Saturday, October 12, 2013

Finding the Guru

The is an old saying about finding something is often "like finding a needle in a haystack."  This was long before there were reams of digital information growing exponentially every day.  The Internet dwarfs the largest libraries combined, and while the ability to find most anything on-line is true, zeroing in on it can be daunting.  Google has famously addressed this problem with algorithms that have an uncanny ability to turn up the most relevant information.  But even Google can benefit from an experienced user of Google, much as the seasoned librarian could help you find the right book or article in the "stacks" of the campus library.

A knowledge organization manufactures information.  This grows with each meeting, each memo, report and email that each person creates, much as the Internet grows with each Blog, tweet and wall posting.  The sum total of an organizations recorded artifacts is in a very tangible way its base of knowledge.  However, it is not the sum of knowledge in an organization.  Much of that is bundled in people's experiences in the organization and with each other.  How do we tap that?

The common answer is to create a library, to gather together all the known artifacts, label them and organize them.  And encourage everyone to donate what they have and know. This is a laudable instinct, no doubt rooted in our experiences (and joys) of visiting a library.  But it depends on the building, the shelves and the staff of skilled librarians to maintain it, keep it current and accessible.  When we think of digital information, this is a losing battle.  There is just too much data changing too rapidly to keep current, even within the walls of large organization.  And as Clay Shirkey has aptly noted, "on the Internet there is no shelf."  Everything can be linked to everything else, hence the term "Web".

I remember the librarian at my college library saying that the reason they had open stacks, was for anyone to wander and peruse the aisles of books, that often the real "find" was one or two books next to where the card catalog sent you.  A Google search page result reminds me of the library shelf, as I often look at six or more links on the first page.

Most organizations depend on the realtionships formed over the years, with the knowledge that John knows the most about security, or Jill knows communications in Africa.  We learn who the go-to people are, and we readily make use of our network of people. The problem is that it takes years to build your network.  For a Humanitarian organization that must staff-up in response to a disaster this is too long.   What if we could search for people like we search for information?  Could we find the person, who like the seasoned librarian, can point us to the information we need.

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is not a new science.  It pre-dates the Internet era by at least 40 years.  Social scientists used SNA to map out the relationships in an organization based on the interactions they had rather than the corporate org chart.   Often, the interactions were not what you'd expect from reading the org chart.  A modern example is the case of the pharmaceutical company who invited 200 scientists to a conference and gave them each a digital badge that recorded who talked to who.  The real-time map of interactions showed that a half-dozen scientists were the clear connectors, and four of these were surprises.  The de facto network may be more underground than the visible structures in an organization.

Finding these underground networks is perhaps one of the top reasons for mining the corporate data and written conversations. Imagine that a new food security expert for American Red Cross arrives in South Sudan and begins surveying the situation. She wonders who else has faced a similar challenge and how they dealt with it. What she doesn't know is that a food security guru with the British Red Cross has been running some new programs in Guatemala that have been showing some promising results.  How do they find each other?

The ultimate Humantarian knowledge resource would make it easy for these two people to connect. When they do, one will point the other to the internal report and other sources that will be most useful to read.  More importantly, she will share her experience and what's worked and not.

The question being asked, is who knows what I need to know? Who is talking most about food security programs and how do I connect with them? Where is the underground food security network and how can I become a part of it. Having this kind of a knowledge search system would revolutionize Humantarian work. If we can imagine it, we can build it.

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