Archive for September, 2007

Collective wisdom

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

How do you collect the wisdom of an organization?

I work for a large architecture/design firm and the depth of expertise represented there is staggering. Yet, as a new employee, I have little idea how to efficiently tap into that expertise. Clearly, I can ask around until I find someone who knows what I need to know, but this takes time and the experts are usually busy and often out of town anyway. We also have an intranet that contains an enormous amount of information, but it seems to be a collection of random things that has simply grown over time and it’s often difficult to find what is needed. What we really need is a way to gather and access the firm’s collective wisdom.

Attempts to collect wisdom are not new. In ancient times, of course, wisdom was passed down orally from teacher to student. Then wisdom was written down in books. When I was in grade school, I spent hours lying on the floor reading the World Book and when I was in college, hours in the library, ruffling through card catalogs, bibliographies, and other indexes to try to figure out where to get what I needed to know. It was cumbersome and limited by the number of articles contained in my encyclopedia or volumes held by my college library.

Now we have the Internet which gives us access, theoretically, to a nearly infinite amount of information. The problem is how to find specific information. Search engines have taken the place of card catalogs but with less precision – general searches yield too many results, most of which aren’t pertinent, and specific searches miss important information.

The interesting development, however, is Wikipedia, which I think is brilliant because it collects wisdom, not just from a few selected people, but from anyone who knows something (and, of course, plenty of people who think they know something, but don’t.) True, you can’t rely on Wikipedia for an definitive answer, but you can get darn close in most cases and the access to information that the service provides is unmatched. Wikipedia works because millions of people contribute knowledge and that volume of input levels the information to something very nearly accurate.

So my question is, can the Wiki notion work on an organizational level? Can a design firm use a Wiki to collect the wisdom of the firm? I think it can. And I think it would be extremely valuable.

So, practically, how would you go about this? First, you’d have to figure out what kind of wisdom you wanted to collect. Then you’d have to begin to categorize or organize it in some way. You’d need a technical person and a site designer. Next you’d need to determine how to begin to populate the database and get it up and running. Then you’d have to train employees to use it and come up with a scheme for getting them to contribute. You’d also need a way to maintain some oversight over the content and to keep it clean and up-to-date.

This begins to sound like more than just a nice add-on to an existing intranet. It begins to sound like a complete reinvention. But what if it worked? What if you could open your company Wiki, type in your question, and instantly find your answer? What if you could, indeed, access your company’s wisdom with a few clicks of the mouse? That would be truly extraordinary.

Tōō ĭn

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

This week my firm hosted a meeting of all the regional design leaders. On Thursday, the rest of us mingled at a reception and were treated to a slide show showing some of the issues they had discussed. Very inspirational, of course, and as occasionally happens, this event triggered a dream. In the dream fragment I recall, someone approached me (in the setting of this reception) and said, absurdly, “tōō ĭn.”

I write this phonetically because when I woke up with this dream snippet in my mind, the phrase churned up several spellings – to in, too in, two in, to inn, too inn, two inn. So, why not have some fun with these random dream words. What if you had a contest to interpret these words in terms of design or art?

First I looked them up in a dictionary, mainly to get the phonetic spelling, and found that both of these words have myriad meanings. “To,” for example, is both a preposition and an adverb. As a preposition it means toward, as far as, to the extent of, before, until, for the purpose of, in honor of, relationship, exclusivity or separateness, in the direction of a given state, in contact with, in front of, regarding, as a toast. “Too” means in addition, excessively, to a regrettable degree, extremely, immensely, or indeed. Even “two” has more than one meaning – it’s a cardinal number, the second in a sequence, something having two parts, or a two-dollar bill.

“In” can be a preposition, adjective, adverb or noun. As a preposition it evokes limits, movement from outside to within, function, style, process, order, means, medium, condition, activity, purpose, reference, and ratio or proportion. As an adverb or adjective, it means toward the inside, toward a destination or goal, within a place, available or under one’s control, inclusion, relationship, incoming, inward, having power, currently fashionable, exclusive. As a noun it relates to position, influence, or power. “Inn,” of course is a public lodging house serving food and drink to travelers, a hotel, a tavern or restaurant. But it’s also a residence hall for students, especially law students, in London.

Wow – a plethora of connotations, not even considering acronyms, abbreviations, slang, and languages other than English. So what could one do with this?

1. A new, exclusive line of clothing.
2. A salute to architectural trends, past or present.
3. Maps.
4. A design for two hotels.
5. A panel discussion about the role of design – can there be too much design?
6. An examination of the process of design.
7. A photo essay on entrances.
8. A paper about achieving balance between private and collaborative space in the workplace.
9. Anything relating to signage.
10. A comic book about opening a bar.
11. A discussion of proportion.
12. Funnels.

This could go on and on and be somewhat serious or completely whacky. Wouldn’t it be fun to see what people came up with?