Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My personal knowledge management problem

Full Disclosure:

This post and probably a couple of future posts will serve to fulfill a requirement in my graduate course on knowledge management. But I'm trying hard to approach this in such a way that such requirements are totally transparent asside from this note. Maybe I'll pull it off and this will bear some interest for folks other than my proff. Or maybe I'll totally drop the ball and not engage anyone with this content and totally screw up the assignment to boot. If so, maybe I'll at least fail spectacularly enough to get some good schadenfreude going.

I tried going through the exercises Kirby put together. The basic goal is to figure out which tasks I perform as a knowledge worker bring the most value to my organization, then figure out how much of my time I spend on those tasks vs. less valuable tasks, then try to maximize the time I can devote to the valuable stuff and minimize the time wasted (although that's a slightly harsher term than it needs to be in this context) on less valuable tasks.

I'll be honest, I don't think those exercises work for me right now. There's a couple of reasons for this.

  1. I'm 18 months in to this job and the task that has dominated my time thus far, redesigning the website (we launched the beta by the way, I don't think I took the time to announce that officially here, although I did on the Vol State blog), is not typical of the work someone in this position would be doing otherwise. Once the redesign launches, the way I work will shift, rather radically. It's hard if not impossible for me to look at the last 18 months and make conjectures for the next 18 months.
  2. The biggest drain on my productivity falls outside of my realm of influence; IE it's a trend I am powerless to address. I won't go into detail here but Kirby if you want specifics just email me and I'll fill you in.

So I've been looking at the way Kirby breaks down his model of personal knowledge management and one area I see a lot of room for improvement in the way I currently handle things is with information organization and retrieval. The sad part is I've been sitting on the tools to address this issue for years. I just need to be mindful of how I use them.

I signed up for a Ma.gnolia account back when they were still in beta. I used it for a while, then I found Stumble Upon (hereafter: SU). My thoughts at the time were that SU did all the social bookmarking stuff I had been using Ma.gnolia for with the added element of discovery of new content at the push of a button. That's true in theory. 2 years later, it's obvious that it falls apart in practice.

SU does the whole discovery thing very well. I don't think I ever would have found jQuery without SU. I had been underwhelmed by the JavaScript libraries I had seen during the first few months of that whole buzz and had pretty much written off the whole idea. I was just gonna stick to writing my own custom unobtrusive JavaScript using the Document Object Model. Now I literally use jQuery every day. My job would not be the same without it.

But I discovered jQuery at a time when I actually had the time to take on the learning curve, as gentle as it may be. The official documentation is complete enough that managing access to the information I needed to direct my own learning wasn't an issue either. The only exception I could find to that would be the plug ins, but truth be told if the plug in doesn't make intuitive sense and isn't well documented, I don't use it.

Compare that to some things I hope to learn more about in the near future, such as Drupal and Cake PHP or Perl. Or even compare it to some of the stuff I'm already using but need to reference source material rather than working from the top of my head, like regular expressions and PEAR or Active Directory. Now we're talking about steeper learning curves just as what little time to learning new skills is shaved away as I try to push the redesign through the beta testing phase and into launch. I keep stumbling onto sources for these topics, but lacking the time to fully digest them, I thumb them up and move on.

Ok, that last statement begs the question, if I don't have time to digest this stuff how do I have time to keep stumbling onto new content? First of all, SU is addictive. On top of that, it's so easy to just click the stumble button (with or without specifying a topic to stumble through, such as web design) that I can click through a fresh page or two while I'm checking in the files I just completed working on in Dreamweaver (hereafter: DW). Or while I wait for DW to generate the broken link reports I've been running lately. Actually, now that I bring that up, I really hope DW performs better on the redesigned site. The current site is such a mess of spaghetti code that DW is prone to take its sweet time or even crash when I ask it to perform a site wide action. The redesign is much leaner. Based on the work done so far, the code we shave off should be equivelant to about 68 copies of the complete works of Shakespeare. No, really. Project Gutenberg has the complete works of Shakespeare as a plain text file. I've done the math. :)

This is where the problem comes in. I find these great resources, or at least potentially great, but going back to find them later gets to be a real pain. Sometimes I don't take the time to write my own tags for a page. I just thumb it up and switch back to DW or click the stumble button again. But SU being socially driven, the tags default to the category chosen by the person submitting the site. I currently have 143 stumbles tagged with “graphic-design”. I'm not a graphic designer. I don't really even consider myself a web designer. If you want to split hairs, I consider myself more of a web developer. When I tag an article relating to design, I use “web-design”. I've got 418 of those. But it's possible I didn't personally tag all of them. If the person submitting them tagged it as “web-design” and I just thumbed it up and moved on without bothering to apply my own tags to it, then that's how it would default. It's obvious that graphic design is a pretty popular tag in the wild and the zeitgeist is polluting my tag cloud.

An Example

Over a year ago (November 1st of 2007 according to my SU history), I stumbled upon Scott Jehl's StyleMap script. At the time I thought, “This is how we need to do the org charts.”. Previously we had done the org charts in Microsoft Viso and then those files were exported to HTML. But that produces a tangled mess of frames and images. It's hard to navigate, hard to maintain, and doesn't even work on my Mac (thanks Microsoft). I thumbed it up and moved on.

In October of this year, I finally turned my attention to the org charts for the redesign. I remembered stumbling upon this script a long time ago that would be perfect. But I couldn't find it in my SU history. I tried Google searching every combination I could think of. I literally wasted an entire day trying to find this script.

The problem was the default tag the page was assigned had nothing to do with how I conceptualized the content of the page. I don't even remember what it was now and I have since gone back and edited the entry with my own tags. Google wasn't working because I had forgotten that it was written as a script to do site maps rather than org charts. To add insult to injury, when I finally dug up the article and tried to put the script into use, our org chart proved to be way too complex. But I could have discovered that in an hour had I not wasted an entire day (and part of the following morning) digging up the script.

The Problem

Partly due to flaws in the way I use it, and partly due to flaws in the way it's designed, SU is failing me as a means of efficient information organization and retrieval. In defense of the development team behind SU, it is designed more as a discovery engine than as an organization tool. And I can't sing enough praises as to how well it performs its core function.

The Solution?

So I turn my attention to my neglected Ma.gnolia account. If I start using both these tools to perform the tasks for wich they were designed, and approach my use of these tools in a mindful way, I think I can milk a lot more productivity out of my days. I'll map out that plan in a future entry. Stay tuned.

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