A blog looking at business communication, knowledge management, scripting tools, OS technology news and other things of interest to mobile tech workers. As I find interesting news this will also contain pointers to thoughts related to configuration managment, change management and general software development.
I've been using MoinMoin as my personal information management platform for the last several weeks. This had several goals. First, I needed to get my growing collection of documents under control. Secondly, I really wanted to dive into wikis a lot deeper and this gives me a great chance to do just that.
So here is a brief update about what I have found so far.
I am amazed at how useful the auto linking and document templating is for PIM type functions. It is really a snap to put some rudimentary organization on the material and then let it develop from there.
I was initially worried that what I needed was more structured database style storage for contact information and such, but doing it freeform doesn't seem to have anty real disadvantages that I have found yet.
MoinMoin has a pretty cool regex based query tool that lets you collect links to other pages. I have made good use of this to create a very low maintenance set of navigation pages so my info is only one to two clicks away. Very Handy.
Wikis really help me write ... all the fuss about how it really is designed for writers not readers is apparently true, at least in my case. I find it easier to write in my wiki than in MS Word. Perhaps less clutter? More focus on the words?
I have also made use of editmoin which allows me to use vim to edit my documents which may contribute to the ease of writing somewhat. Here is an Infoworld article noting that writers tend to work in minimal writing tools. Maybe that is partly what I've experienced.
I have had to spend sometime on buffing up the css stylesheets. This is mainly because a lot of my formal documents need to get emailed out to customers and I have been converting them to PDF and sending them that way. This required some adjustment to the styles.
[Note to MoinMoin developers: It would be cool if the print preview used a different stylesheet... Then I could highlight uncreated WikiWords in the regular view but not the print view ...]
Finally, I am using JPluck to sync the content of my Wiki to my Palm Pilot. That way all the info I need is always at my fingertips. It took some adjustments to the spidering controls to get it to focus only on what I wanted, but it has worked out very well.
So far this has been extremely successful. More reports as events warrent ;-)
Distributed Teams and Democratic Communication Patterns - Part I
''Knowledge on the road'' is partly about how a highly distributed organization like the one I work for, can use community software to enhance both service delivery as well as make life better for people on the road. By ''highly distributed'' I basically mean a professional services organization whose members by and large work on their own at client sites. This is especially common in post sales consulting organizations. The premise of this post is that this kind of organization faces a simple but huge learning / knowledge management hurdle: distance. This is hardly necessary to say but I think that the distance's impact on a learning organization hasn't been highlighted.
My experience tells me that one of the effects that distance has on us ist that is changes the way we communicate. I have observed that distance changes the principal direction that communication takes. Instead of being mostly horizontal (peer to peer) as it is for a non-distributed group, a highly distributed group mostly communicates vertically to management and administration. It is just too hard to do peer communication. We already get enough email, and email blasts are instrusive and tend to degenerate quickly and are headache, we're in different timezones so we don't often chat over the phone. There just isn't a lot of opportunity for peer to peer interaction.
For this reason, communication patterns emerge that focus on communication back to head office and admin but not to each other as peers. Personal publishing/weblogging/RSS provides some fundamental tools to spark the peer to peer conversation while still not being instrusive. It provides an opportunity to collaborate in ways that might not be possible otherwise. It also is an incredibly good tool for making knowledge contagious ... and Blogging has gone corporate. This is a good thing.
Going corporate basically means it is being used in two main ways. First, type A marketing folks are all over this. Its is an opporunity for Microsoft, Google, Apple, Disney, you name them, to put a human face on the company. So, unofficial / official blogs have sprung up where company employees can give the world their perspective on life inside these organizations. These are incredibly popular. Here is an article about this happening at Microsoft (http://dijest.com/aka/2003/10/08.html). Here is a further link to someone advocating this angle (http://weblog.siliconvalley.com/column/dangillmor/archives/001437.shtml#comments). That article has a lot of jumping off spots regarding using bloggin in this way.
OK, so thats the marketing angle, the other is the intranet & knoweldge management angle or weblogs behind the firewall, free from the public's prying eyes. In order to understand why this is so significant, we need to review a couple of things about how blogging works.
''Blogging in organizations = lowering the barriers to expression + lowering the barriers to attention.''
What they are talking about is the interaction between two technologies:
This is essentially personal publishing software. It very often has an offline element to it, in other words you can write when you feel the urge and sync it when you have a good connection. Which is to say it has a server portion, usually plugged into either IIS or Apache and a client portion where the source for the blog lives. When you post to your blog, you run a process on your laptop and the post is pushed up to the server.
Aggregation via RSS.
RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication ... depending on who you talk to. The idea is that I can "subscribe" to a website (blog) and then as the author posts to it, I receive those articles, usually the full text, in a piece of software called an Aggregator. Its called an Aggregator because it brings all the content of all the website you care about into one view or tool. Webloggers use their aggregators to find much of the content for their own blogs ... ie so and so said x about y and here is why I agree or disagree etc. To get an idea about what aggregators are all about look here (http://www.ojr.org/ojr/lasica/1043362624.php) for a list of the available aggregators look here (http://www.hebig.org/blogs/archives/main/000877.php).
I think that this combination of publish and subscribe technologies starts to restore some of the missing 'watercooler talk' that is so important to establishing peer to peer communication channels in a highly distributed group. The impact is that slowly the direction that communication channels take slowly becomes more democratized, more peer to peer as everyone becomes both a publisher and a subscriber. It doesn't have to up the ladder and then down, it is available across the organization. I think that it is the direction angle where weblogging and RSS can really have a tremendous impact for a distributed organization.
When Cooperation Breaks Out, Civilizations Advance
As a mobile technology professional (ok an on the road every day of the working week consultant) cooperation with my peers is extremely difficult and yet when it happens the rewards are great. I believe that the impact that community or collaborative tools can have on mobile professionals is even greater than on people who have opportunities to interact face to face on a regular basis. This is kind of like an un-tapped market for collaboration ...
Bill Venners interviews Ward Cunningham (Link Simon Willison), initial creator of wiki. He has an interesting view about the suitability of Wiki for business. Noteable W. Cunningham quotes:
For questions like, "What's going on in the project," we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what's not important about what's going on in the project. What's important about the project is the stuff that you don't anticipate...
In addition, wikis work best in environments where you're comfortable delegating control to the users of the system...
Wiki has a feel of brainstorming, though it's not as interactive. You can do 10 minutes of brainstorming, and 30 minutes of analysis of the product of that brainstorming, and have something in 45 minutes. The pace on wiki is slower. You could write a page about an idea, or maybe a page about a bunch of ideas. Then you could come back in a week and see what's developed on that page. But if you came back in 15 minutes, not much would have happened. Things happen in a pace of days or weeks on wiki, because people tend to browse by the day or week...
What you get as a wiki reader is access to people who had no voice before...
Do you think that's a viable area for knowledge management?
It's really interesting for internal communications. The term "knowledge management" has gotten a bad wrap, but some people say that's because systems have gotten too complicated. A Blogger-like system is the lowest common denominator to putting stuff up, which may be its benefit. If you can easily search over that stuff or follow topics of interest, I think it could be interesting, but it's not yet well explored...
Also, everyone is linking to Seymour M. Hersh's article in the New Yorker titled THE STOVEPIPE. Mr. Hersh also appeared on NPR's All Things Considered reviewing the article. Check out the audio here. Scary stuff.
... it describes in clear, everyday language how we should think about security in the modern world and why even the most sophisticated (especially the most sophisticated) security systems are likely sometimes to fail.
Sounds like something that won't make sleeping on a plane any easier ...
Scobel watches 618 websites and counting ... wow. If you want to stay current, aggregators are definately the way to go ... or just read The Scobleizer Weblog ;-)
Aggregators really do change the way you think about the web... I find myself shunning sites that don't have a full rss feed that includes the full text of articles. I often don't write down references to articles I hear about on the radio knowing that someone in the my aggregator's list of weblogs (not nearly as big as Scobel's) will pick it up for me. Its like that Intelligent Agent stuff ... but it works.
Thanks to Scoble, the human aggregator, for this link. Besides pointing out the names of the winners, it also details some of the characteristics of what a good intranet site might look like and do.
Also intriguing are Robert Scoble's comments about Microsoft's intranet, particularly the references in the comments to the post about how it is descentralized. I think this is an angle that is especially important for an organization teeming with road warriors.
I continue to examine using wiki technology for mobile workers. So far, I have created a local install of MoinMoin, a Python wiki look a like for personal experimentation with wiki tools.
The weird thing was that without really consciously setting out to do it, I found it was a great way to manage my personal information. It just seemed such a natural way to organize information. I found myself quickly creating links to pages and then quickly adding the content... It was easy to link the information to multiple topics so that it was easy to find my stuff.
For example, I have to keep track of client contact data, status reports, assorted documents and comments while I work at a client site. It was quick to setup a customer list page, create the customer page, add a link to an engagement list, status reports, etc. You can easily create page templates for creating more structured content like status reports etc.
Also, all this stuff was quickly added to my user's home page ... and all full text searchable. It is 100% better than leaving it all buried in MS Word docs in a directory structure... Wiki as a PIM ... who would have thought.
Here is a great piece at Information Today by David Mattison on the same topic. It is also a fantastic summary of the various tools and includes a good comparison of blogs and wikis for the uninitiated.
Here are some links to others doing the same thing:
In evaluating group collaboration tools over the last little while, I have run into a problem with wiki technology. My main goal has been to look at solutions that will help mobile information workers better collaborate. The point is that we are as a rule almost never in the same place. Worse still is that internet connectivity, while common, is absent in places where we most often work. Like Airplanes, which is where I am as I write this now.
Slowly, wide internet access to wifi, high speed in hotel, etc is helping increase the connectivity options. However, it seems that highly mobile information workers still suffer from frequent drought when it comes to net access.
What got me thinking about this direction was a recent exploration of wiki's, TWiki in particular. This toolset is especially attractive for mobile knowledge workers. More so, I think, than others, we suffer from stale information, or worse missing information. This dearth of even accurate information is partly caused from the great distance that separates us, lack of frequent interaction (watercooler conversations as a rule can't happen), etc.
For those reasons, something like a wiki looks like a fantastic solution. Group editing of web content in a central place would go a long way to solving the problem... but for one thing. It is an "online" only solution. I need to do at least two more things with the "group consensus / knowledge" as a mobile information worker:
I need to access it as a consumer, when I most need it. In my case this is inevitably when I am working outside of my own network.
More importantly, I need to contribute to it when I have time (now being a good example. I am on a plane with 'nary a net connection for hours ....)
The interesting thing of course, is that I am currently using a technology, PyDS, to make changes to my own work online and I am doing it offline. I do have access to my own work offline and to some degree, via an aggregator, I have access to others work, at least read only access. Before embarking on web logging / personal publishing, I would have underestimated the importance of this. Now, having done the majority of my work while offline, I couldn't live without it.
So, while blogging tools solve the problem for me personally, what I think we as a group really need is some way to group edit content ... but in an offline manner. Sort of a wiki with sync .... or a wiki/blog meld.
This is going to be my research topic for next little while. As I find things, expect to see more information here. My thoughts on this so far:
For offline reading, it should be possible to "mirror" a wiki, or part of a wiki. Are there any wiki tools that are mirror friendly, and even offer local editing with a push up to a central server 'a la Radio/PyDS?'.
Don Park has a recent comment about a distributed Wiki. Read the comments as well. There is a pointer to something called Hyki developed in Groove.
Doc brings us this gem about RSS Aggregators from BloggerCon:
My fave for RSS conspirators: Jon Udell's Aggregators session. Remember, class: Pay attention. RealPlayer required.
I had the webcast running in the background as I worked last night, and noticed that one of the ways I use my aggregator wasn't really represented in the discussion.
Essentially, like John Udell, I prefer to see all the news in big chunks... in my case, 300 articles at a time. I can quickly scan what I want. But, very often I need to switch back to a feed list first and then drill down into the feed to read it. That mainly occurs Monday evening as I try to catch up on stuff I haven't had time to deal with on the weekend.
I use PyDS for this blog as well as its builtin aggregator which allows for this presentation switch. It also has a lock feature that will keep an article in the feed even if I purge the view. Very handy.
I am still trying to find out how TWiki implements RSS/RDF/Syndication feeds of changes to the writeable web. I see on their site that they have a WebRss plugin but so far haven't found any info about it. If I find something, I'll update it here.
Here is the answer for Twiki. Looks like there is extensive support for RSS. I also found a handy list of RSS aware wiki tools..
Like the author of this post, I prefer python to ruby but dabbled with it and do find it a pleasure to program in. Its interesting how Matz took the 'feeling' of programming in ruby into account as he designed and built it. Certainly seems to work for me.
Unfortunately, most of my scripting work is done in perl. When I can choose the tools, I program in Python/Jython. Ruby is interesting to me and I plan to keep an eye on it.
Ruby released its latest version 1.8.0 in August this year.
Thanks to the Dave Winer at Scripting News for this. Its a pointer to an article at the Guardian Unlimited about some interesting software that I think is going in the right direction when it comes to blogging and business. It is the internal "publishing" angle that I think might motivate people to relinquish their iron grip on knowledge and publish information internally.
The article points to blogging software from Traction. And I quote:
The most interesting thing I saw at the Boston conference was a demo, squeezed in during a coffee break away from the throng, of a blogging package devised by Traction Software, a small US software maker. It was different because Traction exists primarily to share information internally.
The key elements of blogging were present and correct in Traction's package: it was easy to use, information on the web pages it built was presented chronologically, there were lots of hyperlinks to information, and you could quote and comment.
But there were also the kind of features vital for work in a business of any size: the ability to set levels of access for different users, to make something public or to keep it private, to put flags and categorise entries so they relate to different bits of workflow.
It was refreshing to see a package which saw weblogs not just as an online confessional - an extension of the way consumers use the technology - but also as a tool that could make work a little easier and more rewarding.
This I think is where we might profitably focus our "free cycles" when thinking about blogging and corporate culture. Now if I could get my own organization to try something like this ....
I'll post additional links to Traction info as I find them here: