is trying to understand when information technology helps and when it hinders interactions and understanding. We need to assess available and emerging tools and try to identify the technologies that best fit a particular process. Currently, technology infrastructure is typically in one province within organizations, social infrastructure is in another, and physical infrastructure is in a third. They are all dealt with separately, by separate people, separate issues, and there is very little interaction. Organizations need to understand where these functions overlap and to design for them. And they need to see them with a systems perspective, where they are all dealt with simultaneously. How do we get there? First, we have to understand the nature of work. What type of collaborative process are we talking about? How frequently is collaborative work being pursued? For what purpose, with whom, and how much time is spent in solitary versus teamwork?
Research on teamwork is producing interesting results. At Fidelity Investments and Sun Microsystems we found that people spend much more time in solitary work than in teamwork. There was a sense that they were always working in teams, but they were not.
At Fidelity I studied spaces they had designed to enhance collaboration. They had many open spaces; a very pretty, new facility. People said they liked the spaces, they were fun to be in, but they did not use them very much for the collaborative activities they were planned for because they did not have any reason to collaborate. Thus, the organization and its leaders have to engineer that collaboration by giving people a reason to work together, and then the tools and spaces will come together.
Information technologies that help one kind of process are not necessarily useful to another. Procedural work—tasks such as status checking, integrating tasks, coordinating schedules, reporting writing and revision—
can be done asynchronously; many of these are the kinds of activities for which information technologies are extremely useful.
Analytical processes have to do with problem identification, problem and data analysis, deciding how to proceed, selecting strategies, getting and giving help quickly. These processes can be both asynchronous and synchronous and again are useful applications for information technology.
But the collaborative, creative process requires much interaction and debate. Electronic brainstorming tools can be useful with these processes, but much of this effort is going to have to be face-to-face, people really discussing ideas and looking at what works best and why. When there is much interaction and social bandwidth, it’s a more difficult process to do electronically.
For each of the collaborative processes there are different social needs and characteristics. If there is no existing group, it is going to be difficult for the people to have good discussions, because we need to establish those kinds of initial relationships before people are really willing to go much farther in terms of letting their ideas out, of trusting somebody. So there has to be a natural development of relationships.
Researchers have barely dealt with the issue of physical supports. What do we do with new technologies? How do we integrate them into space?
Maybe we need a special room where we can use desktop video or not use it. Location, sound, lighting—all of these become important, as well as big displays. If we are going to have much more display on walls, the space has to be different to accommodate that kind of technology.
There are many technological tools out there that promote collaboration, but which is best depends upon a thorough analysis of the cognitive and social aspects of the collaboration. It comes down to understanding people and how they work.
HUMAN RESOURCES, ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR, AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE
Summary of a Presentation by Karen Stephenson President, Netform, Inc.
When we move people in and out of facilities we can measure those facilities and put a number on them. We often cannot, however, put a number on the impact on our culture or on the operations or on the business when we physically move people from place to place. The idea that we can measure human resources as an asset on the balance sheet has been much talked about but rarely converted to action. At Netform, Inc., we have taken 25 years of research and have looked at macro patterns and micro rules. We have put them together into an application service provider (ASP) with which we can now measure the human asset—what we call intellectual capital—and look at the impact that physical space has on it. We can change those environments and measure the impact the change had on productivity and the bottom line to the business.
Karen Stephenson, president of NetForm, Inc., is a corporate anthropologist and a professor of management. She speaks on the scientific principles of network management at several universities, such as California State University, Columbia, MIT, and the University of California, Berkeley and Los Angeles. Dr. Stephenson researches and publishes in the areas of scenario planning, the networked organization, and organizational innovation and change. She has transformed an academic methodology called “network analysis” and uses it to reveal the often unseen interrelationships of human or knowledge capital in organizations.
An organization’s culture is not an abstract concept; it is the networks of trust that bind people together. In any organization there are two parallel universes: one of authority from which unfolds formal rules and procedures and a second through which trust and informal understandings are transmitted and a good portion of the real work is done. The former is characterized by a hierarchical structure and the latter by networks.
Hierarchical structures are designed to build rules, procedures, and policies with which we get work done. The purpose is to eliminate uncertainty, to provide certainty to daily routine. Bureaucracy is not hierarchy but is the combination, usually dysfunctional, between a hierarchy and a network.
Traditional managers understand the hierarchy. What they fail to see is the network of relationships that runs through their hierarchy, because networks are built from trust and trust is invisible and ubiquitous. Collegiality characterizes these networks and is evidenced in such factors as innovation and elevator conversations. The water-cooler phenomenon—at one time considered insignificant in business and government—is now understood from research to be an important font of early innovation that is often untapped and lost because it is not recognized.
Hierarchies can be managed explicitly, but networks must be managed implicitly. The wise leader knows how to invoke one of these structures relative to the other and when to do it. Facilities planners and designers who understand the dynamics of these networks can develop better environments for their organizations by looking at the built environment both from space planning and from the interior architecture of knowledge.
Trust is an invisible human utility. Within it flows shared knowledge linking people together, but like an underground utility, people do not see where the lines are buried. Distinguishing trust from traffic is critical to understanding networks. First, if you truly have bonds of trust, then like a rubber band, the trust can be stretched through space. Although it may be stretched and stressed, the linkage is there, is strong, and will snap back in place.
Hence, in moving knowledge around, those we most trust with knowledge are often better placed in different and disparate locations (geographical regions, different buildings) where their knowledge is best transferred to those who most need it. Secondly, mobility may be less important in “fast companies” than directionality (e.g., the desire to run to, not away from, problems). This means that new measures can be put in place to target new behaviors. Solutions range from managerial interventions to changing the way we occupy space in the office. For example, when looking at organizations undergoing mergers or acquisitions it is important to know whether the cultures will assimilate rapidly or slowly. If they do not assimilate rapidly, potential profits will be lost. By looking at the key knowledge holders in an organization and involving them in the change management process you can facilitate such an assimilation.
Office layout can become a barrier separating people. I begin analyzing an organization by distributing a questionnaire to its employees that asks about which people they have contact with: Whom do you like to spend time with? Whom do you talk to about new ideas? Where do you go to get expert advice? The idea here is that interior space can stimulate productivity and actually affect business results in a measurable way.
Every name in the company becomes a dot on a graph, and lines are drawn between all those who have regular contact with each other. People in the organization fit into one of three patterns.
The first pattern is a hub, as in a hub-and-spoke system. People at a hub have connections to many more people than anyone else and on my charts, lines radiate from them like spokes on a wheel. These are the ones other people go to in order to get information. Organizations need to give them an environment that allows access. There are also going to be times when they need to have control, so give them a place where they can get away.
The second pattern is the gatekeeper who serves as a bridge between hubs. Although not connected to as many people, gatekeepers are strategically connected. They control access to critical people and link together a few disparate but strategic groups. Gatekeepers can block information and they can transmit ideas. They are brokers; so you might want to put them at the perimeter and give them adjoining areas with tables and chairs, and white boards.
The third pattern is the pulsetaker, someone who is maximally connected to everyone via indirect routes. The pulsetaker is a behind-the-scenes person, unseen, but all seeing, a touchstone for culture. When you analyze the charts there are always people who seem to have many indirect links to other people, who are part of all sorts of networks without necessarily being in the center of them. They are roamers. Rather than give them one fixed work location, you might give them a series of touchdown spots where you want them to stop and talk. You want to enable their meandering.
If you ask people who they want to sit next to, they will pick out someone they trust. What managers should do is put people who do not trust each other in the vicinity of each other, close enough so that they are in your path. To get the knowledge indirectly communicated to many people, think about placing a hub in an innovation network next to the pulsetaker in an expert network. In this way you can thread innovation through a culture, a building, even one floor of a building.
Smart designs of new offices and new facilities help people behave and socialize in ways that they otherwise would not. We know two truths: (1) humans are contextual and (2) work is fundamentally social. The challenge before us then is to design serendipitous interactions in a way that make people both productive and happy wherever they are and whenever they interact, from 9 to 5 or 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT AT THE NAVAL FACILTIES ENGINEERING COMMAND
Summary of a Presentation by J.Clay Dean Consultant to the Naval Facilities Engineering Command
Knowledge management is at the intersection of culture, philosophy, and technology. It is what we know, how we know, and how we share. The concept is to combine information from a number of sources so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) is developing a means of capturing and institutionalizing the knowledge gained by the hard work of many so that it can be used to help facilities managers take control of the process of resource management and change.
To this end NAVFAC has launched a knowledge management program with two principal elements:
J.Clay Dean, P.E., assists the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Chief Engineer in establishing a knowledge management program for the facilities engineering community across NAVFAC. Mr. Dean was chief knowledge officer for a defense contractor firm. He spent 25 years in the Navy, where he was the senior leader of three public works organizations. As a result of his reengineering efforts (through the use of technology applied to customer service), Vice President Al Gore awarded Mr. Dean and his team the Hammer Award in 1996. Other assignments included the Joint Staff in Korea, State Department, and Department of Defense Installations Management Office.
Participation in the foundation knowledge portal at the CADD/GIS Technology Center at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Information Technology Laboratory in Vicksburg, Mississippi (http://foundationknowledge.com). The portal is designed to capture, leverage, and share knowledge among the government facilities management staff. The desire is to eventually have greater industry collaboration in public settings.
Creation of the NAVFAC engineering network (E-net), a group of 31 technical discipline leaders and their communities, supported by an intranet serving NAVFAC customers around the world.
There are a number of reasons for the interest in knowledge management, including:
leveraging experience by interaction among peers;
retaining knowledge in anticipation of retirements;
facilitating customer support; sharing and retaining corporate and individual knowledge;
improving response to data calls;
enhancing decision support; and
improving linkage with operations.
In developing knowledge management tools NAVFAC will apply a building-block approach that will allow novices to look at briefings and reports on given subjects. As interest increases personnel will be able to collaborate and engage in knowledge sharing activities.
The initial focus of knowledge management in the E-net is the NAVFAC’s Engineering Service Center’s engineering field divisions and activities. The emphasis is on engineering, community, succession, and expertise management.
The E-net collaboration structure is led by 31 technical discipline leaders (TDLs). These leaders were identified as part of the engineering core competency (see Figure 3). The TDL’s are aligned with functional areas
and competencies. This provides the essential reason to collaborate. We have defined the roles and missions of engineering communities. An example of an E-net community of practice could be pavements or environmental cleanup. The community can focus this talent on resolving specific problems identified by a customer or from within the group.
A technical discipline leader will coordinate the efforts of subject-matter experts, called technical centers of expertise. The technology is a simple one: threaded e-mail; however, people must use it and leave their e-mail so it can be saved.
Technical discipline leaders may sponsor online forums using threaded e-mail. This tool helps capture knowledge because dialogues can be saved to form a searchable database. NAVFAC will assess collaboration tools for increased functionality on the E-net based on technical discipline leader requirements.
Subject matter experts are also forming communities of practice to discuss specific problems or issues within specific areas. A contractor is supporting NAVFAC in the creation of an environmental GIS community of practice that is based on a NAVFAC study on best practices. Additional information about the study is available online at <http://foundationknowledge.com/library>.
Lessons learned are an important part of knowledge management, but they are not easy to capture unless there is a reason to submit one. But, if capturing the lesson is embedded in the process, then the chances of capturing a lesson increase because you have already typed out something (e.g., this bolt shears off at this force; do not use that bolt). You can capture that text, drop it into your lessons learned form, and submit it. NAVFAC is implementing the Army Corps of Engineers’ DrCheks program for design management and review, which has a lessons-learned feature. It is also studying Web-based tools for E-net process support and collaborating with the CADD/GIS Technology Center to tie the previously mentioned elements together.