Knowledge Curation and Design: Gardens, not Stained-Glass Windows

“It’s a garden, not a stained-glass window” is a metaphor I came up with to talk about knowledge management, content management, ongoing curation and database management, and iterative design processes. I think I started using it about ten years ago. A few different people have recently told me how much this concept has helped them, so I’m putting it here on my blog for intellectual property/attribution reasons.[1]

Many ideas in U.S. corporate culture come from industry and manufacturing. Objects and processes in a factory, mine, or construction site have to be perfect in some ways—they have to fit in a specific slot and happen at a specific time, or other things will go badly wrong. This interchangeable parts/assembly line/standardized processes way of thinking has created efficiencies and opportunities for expansion beyond the wildest dreams of the artisanal producer.

But this industrial mindset also (in my opinion) warps our way of thinking about other kinds of work. In my professional milieu (focused mostly on knowledge management and web content strategy), many things can’t ever be perfect, or finished. I used to find this frustrating. I like finishing things: making something polished, and checking it off a list. I used to feel panicked letting something go when I knew it could be better.

We also live in a time when few things are made to last. A stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral had to be as perfect as possible; it was made to last a thousand years, unchanging. I used to feel the same way about my work—that it would be a permanent reflection of me, or of a moment captured out of time.

Then the metaphor came to me: These are gardens, not stained-glass windows.

This metaphor encapsulates and summarizes a lot of other thinking—from “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; to artistic or aesthetic traditions that acknowledge transience and imperfection (Arachne’s hubris, wabi-sabi, the apocryphal-but-appealing imperfect stitch/Persian flaw/humility square); to Seth Godin’s “Ship!” concept.

Recognizing that you need to constantly change things doesn’t mean you failed in the first place. A garden is never “finished.” You plan, and you plant, and you tend. Dig up weeds, or leave them be. Carry water, or wait for rain. Become the mother of mantises. Some things grow better than you expected (make a bigger bed for them, next year). Sometimes things don’t go well; your soil has an invisible pathogen, and all the cantaloupe plants turn to rot. A tree next door dies, or your neighbor builds a new fence, and the light in your garden changes. You have an early hot spell, and all your lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Maybe the people you are feeding suddenly become allergic to eggplant, or decide they don’t want to see another turnip until next year.

So, a small practical example: You worked hard on that user manual. You took every function into account, organized it in a way that made sense to you, and crafted the instructions carefully. But your work is not done: Watch to see how (or whether!) people use the manual. What challenges can they still not solve themselves? What questions do they still ask? Check your readability; are your sentences too complicated? Do you use words they don’t know? Check your information architecture: Do people not understand your category names or chapter titles? Maybe they don’t want a 300-page reference book at all. Maybe they want a “Top Five Tips” sheet.

Another: You made a website. People used to come to the homepage and click through the navigation to find what they are looking for; more often now they come to a specific page from Google or Facebook. They look at one thing, and they leave. Do you try to force them through the homepage—make them come through the garden gate, walk past the things they don’t want, dig for the things they do? No. You change your page aliasing, check your metadata, submit a sitemap for crawling, make sure your site search works well. Or you push new posts straight to social media. This delivers your goods to the people who want them—sometimes before they are even inside the gate—wherever they are coming from.

Your audience changes, or they want something different. The environment changes. Information changes. You can—and must—adjust to those changes. That’s how we tend the garden of human knowledge. That is the process that creates culture. It’s what knowledge management, writ large, is for. It’s how we survive, thrive, and build a better world.

[1] Like everything else on this blog, I’m offering the metaphor under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. This is my metaphor, my meme, my idea. You can use it, if you want, as long as you say it it is mine, and you’re not trying to make money from it. More details on my Fine Print page. [Go back up to reference point.]

Evidence, Innovation, and Adaptation

There’s a tension in the social sector between “evidence-based” and “innovative.” Policy-makers and funders have largely gotten behind the concept that basing decisions on evidence is a good idea. At the same time, they want to see proposals and work plans full of innovative thinking. (It’s hard to get support to keep doing what we’re doing—even if what we’re doing seems to be working just fine—without some innovation in the mix.)

This has bothered me for years on a purely semantic level. If something is truly innovative, then it hasn’t been done before. If it hasn’t been done before, it can’t possibly have been studied. If it hasn’t been studied, there can’t be evidence—at least, not rigorous, gold-standard evidence. So how can something be both “evidence-based” and “innovative”?

My answer? Adaptation.

Cultural and technological advancement—the stuff that builds humanity, that moves us forward as a species—has been driven much more by adaptation than by pure inspiration or creativity. Taking solutions proven in one context and applying them in another. Hearing or reading about pieces of diverse ideas, and fitting them together into something new. Adjusting to the cultural shock when an old way of thinking proves less than useful, or even untrue.

(More to come on this, some day. I just wanted to get the core of the thought articulated.)

Life and Death Knowledge Management: Addresses and Ebola

I just read an article about why Ebola containment has been so difficult. It’s a complex problem, certainly. There is misinformation to be overcome. There are funeral practices to be accounted for. There is equipment and training to be deployed, community health workers to teach, public health measures to be taken, an already-fragile health system to be shored up. And there is fear. But there is also something so fundamental to my professional life that it makes me weep.

In 1997, I was working at a small law firm. The three partners had a thriving practice in telecommunications law. They also had a labyrinth of a contact management system. If a client with multiple broadcast licenses (e.g., an AM license, an FM license, and a low-power FM license) moved or changed telephone numbers, we beleaguered paralegals had to update that address in at least eight and as many as eleven different places—client lists, licensee lists, accounting lists, partners’ Rolodexes.

Eleven different places. Guess what? Mistakes were made. I made one. Someone didn’t get a letter they should have. I got yelled at. I yelled back, “You know what would help? Being able to update an address once, and then be able to find it no matter what list we were looking at, the AM licensee list or the accounts receivable list or the holiday party list. It’s crazy that we have to update these things in so many places. We need a database.”

Building that contacts database was one of my formative knowledge management experiences. It turned some three-day tasks into three-hour tasks. It made our work faster and better and easier. It was life-changing, in some ways, but it was never a matter of life and death.

Almost fifteen years later I came to work on the Knowledge for Health (K4Health) Project at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. Splashed across the program’s website, its brochures, its presentation slides, were the words “Knowledge Saves Lives.” I believe that. I took on the project’s mission as my own, and I have served it to the best of my ability.

Today those words mean something different. “Knowledge Saves Lives.” According to the article, a major reason Ebola has been so hard to contain in West Africa is this: The contacts databases are not reliable.

The process that’s helped stop diseases like SARS and smallpox seems simple: Find everyone who had close contact with infected individuals and track them for 21 days. If any of these contacts comes down with the disease, isolate them from the community and repeat the process by tracking the contacts’ contacts. But tracing works only if you have a list of the contacts and their addresses…Many contacts’ addresses were missing or were vague like ‘down by the farm road.’ In all, only 20% to 30% of the contacts in the database had a usable address.

I have a new way to explain how knowledge management can, in and of itself, be a public health intervention. But I am filled with sorrow that the most basic information and communication technologies—not even high-speed Internet, not even touch-screen miracles, just “how to have an address”—have not gone far enough, fast enough to stop this monster.

For want of a nail.

Knowledge Management and Beauty

A conversation I’d like to hear more of in the knowledge management and exchange (KME) [1] space is this: It is worthwhile to spend time on design of knowledge products. People will more readily absorb knowledge that is presented in a pleasing way. You aren’t going to share your knowledge effectively if looking at your newsletter makes people’s eyeballs hurt.[2] “Look and feel” isn’t about being pretty or cool; I see it as a genuine make-or-break issue for successful knowledge management.

Look and feel—which I think of as shorthand for the Venn diagram overlap of usability, user experience, and design—is important. In my experience, most people who are vocal about the importance of look and feel are designers, so I think non-designers take that opinion with a grain of salt. “Sure, *you* think it’s important to avoid flashing-spinning-screaming things and Comic Sans, but I love my ideas, and I’m the client.” (There are many excellent summaries of this client/designer tension, including The Oatmeal’s How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell, so I’ll spend no more time on it.)

I think more people in the KM(+/-)E sphere should be concerned about look and feel—and not just about websites. Anything I produce—from an email to a print piece to a website to a conference presentation—has a look and feel. Considering look and feel, finding out what people think about it, and improving it where possible is critical to effective knowledge management and exchange.

Someone looking at a website for the first time decides in 1/20th of one second whether it looks good. That instant carries over into judgments about quality, usefulness, and reputation of a site and its content. So creating a positive first impression is a crucial first step to improving knowledge use and exchange.

If a website design makes me feel overwhelmed, I’m going to leave (that’s why I picked Google over Yahoo in the search engine wars back in the day—Google gave me a clean search box; Yahoo garbaged the search up with news and entertainment and travel options and and and…). If a brochure has jarring or out-of-context art choices (e.g., a combination of stock photography and clip art), I probably won’t read it. If a presenter is reading words from her own slides, she loses my attention. I don’t get the benefit of the attempt at knowledge exchange. In everyday life, that’s as much my fault as yours—but if you call yourself a knowledge manager, invested in knowledge exchange and uptake, it’s your responsibility to think about whether that initial 1/20th of a second will make your audience think that your website/brochure/presentation is worth more seconds, or even minutes or hours, of their attention.

[1] At some point circa 2011, I started seeing the abbreviation “KM” for “Knowledge Management” being replaced with “KME,” “KM&E”, or “KM/E”—meaning “Knowledge Management and Exchange”. The change didn’t fully take hold—”knowledge management” gets over 13,000,000 results on Google, vs. just under 6 million for “knowledge management and exchange”. I had always read the “…and exchange” as implied: To me, there’s no purpose in managing knowledge unless people use and exchange the knowledge I’m managing. Go back to reference point.

[2] I realize this whole topic marginalizes people with visual impairments. I don’t know the accessible equivalent of “look and feel”. I should probably educate myself much more on that front. Go back to reference point.

Why I Became a Knowledge Manager

In 2003, my then once-and-future-boss Piers Bocock gave me a new title, “Knowledge Manager.” It felt comfortable and satisfying. Up until that point, my career had been fairly accidental and unintentional, driven mostly by other people wanting me to work for them, more than by my own professional ambitions. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the groundwork for my knowledge-manager-ness had been laid in the 1970s.

When I was seven years old and living in England, the BBC aired James Burke’s series Connections, which is about the history of technological change. At the end of the last episode of the first series, Burke gives a monologue about the importance of computers. During much of the monologue, the camera is focused on his face, as though he is speaking directly and personally to the viewer.

He talks about computers, power, and the process of “helping people toward knowledge” as keys to the future. Remember, this was produced when computers were just emerging from the military/financial/corporate sphere. The Apple II and the TRS-80 were released the year before the program aired, but in 1980 when I was in 5th grade and we got an Apple II, I was the only kid in my class with access to a “home computer”. So his prescience here is remarkable.

When I re-watched the series in my mid-30s, I realized I had absorbed his advice whole-heartedly. Listening to that closing monologue, I felt like he was reciting something I had memorized years ago, something which had become a core piece of my personal value system, but without any conscious memory of where it had come from.

The words of James Burke, from Connections, Episode 10: “Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You” (; my slightly edited transcript below starts at 40:56 of the video.)

If Part One of the specialization of knowledge happened in the 15th century when Johann Gutenberg came up with the printing press and helped scientists to talk their own kind of gibberish to each other on the printed page, easier than they’d ever done it before, then this [the computer] is Part Two. Only this is no book that you can leaf through and get a rough idea of what it’s talking about.  This is the future. Because if you tell a computer everything you know about something, it will juggle the mix and come up with a prediction: Do this, and you’ll get that. 

And if you have information and a computer, you too can look into the future—and that is power. Commercial power, political power, power to change things. You want some of that power, easy. Go get yourself a PhD. Otherwise, the way things have become, forget it.  

… But never mind the machinery. What about the stuff this lot uses, the raw material that will change our future in ways you will never believe—information. Not the facts, it’s too late for that. What you do with the facts. Because there you’re into probability theory, choosing one of the alternate futures and actually making it happen. And how does the man in the street get involved in that game? He doesn’t.   

So when the next major change comes out of the computers, double-checked and pre-packaged, it looks increasingly like you’ve only got two options open to you. 

(1) Do nothing. Stick your thumb in your mouth. Switch your mind to neutral. 

(2) Do what people have done for centuries when machines did things they didn’t want: Overreact. Strike out. Sabotage the machines for good. Do you want that? [Somewhat overwrought montage of smashing and exploding technology.] But once you start, can you stop? Is our technology so interconnected that when you destroy one machine, you automatically trigger total destruction of the entire life-support system?  

Well, that’s no better a solution than any of the others, is it? So, in the end, have we learned anything from this look [the entire 10 episode series] at why the world turned out the way it did  that’s of any use for us, in our future? Something, I think. That the key to why things change is the key to everything: How easy is it for knowledge to spread? And that in the past, the people who made change happen were the people who had that knowledge—whether they were craftsmen or kings. 

Today, the people who make things change, the people who have that knowledge, are the scientists and the technologists who are the true driving force of humanity … [I cut out a bit here about art/politics – SP]

Scientific knowledge is hard to take [compared to the products of human emotion– art/literature/politics], because it removes the reassuring crutches of opinion and ideology, and leaves only what is demonstrably true about the world. And the reason why so many people may be thinking about throwing away those crutches is because thanks to science and technology they have begun to know that they don’t know so much. And if they are have to have more say in what happens to their lives, more freedom to develop their abilities to the full, they have to be helped toward that knowledge that they know exists, and that they don’t possess

And by “helped toward that knowledge”, I don’t mean “Give everyone a computer and say ‘Help yourself’.” Where would you even start?  

No, I mean: Try to find ways to translate the knowledge, and to teach us to ask the right questions. See, we are on the edge of a revolution in communications technology that is going to make that more possible than ever before. Or, if it [the translation/helping] is not done, to cause an explosion of knowledge that will leave those of us who don’t have access to it as powerless as if we were deaf, dumb, and blind. And I don’t think most people want that. 

 So, what do we do about it? I don’t know. But maybe a good start would be to recognize within yourself the ability to understand anything, because that ability is there, as long as it’s explained clearly enough. And then go and ask for explanations. And if you’re thinking right now “What do I ask for?”, ask yourself if there’s anything in your life that you want changed. That’s where to start. 

Screen Shot from 47:42 of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and You
James Burke’s comforting smile in the face of of a daunting future

At the end of this very serious, furrowed-brow, issues-of-importance monologue, he smiles, very slightly. It is an avuncular and gentle and kindly smile, with a hint of knowing in it. I remembered the smile. He was smiling at me, through a television in London in 1978. He was speaking directly to me, and I was listening.