For Ada: an interview with Sophie Kain (part two)

This is part two of my interview with Sophie Kain, director of Prior Kain Ltd, in honour of Ada Lovelace Day. Missed the first bit? Find it here.

One of the biggest issues for programme managers (well, for me) is the transient nature of a team over the lifecycle of work, especially when a programme stretches over several years and multiple key members leave. How can knowledge management solutions help?

So this is an interesting one. I have actually been extremely lucky (or I would like to think sufficiently inspiring) that I have rarely had key members of projects leave the team. That said knowledge management and in fact information management is essential for the future of any project. At Prior Kain we actually produce tailored solutions to these problems as one problem is never the same as another. I think we still live in a world where we can’t find, or remember where we put most of our own information, let alone the information of other team members and whilst there are supposed “solutions” out there these are often time consuming and difficult to use. We like to think that with the right thinking we can ease the process of finding the right information and not have to repeat work, and in fact get sufficient visibility of what other team members are up to.

One of our primary drivers in focusing Prior Kain Ltd on information handling and knowledge management is that we have experienced the exact problem you outline. From a business developer leaving, and taking the personal relationships with ‘their’ clients with them, to a key technology member who takes away the implicit knowledge that is key to the project, I think we have all observed that most organisations handle this badly or, at best, inadequately.

At the same time, you cannot mandate that everybody shares everything: it is just not human nature to want to share what is perceived as the source of your value or power. As such, KM systems need to be unobtrusive and yet be able to capture the intangible aspects – the social dynamics, the casual observation, the personal relationship with the customer – that which is immediately relevant to the project. To achieve this, it is not enough to simply archive every document in a so-called ‘Shared Working Environment’. For KM to be truly useful, it must capture the ebb and flow of the project – everything from emails to snippets of useful news to data held within the CRM system and so on. For KM to be truly effective, however, all of the material held within a KM solution must be intuitively searchable and capable of being presented in the way most useful to the user conducting that search.

That sounds complicated to make happen in practice. What role does a digital conference space have to play in managing project teams that cross borders or timezones?

I think this completely depends on the project i.e. how technology savvy the team members are and how used they are to using this type of medium for document sharing, blogging, conversations etc. It seems that the younger generation technologists almost prefer this type of medium to actually talking but those of a more traditional persuasion take a lot of convincing to use this method. Interestingly we actually have produced software that wraps any series of real-world conferences with a digital space that is focused around the delegate. In that software, delegates are members of one or more real-world conferences, allowing interactions and information sharing with like minds – from across different events, companies, and geographies – to take place across the entire scope of their interests. This is not so much about project management but more about maintaining and inspiring conversations after real-world conferences come to an end.

Personally I think digital conferences spaces will be used more and more as the world moves towards a virtual teaming approach to projects i.e. the team will grow around the project, based on expertise and independent of location.

At this time, there is no real digital ‘conference’ space solution in the market. In part, that is because no-one is entirely sure what that sort of thing looks like. In equal part, there is an understandable reserve in most organisations about allowing ‘their’ information – which most still see as proprietary and essential to their competitive advantage – to flow across a shared space that leverages the public networks. There is an argument for saying that a digital conference space resembles the bastard offspring of Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, Google, Google Maps, WebEx, and the online office suite of your choice. After all, these are the tools and services that most employees are using on a daily basis and are thus sufficiently familiar with as to not suffer a learning curve when similar systems are introduced into the organisation.

Sadly, the counter-argument remains that most organisations would prefer to spend millions of pounds on an ERP solution that must be tailored to their needs rather than explore ways in which some of the best business enabling technologies of the last five years might help tailor their operations towards improving effectiveness, efficiency, customer engagement, and staff morale.

What do you think is the emerging technology that will best support business strategy during 2009?

Also a very good and intriguing question. I think it is less about any one emerging technology per se and much more about understanding how the collection of technologies that have emerged and matured over the last few years may be embraced by business. Business strategy in 2009 is, to my mind, going to be very much focused on doing more with less: making sales at a lower cost of sales, increasing efficiencies with less spend, networking and business development with less travel, and – sad to say, but we have to admit it – more work with less people. This will increase scrutiny on the business benefits of technology adoption and, in my opinion, will force large-scale technology programmes to the right of the schedule.

As has been neatly highlighted in recent weeks by, amongst others George Osborne in The Times, it is perhaps the right time to start considering whether or not large-scale, proprietary technology programmes are the right way to achieve business advantage. Osborne was specifically discussing Government IT programmes but, from observation, we would suggest that almost every organisation is imbued with the culture that technology programmes need to be big and scary!

David Prior, with observations drawn from a multi-sector background, notes wrily that this is perhaps because there is a predilection to make technology look like a dark art as it preserves the jobs of technologists!

Hmm, project managers do that too!

Although there may be some truth in that, a more likely reason may stem from the belief that risk can be more easily managed and mitigated by bundling a lot of smaller technology activities into a larger Statement of Work and handing the whole thing to a single Prime Contractor who is responsible for delivery and who adopts the risk. For example, in my discussion of what a digital conference space might look like, I referred to seven functional aspects. Rather than manage seven implementation projects, most organisations would prefer to bundle the seven strands into a single project, award that to one of the usual Prime Contracting suspects, and then sit back and wait for delivery. In most cases, and the performance of large contracts in general bears this out, that this approach leads to cost and schedule overruns, scope creep, and the final delivery of an 80% solution. In most cases, it also leads to the awarding organisation paying over the odds for the capability as layers of Prime Contractor programme and quality management fees are liberally applied to the bid!

Prior Kain Ltd contends that the maturity and ‘in-the-field’ qualification of most emerging and recently emerged technologies means that applying those technologies within a business is no longer a primarily technical problem but is, instead, a question of policy and process. This shift means that organisations must develop a position as an intelligent customer – understanding what each new technology does and how it may be exploited within, or leveraged to create additional, business strategy. Organisations should also develop an awareness of ways in which specific technologies, from different providers and sometimes not even hosted on their own networks, can be integrated through the use of open standards and protocols.

Technology solutions should be evaluated and selected against the dimensions of flexibility, extensibility, and ‘open-ness’ as well as the functionality provided. Careful selection, driven by an awareness of the technology landscape and a complete understanding of the current and desired business strategy, will help to provide a loosely-coupled suite of technologies than can be orchestrated in support of business strategies that, as a result of market conditions, flex and change direction as opportunities arise. We would argue that the best support to this new type of business strategy is an evolutionary approach to technology adoption that embraces rather than abhors change.

Thanks, Sophie!

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