Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Senior Advisor, Knowledge Management Ontario Trillium Foundation

iven that ‘finding things’ appears to be one of the greatest intranet challenges, I think a lot about how to make the process of ‘looking for things’ more fruitful. Luckily for us humans, computers still need to rely on the information we

give them in order to undertake tasks like finding things. In other words, a successful computer search is always dependent on what is there to be found in the first place. So it is up to us to give our computers information that can be reused in order to find things when we need them. One of the ways to give computers this information is by giving them metadata. For example, when you tag a photo in Facebook, you are creating metadata, which is used later to find the photo again. But providing this information, sometimes altruistically and only for the collective good, is a tough sell to busy employees at a busy organizations. They have barely enough time and incentive to store their precious documents in shared spaces like intranets, let alone ‘tag’ those documents as a part of the process. We have had some success with metadata at the Ontario Trillium Foundation so I know there is hope! With the awesome success of the Google search engine which is deceptively simple, intranet users now expect all search experiences to be like Google search experiences. It is the benchmark. But it has created two camps at opposite ends of a spectrum in knowledge management (KM) and information technology (IT). At one end of the spectrum are those who believe that ‘findability’ is improved only by 1. navigation which reflects an existing and ingrained organizational understanding (such as ‘an organizational structure’), and 2. content that is tightly harnessed by a matrix of metadata using terms every user is trained to use (such as ‘policy’). At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that a successful search relies only on 1. having a critical mass of people looking for similar things, and 2. a powerful enough search engine to scrape vast amounts of data in seconds and return relevant results based on popularity.

Where are you on this spectrum? Do you want to be led to exactly what you are looking for by following a predefined route – click, click, click? Or do you want to start looking for things your own way and eventually be presented with the most likely matches – type, type, type? I believe that finding a balance between these two extremes is the magic bullet. I know I am not the first to think this but now it appears that Google and knowledge management gurus like Seth Early agree with me. Imagine that - wink, wink, wink. On May 16, Google posted a video on YouTube explaining a new initiative called 'The Knowledge Graph'. It will complement Google's existing search engine by providing users with extra information about their search results. By providing this extra information, the search results are surrounded by context which turns information into knowledge. For example, if I googled "Eiffel tower" and clicked on one of the search results, a window would appear and provide me with popular information which relates to the Eiffel Tower, such as the city of Paris, the engineer it is named after, or the World Fair for which it was built. The relationships between these pieces of information would be illustrated visually and encourage exploration of a complex web that connects the Eiffel Tower to other things such as cities, people and events. What most people don't realize is that all these pieces of information and the relationships between them already exist – it’s metadata. Google has just now chosen to reveal it and in so doing has bridged the apparent gap on the spectrum above. Maybe in another year I'll be able to say "If you want your search experience to feel like Google, you'll need to tag this document before it goes onto our intranet" and no one will question me, or my colleagues in IT! Thank you, Google. P.S. Seriously, where are you on this spectrum?

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