RefME as an example for viral apps

Do you remember Harvard referencing and building lengthy bibliographies during your student days?  If yes, did you find it time consuming?  Yep, thought so, did you ever use the techniques again (presuming you’ve not continued in academia)?  No?  Didn’t think so.

Even if we’re kind to academic referencing it is, at best, a necessary evil to show the development of research skills and the correct representation of ideas (i.e. to avoid plagiarism).  I’ve been to two events this week, the first on Adobe products will get a longer post but the second, on RefME, showed how a tool can go viral with users if it is really well targeted on solving an actual problem.

RefME has built a following of more than one million users quicker than Facebook or Twitter – all thanks to the humble citation!  Why?  Well those negative experiences of citation and bibliography building are now finally tackled through this very easy to use app.

When I studied there were some tools in this space, some institutionally backed, but none as easy as RefME appears from the demos at the #BLEevent.  Overall, I took away a key message here – focus on your audience (whoever they may be) and their challenges/frustrations.  If you are facing a lack of adoption with your corporate/institutional technology then it is probably fair to presume that it is (a) not easy enough to use and/or (b) not solving a problem that is felt keenly enough.

It will be interesting to see if any institutions opt to stand against it as a way of students ‘cheating’ by not having to spend hours formatting their own lists … not to mention all the librarians who will have another thing they ‘own’ taken away from them by technology.

CILIP Update March 2015: Digital workplaces and metrics

I tend to skim CILIP Update magazine when on the train.  This month, a couple of articles jumped out – both felt like they needed a bit more reflection.

The first (“Information management leaders – we have work to do”) would sound familiar to a lot of support services (such as HR, L&D. etc).  The article argues for a strategic future for information management as CILIP’s IM Project progresses.  The article mentions major trends, such as Big Data, and it ends with a summary of the role in that “most of our information management enhancing [sic] the digital workplace”.  This will sound similar to some of my posts here and what I’ve argued elsewhere.  In the article the focus is on being “strategic information advisors” ensuring “easy to access, relevant and valid information”, but this could be swapped out depending on your personal focus to learning and other areas.  Personally, the blurring of these areas is become such that we perhaps should be looking at the skills, such as those related to mobile development and data analysis, rather than the expertise background.  Unfortunately this would involve a lot of organizational transformation, and challenges for organizations such as CILIP – created around ‘professions’.

“Using metrics to demonstrate the value of your service” was the second article looking at some of the automatic statistics and more qualitative approaches that can be used.  This went back to some extent to a previous event I attended.

I recently argued with a colleague that, in L&D, we will fail if we are seen as ‘a breed apart’.  People will learn in their own ways.  There is perhaps a need for support services to be the ‘go to experts’, after all we’ve seen what ‘learning’ looks like to some people, but so embedded this is just part of common practice.  The centralized, decentralized, embedded, etc. arguments will rage on for support services but if we operate in a digital workplace environment then that blurring may help the support rather than concentrating on the service.

The inevitable backlash to ‘curation’

One of the popular terms of the last eighteen months or so, both on the wider web and specifically in L&D circles, has been ‘curation’ – indeed I mentioned it back in August 2013.

Well, inevitably the backlash has begun:

or at least the backlash against people who “don’t get it”.  Ultimately my take on this has not really changed…

Curation is nothing new.

Directories drove the early web until search improved.  We now see ‘live’, largely automated, directories aggregating content on an ongoing basis – albeit at the risk of rehashing old ideas and not moving the conversation forward.  Quality curation is one way to raise, above the noise, genuinely new insight, research, data, etc.

Information skills are essential to any non-automated approach and there would certainly be an argument that where ‘time is money’ some level of automated curation (as part of a personal learning and information system) could be supplemented by people focusing on information management/curation and distribution in your organisation (rather than the potential for duplication of effort, etc by everyone spending time managing their own).  However, I see two major challenges:

  1. Personal network versus “supported learning network”.  The inevitable problem for any kind of internal awareness, communication or learning curation will be that it has already been captured by an individual’s personal system.  For example, a colleague may share something on my team’s internal social tool which I have already engaged with via Twitter.  We have moved past restrictions enforcing only ‘work tools on work time’ so how can we balance this without boring ourselves and our audiences via multiple sharing/discussion streams?
  2. ‘Human touch’ curation capabilities are limited.  The cutbacks of recent decades to information-related teams mean that the focus is more likely to fall on the individual, supported by groups such as internal communications (for distributing key messages) and knowledge/record management (for longer term curation).  I see the recent focus of L&D on curation, to capture quality content and share appropriately as one area where my information background and learning technologies crossover – quality content has been the core reason for libraries and now we are seeing transformation of learning away from ‘our stuff’ to recognizing the value in UGC and integration with 3rd party materials.  Ultimately we would want everyone’s daily work to be built around a single company virtual space which can do everything we might need around learning, sharing, communication, etc.  The challenge is that this system realistically does not exist and, in all probability, existing businesses face fragmentation and silos.

So I would say lets strive to ensure our organizations appropriately curate but recognize it will have failings and is not the solution to every form of learning/content need.

Value of support services

My thoughts have continued to develop, since a previous post’s conclusion, around the topics of workplace change and the influence on organizational design.  My latest thought is – perhaps we all need to take some responsibility for organizational design?  Every day, by interacting with someone in a work capacity or a colleague in a social environment, you are influencing the culture.  In your own big/small way you are influencing ‘how things are done round here’.

This came to mind again after attending a recent ‘Demonstrating your Value’ presentation, organized by CILIP’s Commercial, Legal and Scientific Information Group (CLSIG).  When I was in the session I know I was nodding along thinking ‘yes, very sensible’.  However, on reflection after the tube/bus ride home I thought again.  The feeling that overwhelmed me was how submissive the whole event felt.  Let me explain, firstly, by looking at some highlight notes from the presentation itself…

  • value = greater value add than your cost (depends on culture of organization and the credibility of your service
  • credibility = utility (fit for purpose) / warranty / meets expectations
  • can influence credibility needs of organization
  • use user audits, ask people in detail what they need and how you are achieving it – ask ‘what else should I do?’
  • align headcount to roles, focus on wider value rather than niches
  • build story around budget, accurate numbers not enough
  • promote your value in language akin to firm’s advertising
  • learn from other support departments, scope for shared metrics, etc.
  • actively fill roles where the firm has previously used external consultants.

What came from my pork pie-fueled (appropriate for the venue) reflection/insight was that this all suggests support services are answerable to their masters and not enough influencers upon them.  This is of course understandable, as one presenter pointed out there are actually very few UK professionals left in areas such as legal research due to outsourcing, off-shoring, etc. but surely this is part of the problem.  I do not want to add to the stereotype of the ‘mousey librarian’, indeed most support staff leaders I have met over the years (including in library and information services) have tended to be outspoken.  Therefore, is there a better way to measure value?  User audits may identify what a business wants from its support services but not necessarily give the services scope for shifting expectations, as the support professionals pick up and develop ideas for the future of work.  Perhaps the below (aiming to be applicable to any support service):

  • A culture change survey: “In the last year my opinion of the x service has improved” (score out of 10, + to -).
  • An awareness survey: “Name of team member/service/offering” (worked with/used through to unaware).
  • An influence survey: “I have learned something from team member/service/offering this year” (agree through to disagree).

By all means, measure your service in financial terms but let’s not forget that every business is only as strong as its people and people need to influence the organization toward somewhere they would like to work.  That will change over time and simply working toward existing cultures won’t help move you forward.

Steam Tags – crowdsourcing the shopping taxonomy

Steam have just launched a beta option for ‘steam tags’ a way for their community (75m users) to apply bespoke categorization on titles in their vast store.  Tags used regularly by users will find their way to becoming ‘Popular Tags’ that can be used by others to discover content via browse and new filtering options.

This will all sound familiar to organizations and institutions who have opened up intranets, library/learning management systems and other platforms to such crowd sourcing methods. Indeed it is not dissimilar to the ‘categories’ approach of this and other WordPress sites.

The FAQs resolve a number of the questions that always crop up with such approaches, such as “what about swear words?”, what about “different languages?” and if the content/game owner can alter the tags.  In all three cases the answers are predictable; swear words will be filtered out (Steam having plenty of experience of hosting complex user discussion boards), you will see tags from users of the same language group as you and customers’ tags will appear no matter what the designer/publisher thinks.  The latter is interesting in that it could show a disconnect and one might expect it opens up some publishers to looking elsewhere, for example, Ubisoft might find lots of “Excessive DRM” tags which they probably will not like and there is room for blatant hate campaigns.  As for the language point, it seems a little disappointing that the expense has not been spared on some kind of automatic translation, yes it might not work well but, at least it would break down some of the cultural/geographic barriers.  Overall, this is another community tool for a platform which, of course, has big plans.

I love the tag idea, thinking about it from my education perspective, I wonder how many organizations would genuinely open their Learning Management Systems to such tagging?  We’ve seen ratings (5-star) approaches for a while and so often see the extreme 1 or 5 star feedback scores, as tends to be the case in the Apple and Google stores too.  This more qualitative approach could be a big help toward sorting through vast content as systems grow and discoverability does seem to be the driving force.