David Weinberger and retiring the myth of non-scalable conversations

If enough people are in a conversation, one of them will be an expert. The larger the crowd, the more unexpected will be the expertise contained within it.

Of course, “larger” in this case may mean thousands, or tens of thousands. And, to uncover really obscure expertise, you may need millions of people. Of course that also means that you’ll need a social environment where obscure expertise can rise to the top. But that’s supposed to be impossible: Conversation doesn’t scale, we were told.

We were told wrong.

Unexpected expertise – KMWorld Magazine

Real progress in artifical intelligence


Finally, however, in the last decade ­Hinton and other researchers made some fundamental conceptual breakthroughs. In 2006, Hinton developed a more efficient way to teach individual layers of neurons. The first layer learns primitive features, like an edge in an image or the tiniest unit of speech sound. It does this by finding combinations of digitized pixels or sound waves that occur more often than they should by chance. Once that layer accurately recognizes those features, they’re fed to the next layer, which trains itself to recognize more complex features, like a corner or a combination of speech sounds. The process is repeated in successive layers until the system can reliably recognize phonemes or objects.

via New Techniques from Google and Ray Kurzweil Are Taking Artificial Intelligence to Another Level | MIT Technology Review.

David Kay on knowledge sharing challenges

David Kay is one of the best knowledge management consultants (if not best consultants) I’ve known.  As anyone who knows him will attest, David’s one of the few consultants that ‘gets it’.  Real change in organizations, particularly with knowledge management, is not as much about technology implementation as it is about process transformation.  And, process transformation rarely happens unless there is an organizational culture that is amenable to change.

Over at his blog, David has an excellent post about warning signs he’s seen in corporate cultures over the last decade of consulting.  While he’s focused on the knowledge sharing process, the post could apply to just about any corporate transformation effort.  Representing the technology vendor’s point of view in many instances, I found myself nodding with each of his eleven points, especially point number eleven:


11. A lousy work environment, food service, and coffee.  Look, we’re not all going to work in the Googleplex with free gourmet lunches and company-branded ice cream treats.  But we spend a lot of time at work, and our mental state there matters, and our heads are influenced by our environment.  (There’s a reason they spent so much time building cathedrals in the Middle Ages.) If I go to an office building that’s dingy, dreary, sterile, and cut off from natural sunlight, I know something.  If the coffee service comes out of 1950s-style glass carafes and hotplates with generic pre-ground beans in foil packets, I know something.  If people resign themselves to the depressing burger-and-fries or meatloaf options at the cafeteria, I know something.  And if the company hasn’t spent the money for decent computers, double monitors, comfortable ergonomic chairs, and IT that works, I really know something.  I know the company doesn’t really care about the employees, no matter what they say, and it’s going to be wickedly hard to get the team excited about taking on a new challenge.

via  DB Kay & Associates 

The cafeteria comment made me laugh as I was reminded of a large company cafeteria I visited where there was a five cent up-charge to use plastic utensils (for EACH utensil).  You can only imagine what the morale level was at that now defunct large company.

Check out David’s post, I’m certain it’ll remind you of places you’ve seen as well.

End of an era in knowledge management

Earlier today, Oracle announced an agreement to acquire knowledge management vendor InQuira.  Given InQuira’s deep integration with legacy Oracle products, and despite partnerships with SAP and Genesys, it was just a matter of time that Oracle absorbed InQuira.  R.Ray Wang explains why Oracle finally pulled the trigger:

InQuira “is one of the top knowledge management vendors in the business,” said analyst Ray Wang, CEO of Constellation Research. “They’ve been positioning for a sale to Oracle or SAP for the past 24 months.”

While knowledge management is “a critical component” of CRM systems, most have “a big gap in this area,” Wang added.

It might seem that a vendor such as Oracle, which already had content management and enterprise search capabilities, could build out its own knowledge management system. But the fact is that knowledge management is “a specialized niche,” not only in terms of technology but the customer base, Wang said.

via Oracle Buys InQuira to Boost Fusion CRM | PCWorld Business Center.

The last point that Ray makes is key, knowledge management is a specialized niche, a niche that ultimately wasn’t big enough to sustain standalone vendors.  To put it another way, enterprise KM turned out to be a small pond.

Having spent many years in that pond, I can tell you it was a tough place to swim.  While we all might have thought we were creating a blue ocean for ourselves, market realities and shortsighted sales strategies ended up creating a red ocean.  Knowledge management in this red ocean required access to channels, or flows of knowledge.  That meant ultimate dependency on the owners of those channels – the CRM vendors.  So it comes as no surprise that the last fish in that small pond gets gobbled up by the largest CRM vendor.

The era of bulky, on-premise enterprise KM is over, but that doesn’t mean a blue ocean doesn’t exist for KM.

Forrester’s Kate Leggett also offers some good insight on the announcement as well.

Thoughts from Dreamforce (Salesforce Developer Conference 2008)

Sunday night Dreamforce reception

Image by Mountjoy via Flickr

Last week I was at the Salesforce developer conference, Dreamforce 2008.  Most of the significant news (linked below) to emerge from the Moscone Center was tied to the theme of ‘Cloud Computing‘.  This included announcements related to the availability of Facebook integration, the ability for customers to host their websites on the Salesforce ‘Cloud’ (a service known as Sites), and the continued expansion of the force.com platform into areas far and wide (verticalization).  Companies usually wait for major conferences to make major announcements, and most of the new news created the appropriate level of buzz in the hall, and on the web.  Clearly Salesforce sees their existing SaaS model extending beyond hosted enterprise software, and deeper into other parts of the infrastructure business as well.  In general, Dreamforce was full of optimism at a time, and in a market, that is in need of such excitement.  Some even ventured to call it the ‘Cloud Computing Woodstock‘, perhaps inspired by the presence of Neil Young.  On a more serious note, beyond the major introductions made, there were other important vibes to groove to.  Here are some thoughts.

Salesforce Adds Robust Knowledge Management to Customer Service and Support

This was also, I believe, the first major event for Salesforce after their acquisition of Instranet, the European based knowledge management application company.  Throughout the three day conference, Salesforce Knowledge Management (SKM) – as Instranet has now been relabeled – played an important role in many of the presentations that I attended, and reflects the growing importance of the customer service and support (CS&S) space for Salesforce.  In the last year or so, I’ve noticed an increased presence of Salesforce in the CS&S space.  With SKM Salesforce closes a major hole in their CS&S product offering.  Based on the the demonstrations that I saw of the SKM product, they are now poised to make a major play for CS&S mindshare in the U.S.  Instranet has been a big player on the European scene, with a significant share of the incumbent Telcos and other high volume, low complexity call centers in the Old World.

SKM approaches CS&S knowledge management differently than the traditional KM vendors in CS&S.  It is a much lighter application to deploy than the established players in CS&S knowledge management.  By light, I mean that SKM does not need a lot of administrative tweeking or constant management of ontological or taxonomic layers.  The added flexibility allows for customers to ‘hard code’ processes around SKM, which is critical in many high volume call centers.  By baking in processes, these large call centers effectively reduce training time.  For Salesforce, adding a ‘light’ application to their solution stack makes a whole lot of sense as it plays to the core sales proposition of their entire suite of applications, which is to provide rapid deployment that, in return, begins to pay benefits (ROI) immediately.  Light doesn’t necessarily mean lightweight, as I have heard that SKM is working its way through the Consortium for Service Innovation’s Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) verification process.  When verified, Salesforce will be one of the few KCS verified companies that will have an integrated incident management, knowledge management solution.

Multi-Tenant Integration may lead to  real rewards for Customer Service and Support (and product management)

Recently, Salesforce has enabled seamless Salesforce to Salesforce (StoS) integration which allows two Salesforce hosted instances to be integrated by application administrators, and doesn’t require complex coding.  This multi-tenant integration was demonstrated on the second day in the lead-up to Michael Dell‘s Keynote.  The demo focused on how, through multi-tenant integration, Dell was effectively building an opportunity supply chain through which downstream distributors, and Dell, could coordinate sales activities.  In this instance, the integration allowed for a tighter relationship than traditional partner management systems did.  The demo got me thinking about how this type of integration could be used to enhance customer service and support.

A major challenge that I’ve seen many call centers, and help desks, deal with is managing customer exceptions on products developed by other companies (think wireless telcos reselling handsets, for example).  Many manufacturers today incorporate OEM solutions into their final product.  When these products encounter exceptions, the manufacturer often has to deal with both their own product issues and those of the OEM embedded product.  I’ve visit some call centers where that OEM exception rate can be upwards of 80%!  Basically this means that those call centers are spending more time handling someone eleses exceptions than their own.  This has two major implications.  First, the overhead of dealing with downstream exceptions skews the cost of running the call center.  Second, the downstream OEM manufacturer, usually, never receives a detailed understanding of how – and how many – exceptions are caused by their product.  In one instance that I observed several years ago, the OEM product was not only causing a high level of exceptions, but the final product manufacturer was overlooking a performance guarantee from the OEM because the exception handling wasn’t fully understood.  In an integrated CS&S ‘supply chain’, two critical elements could be easily addressed.

Some of this is totally speculation on my part, but I’m assuming that Salesforce will eventually expose CS&S to CS&S integration.  If so, two way CS&S relationships could be enabled to enhance both the support agent experience and the overall product experience.  First, integrated analytics could be exposed to OEM support agents which would allow them to be more proactive in dealing with upstream support issues.  Second, OEM product management would have a greater insight into product exceptions, and this insight would be faster delivered than traditional modes.  Third, knowledge sharing relationships could be created whereby the combined knowledge-base, through the SKM product, would reflect a broader understanding of both the final product and the OEM product.

Of course, this is all predicated on all the companies involved using Salesforce as their CS&S solution.  For Dell, their sheer size must play a key role in their ability to influence their partners’ choice of SFA applications.

Final Thoughts

I attended Dreamforce on behalf of a non-profit, Silk Screen, that I’m actively involved with.  At Silk Screen we have been very grateful for Salesforce’s Foundation donation of seat licenses.  It makes our management of resources more efficient, and most importantly, lets us apply our funding to the central cause of the organization.  What pleasantly surprised me at Dreamforce was how central the Foundation’s activities are in the corporate culture.  I learned quite a lot from the sessions I attended on the non-profit front as well.

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The Powerset acquisition and what it means for Microsoft’s enterprise software business

Since the rumor about Microsoft’s $100M acquisition broke last week (now no longer a rumor, but a fact), I’ve had several people ask me on my take of where Microsoft is headed with this new tool in its search toolbox. First let me frame my angle here. Over the last four years I’ve worked in the small but interesting enterprise software space of knowledge management. One of the key elements of successful knowledge management is the ability to ‘find’ knowledge. As I recently wrote in a KM World article (Your Customers can Search, but do they Find?), finding implies a level of intelligence beyond simple keyword search. This is where natural language processing (NLP) technologies come into play. As with the field of knowledge management, NLP has been in and out of favor over the last decade. With the Powerset acquisition, Microsoft is clearly betting that NLP is not only back in favor, but Powerset’s brand of NLP is the best available in the market. That being said, here’s my take:

Most of the quick analysis of Microsoft’s move was focused too narrowly on the entire Yahoo acquisition drama, and Microsoft’s attempts to challenge Google, but Microsoft’s own Don Dodge stepped in with an excellent post of where the real potential of the Powerset acquisition lies:

1. Powerset technology is more about indexing the content and understanding its meaning, than the query itself. This has enormous implications.

2. There are many lucrative markets for this technology…not just consumer web search.

The second point is worth noting first. Of course Microsoft will use Powerset to enhance its struggling consumer search properties, but incorporating Powerset into its many enterprise applications has as much potential as a consumer solution. The enterprise approach can manifest itself in two of Microsoft’s most critical corporate infrastructure properties, Sharepoint and Exchange. Once a clunky file sharing server, Sharepoint has evolved into a venerable knowledge management platform that can also handle many modes of collaboration. If Microsoft incorporates Powerset’s NLP into Sharepoint, that platform will emerge as a serious threat to many of the pure enterprise knowledge management, content management software vendors that currently dot these markets. Many of these vendors routinely sell their technology as a replacement for the inadequate built-in search for Sharepoint. A Powerset integration could change the equation. Additionally, incorporating Powerset NLP into Exchange, Microsoft’s anchor platform in the enterprise, could add a layer of intelligent search that has yet to be addressed by other vendors. While it may prove impossible to regain significant marketshare in the consumer world, Microsoft has a significant opportunity to consolidate control in the enterprise knowledge management arena. Powerset’s technologies could play an integral part of this consolidation.

Now, back to Dodge’s first point. Indexing and enabling textual search on content is a relatively old, and easy task. Grafting meaning to that index is where the game changes. Intelligent search, or search with an implied meaning, will return ‘answers’ as opposed to ‘results’. There is a significant point to be understood here. In the traditional mode of searching, search engines are designed to bring back the entire subset of content where there are keyword matches. This can result in hundreds, thousands, and often times hundreds of thousands of ‘hits’ that are returned. Google’s strength is identifying these hits and then representing the most popular results at the top of the result set. Intelligent search is different. In fact a good measure of intelligent search is how few results are returned. Since intelligent search first attempts to find meaning on indexed content, the resulting hits returned by an engine like Powerset should only include that content which is in context to the entered query. This can have a huge impact in enterprise deployments of traditional search, but as Dodge says in his post, the utility of receiving ‘answers’ can be extended beyond content search to include advertisement targeting, and other enterprise focused solutions.

While it’s too early to know exactly what Microsoft will do with Powerset, I think it is as important to watch the enterprise software angle on this acquisition as the consumer angle.