Category Archives: knowledge management

I’m hooked on Spritz

I like to believe I’m hard to impress when it comes to new web gadgets, and technology generally. But I have caught the recent buzz around a new bit of wizardry called Spritz, and I am actually dazzled. I see very interesting opportunities in marketing – small ones, and great big ones.

Spritz is an app, from a vendor called Spritz, Inc., that is designed to solve two distinct, genuine and important objectives:

  • Sustained reading on a small screen, such as a smart phone. I hear smug assurances that people do this every day productively, but I’m sorry – reading more than a couple of paragraphs on a five-inch screen is torture.
  • Reading MUCH, MUCH faster.

That’s right, speed reading. Spritz promises to enable reading at double or triple your normal speed, with minimal loss of comprehension, by squirting the text through a small window and showing it to you one word at a time. It turns out that you can comprehend words that come at you at a rate of 350, 400, even 600 per minute this way.

Spritz, further, enhances this experience by drawing your eye to a scientifically determined “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP) – each word has its own ORP, and if you focus just there, you have the fastest and likeliest recognition and comprehension of that word. Spritz highlights the ORP by creating a “redicle” there – it turns that specific letter red, and flags it with vertical hash marks.

Here: Try it.

Were you able to keep up? Did you notice the typo?

The developers say presenting one word at a time reduces the time-consuming work your eyes have to do in normal, linear reading, moving from one word or phrase to the next. There actually is a word for that – it’s called a “saccade.” Scientists estimate that each saccade takes about one tenth of a second.

Spritz says its system allows you to read faster by eliminating the saccade, saving both time and exertion.

This kind of story normally sets off “too good to be true, where’s the catch” alarms in my head. Spritz Inc. evidently understands this, because their whole web experience is intended to get you to just try it. I did, at various speeds.

I’m here to report the thing really works.

Apparently it works for a lot of people, because there has been substantial online oooohing and ahhhing about it. Spritz also has drawn its share of criticism. Some skeptics suggest there’s nothing new here – other web gimmicks, such as Spreeder (from a company called eReflect), have enabled one-word-at-a-time reading too. I’ve played with it; Spreeder looks superficially like Spritz, but without the ORP or the redicles. I can only speak for myself, but after a couple of sentences in Spreeder, my mind wandered and I could feel myself losing comprehension – not so with Spritz. (Your experience may be different.)

The other snarks focus on the vendor’s slightly grandiose “change the world” marketing copy (Remember the Segway?), and on its frankly silly suggestion that anyone should consider reading an entire book using Spritz. Critics have suggested that this simply wouldn’t work – eventually, your comprehension would have to wane, and anyway, who would want to read “Harry Potter” on a phone, much less one word at a time? I’m inclined to agree. But so what?

The app isn’t actually available yet. When it is, I can think of at least two different ways I’d be very interested in putting it to work:

Micro Scale

People presented with a document in a work setting frequently look for an abstract, or even better, a bulleted summary. If there is one, it tells the reader whether the document is worth a full read, usually later. I would love to be able to Spritz the abstract.

A very practical example of this would be in a customer service call center, where an agent takes a question, and then has to provide a quick answer. Odds are, that agent is looking the answer up in an online knowledge base, based on a search that returns several possible results, each of which can be lengthy and detailed. If I were that agent, Spritzing the entire abstract of an article from the knowledge base would tell me far more than the title, in about as much time as it would take to read the title in saccade fashion.

Macro Scale

Think BIG. My gut tells me Spritz is an ideal medium for signage. Not a highway billboard – but imagine yourself on a crowded urban street, or at a trade show, with dozens or hundreds of messages competing for your attention. Conventional wisdom is that your sign has a few seconds at the outside to capture the passerby’s attention, limiting the message to one phrase, or an image. But suppose you were able to deliver a paragraph of information in the same space and the same few seconds. To me that’s a potentially powerful application for Spritz on a large scale.

In fact, I tested it. I took a brief video capture from Spritz’s web site, blew it up on a 55 inch television, and watched it from 30 feet away. What Spritz does as an app on a PC monitor or an iPad, it does just as well as a video clip on a large screen TV. Once you have the message translated into Spritz format, you don’t even need the app. A looping video will work…on a trade show booth backdrop, on a JumboTron in an arena, in an elevator, or even embedded in a PowerPoint slide.

Spritzing isn’t a perfect experience. One issue is in the comprehension of obscure terms or proper nouns, especially things like oddly spelled trademarks or foreign place names. Comprehension at 400 words per minute seems to some degree to depend on your familiarity with the word – it doesn’t really work if the term isn’t in your vocabulary. That, obviously, is an issue in marketing. Spritz needs to develop a crisp answer for that question.

But I’m hooked. I’m very interested in seeing where this goes.

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Upheaval in the service desk space

Help Desk Software is Now a Free Download

The wheels turn slowly in the enterprise software business. For all the talk among the industry pundits about accelerating technological change, it always feels as though the end user community is at least two years behind whatever fanciful curve the analysts are scratching out on corporate whiteboards. But markets simplify – they move toward entropy – until some event gives the whole lethargic field a much-needed kick in the pants.

The IT Service Management segment received just such a kick on March 5, when one of its maverick vendors, ManageEngine, announced it was cutting the price of its base platform – the help desk package called ServiceDesk Plus, used by 60,000 customers worldwide – to zero dollars. Current customers will pay nothing for maintenance or upgrades from here on. The software is a free download to everyone else.

ManageEngine ServiceDesk PlusThe help desk is the broad base of the IT Service Management pyramid. It is the face of IT to the end users. The development of an ITSM practice in any organization starts there, and adoption of all the other service management processes and tools assumes the existence of an organized, software-enabled service desk.

The thing is, this has been true for decades. Whatever has evolved in the IT infrastructure itself, and in all the more advanced ITSM processes and technologies that have made organizations’ system architectures supportable from one generation to the next, the help desk has been the bedrock and has remained virtually unchanged.

The software that supports the service desk has reached an evolutionary stasis. There is plenty of demand; ManageEngine, a division of Pleasanton, CA based Zoho Corp., says its sales are in “nine figures” (US$), and ServiceDesk Plus has been a core contributor to that figure. But help desk software is now a commodity, offering no obvious opportunity for innovation to create a gap for a new entrant to fill.

The interesting opportunities are in applications that enlarge the ITSM footprint, extending outward from the help desk. And therein lies the potentially disruptive aspect of this move on ManageEngine’s part.

Larger, more established companies like BMC Software, HP, IBM and CA have dominated the generally mature ITSM space, sharing it with a handful of upstarts such as ServiceNow and ManageEngine. The market has come a long way since the 1990s, when I was a direct participant; there were multiple dozens of barely-distinguishable help desk software offerings then, and consolidation had scarcely begun.

My experience then was as a marketer of Knowledge Management software to the ITSM space. The KM tool segment was a relative infant, overcrowded with start-up vendors focused on Problem Management which, like other ITSM processes, was grounded in the help desk and the higher level engineering functions to whom the help desk escalates incidents.

All of us in the KM segment had exuberant expectations for adoption of problem resolution tools, which promised higher first call resolution rates, faster help desk agent training and the like. It took much longer than most of us expected for KM applications to catch on. An important reason was that organizations were working their way through the process of help desk tool adoption, which was a huge, six- or seven-figure investment for a lot of companies. We understood that only when our prospects were out the other side of that decision process would they then get around to KM.

A lot of KM proponents underestimated the complexity of that decision. Knowledge bases were supposed to be everywhere by 2004 or 2005. It is only recently that problem management has really matured as an application for KM.

In that context, ManageEngine’s decision to give away ServiceDesk Plus makes a great deal of sense. The real opportunity for ITSM vendors is higher up the infrastructure food chain:

  • Network Performance tools
  • Service and Application Monitoring
  • Security
  • Desktop Management and Deployment
  • Capacity Management

and other, higher-risk, higher-value ITSM processes. But all of these services are provided through tools that stem from the base platform rooted in the help desk. And each of these additional software components is an additional line item in a budget whose basic unit is a service desk “seat.”

All of ITSM shares the basic market problem we had in KM tools: Each help desk agent already represented a sunk cost for automation. How much benefit must you be able to prove in hard dollar terms before the CIO begins to squawk about how much your license adds to the cost per agent? What is the maximum acceptable cost per seat – especially for what is generally regarded (let’s face it) as a low-prestige, often outsourced job?

While there are fewer choices among ITSM platform vendors these days, the market is still highly competitive, and even for the highest-margin components of the suite, for the vendor, much depends on successfully establishing a beachhead in the service desk. For ManageEngine, the decision to cut the cost of the base help desk tool out of the equation seems fairly straightforward.

The company will still need to prove that its high-end components are functionally competitive with those of the market’s leviathans, but the gamble seems logical. We’ll know soon enough.

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The inversion of knowledge

Inversion of KnowledgeBottom-up, social knowledge generation will have significant impacts on the way work, and workers, are perceived by corporations. Management will have to develop new incentives for knowledge workers to contribute high-quality content. The most important element of this is time.

A guest post in the blog of the knowledge management software vendor Crowdbase.

crowdbase

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You make the rules – but will your content play along?

One of the myths we cherish in providing web content to customers, employees or constituents is that our readers will consume that content the way we intend them to consume it – under conditions and in a context that we control. It’s rarely that simple or predictable.

Your site has a carefully thought-out structure. Someone in your organization invested time in designing the site around an idealized user experience, in which an individual navigating the site for the first time will take in your organization’s artfully constructed story in an elaborately mapped sequence.

He or she will discover the most relevant content and tools, and you anticipate the reader’s bookmarking the features he expects to be of continuing use. Future visits will be relatively brief, and directed toward those high-value, bookmarked elements. All the elegant structure that led your reader to this moment of belonging – of bonding with your corporate narrative – will have done its work.

If only.

The truth is, your user’s experience with your content rarely plays out the way your site designer explained it when she unveiled the wireframes. The reality of content consumption is far more haphazard. I’m not suggesting those mega-menus and carousels and all the other navigational eye candy your designer provided weren’t worth the investment. I am suggesting that you steel yourself for the likelihood that a healthy proportion of your content’s consumers will never have an occasion to use them. They may never see your home page at all.

Increasingly, the first place a reader will encounter your content is not in a menu of your devising. It’s in a search result page, and the experience isn’t yours – it’s Google’s or Bing’s.

Personal experience in the Knowledge Management field has reinforced this trend in my own practice. For example, while one multinational I worked with was developing a knowledge management practice in its global legal affairs function, it was simultaneously shrinking its corporate law library down to bare bones, eliminating a once-highly-valued service through which the library provided custom searches of legal databases to its in-house attorneys.

The downgrading of this service came in part because the company was getting similar search services from its outside counsel – but more importantly, executives in the General Counsel’s office realized that when lawyers needed information, they had stopped asking for help. They just Googled whatever they needed, and were quite satisfied with the results.

I’ve given more than two decades of my career to a very specific kind of content consumption experience: The use of online “knowledge bases” to provide guidance and support for users of various products and services. It’s one of the most widely adopted applications of KM.

Recently, I’ve been observing the behavior of people seeking support for various products they use, at home and in their workplaces – and my own behavior as well. I conducted an informal survey in January 2014, looking for what I suspected was a shift in reliance on vendor-sourced support content. I posed the following question:

“If you have a technical question or problem with a product you use (anything from an electric toothbrush to long term care insurance), what medium do you choose most often (if you have a choice) for getting help?”

I provided the following choices:

  • Call the provider (voice — phone or VOIP)
  • Ask someone you know
  • Use an online “knowledge base”
  • Figure it out on your own
  • Ask friends on Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter (or other social media)
  • Google (or Bing) it
  • Go to the provider web site and search
  • Search YouTube
  • Post a question in an online “community” or forum
  • Other (please specify)

I provided a space for comments on the respondent’s choice. Then I offered the same choices as responses to a second question:

“How would you have answered Question 1 two years ago?”

The survey was informal and not terribly scientific. I posted invitations to participate on various forums, groups and fan pages on LinkedIn.com and Facebook, and I emailed to a large list I’ve gathered over a period of years. The results are based on 96 responses. Frankly, I expected my own list to bias the responses a bit toward enthusiasm for online knowledge bases.

The results looked like this:

Knowledge Retrieval Now

About one in five respondents indicated they would be inclined to go to the vendor’s web site and look for support content. More than 61% said they’d go straight to Google – in effect, to see what knowledge was out there, from the vendor but also from among impartial experts and their peers, bypassing the vendor’s choreographed navigation entirely.

One respondent did opt for posting a question in an online support community, which might well be hosted by the vendor. The survey offered the choice of consulting an online knowledge base; no one selected it.

Forcing the respondent to make a single choice is something of an oversimplification, of course. “I usually first search the Internet using Google,” one user commented. “Sometimes I’ll start with the provider website, but if the answer is there…it should come up in the Google site. I may go to the provider site and see if they have online help (ie: enter into a chat or video session with a support person). If not, that’s when I ask other people I know who may know (family, friends, co-workers).”

Several respondents specified that, while they start with Google, they generally first choose the vendor content that comes up in the search results. “Most often I can narrow down what I’m looking for EITHER from an official source like the provider website OR an online forum,” another commented. “I can get YouTube results and anything else in one search.”

About four percent indicated they would contact the vendor by phone for support. (I’d expected low levels of interest in phone support.)

In fact, here’s what the pattern looked like when respondents looked back two years:

Knowledge Retrieval Two Years Ago

The growth in the proportion of respondents choosing to Google as a first resort was just about entirely at the expense of phone support. The cohort indicating they would first have gone to the vendor web site is identical to the current pattern.

“It’s easier and faster to use online resources than make a telephone call – because inevitably I’ll have to deal with an IVR menu and once I get someone they may not know or I may not be able to verbally communicate with them,” one comment read. “I’ve come not to expect good customer service especially over the phone – primarily because of past bad experiences, waiting on hold, etc. Note: The same is not true regarding financial institution help (ie: calling about an account) – I pick up the phone and have consistently gotten good customer service.”

Several respondents said they have abandoned direct vendor support because its reliability has declined in the last two years. Two indicated that they Google now because they themselves have gotten better at sorting things out on their own.

Now what?

I propose that what applies to support content applies equally provocatively to marketing content. If you concur, then what do these observations portend for providers of online content?

For one thing, it appears the most critical step you can take to ensure that your content is seen as relevant – indeed, that it is seen at all – is to Search Engine Optimize it.

SEO has become a discrete discipline within the digital marketing profession. It isn’t rocket science, but there is enough to it to justify engaging a specialist to complement your content marketing initiative. A few core principles are these:

  • Understand that the search engines employ robotic crawlers, and that a site can be made easier for these software robots to crawl. In some, but not all respects, they’re the same steps that make it easier for humans to navigate your site.
  • Humans use a textual site map when they need help navigating a site. The search engine’s crawler uses a separate, XML site map. Make sure your site has both.
  • The HTML code for each page should have a header (not visible on the page) that includes two important components: A short, punchy title, and a series of descriptive meta tags that capture what the page is about. Both the title and the meta tags should be unique for each page, not shared across the site.
  • The page title and meta tags should accurately describe the content of the page. If not, the crawler is smart enough to notice, and it will degrade the relevancy of the page in search results.
  • Use simple, plain language URLs, using words instead of numbers or codes. This will make the URLs more intelligible to humans; it may surprise you to know the search crawlers prefer plain language as well.
  • Keep your site structure as simple and flat as possible.
  • Graphical navigation features are great – but have an alternative navigation scheme that is entirely text based.
  • Avoid links whose anchor text is unintelligible code – use words that describe the link target. Use alt text for pictures.
  • Search relevance is highly dependent on your content’s reputation, especially the number of citations/links from other sites. Net: Having excellent content that people want to cite is critical and worth the investment.

Also critical but beyond the scope of this article is the complexity that mobile content introduces. Sites designed for mobile devices create entirely new issues – generally, conventional search engine crawlers cannot navigate them. You will need to ensure that your webmaster knows how to make the mobile site available to the separate crawlers the search vendors use for them.

It has been observed widely that the ascendency of social knowledge sharing is a generational phenomenon – that “Generation Y” employees entered the workforce with social networking habits deeply ingrained and expected to indulge those habits in the workplace. While this probably is valid, the legal experience referenced earlier suggests to me that the move to the cloud is not as generational as the pundits assume – the Google-it-yourself approach was adopted just as avidly by the older attorneys as it was with the Gen-Y crowd.

Bottom-up, social knowledge generation will have significant impacts on the way customers and end users are perceived by marketers. Management will have to develop new incentives for knowledge workers to contribute high-quality content. For more traditional firms now adopting KM or content marketing practices, decentralization of content generation will be difficult, as it is antithetical to some ingrained management principles and habits. But it will be obvious to anyone who has witnessed the evolution of the field that resistance is pointless.

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How do you get help? (A One-Minute Survey)

I’m researching how people like you get support when you have questions or problems with things you own or buy. Sorry if that’s a sore subject…

I’d love to have your input — my survey absolutely should not take more than a minute. Your answer is anonymous (but if you’d like me to share the results with you, or just want to say hello, you can identify yourself).

Click here to take survey

Thanks for playing!

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Knowledge Management and steamed milk

I’ve been involved, in one way or another, in the esoteric science of Knowledge Management for more than 20 years. I’ve lived through KM’s many ups and downs, and I’m happy to admit that it’s never been an easy sell. A lot of people aren’t sure what KM is, much less why they need it. (If this happens to be an issue for you, drop me an email and I’ll give you my take on a definition for it.)

Suffice it to say it’s a complex business process, and adopting KM is more than a matter of buying a piece of technology, slamming it in and expecting it to solve a problem for you. This is true of a lot of business processes for which there are associated classes of software solutions. Each of these is a discipline involving an array of process, cultural and other pragmatic issues that have to be resolved in order fSteamed Milkor the technology you buy to have any measurable utility.

In fact, this is true of just about any product, isn’t it? Even milk – how many variations on milk are there in the supermarket’s refrigerator case? Heavy cream, light cream, half & half, whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim – each of these is a lifestyle choice, and I’m leaving out the whole issue of organic milk (versus…whatever we now call the alternative to organic), to say nothing of rice or soy derived synthetics.

It’s now a matter of expert opinion, what milk is. Your milk purchase is now the punchline in a lengthy shaggy dog story.

Lately, combining two disparate business preoccupations of mine, I’ve been talking to vendors of enterprise software, including KM tools, about their Content Marketing objectives. The gist of Content Marketing is that any brand, technology-intensive or not, is really a complex story, in which the buyer engages with the seller and assumes a part in the play. This is as true for SharePoint as it is for milk. The milk story might involve an elaborate daily ritual in which the buyer whips up a fresh cup of latte. The SharePoint story, analogously, could involve a team of attorneys collaborating on the drafting of commercial leases.

As a seller, your goal is to differentiate your brand and establish yourself as a source of good information – content – that gives the buyer the confidence that you can ensure that the story has a happy ending, whether it’s a perfect latte or a tightly crafted lease, every time.

Over a couple of decades in the knowledge management game, I’ve evolved a brief litany that I recite to give consulting clients a sense of what decisions are involved in addition to selecting and buying software – in fact, typically well before software adoption becomes an issue. Here it is:

Process – People – Content – Tools

At first, this may seem irrelevant to your business, especially if you’re not in the knowledge management field. But it occurs to me that this little bit of doggerel applies to many kinds of technology adoptions. I deliberately drop the product itself to the end of the list, because the non-technical issues have to be confronted to establish a context in which the buyer can successfully adopt the product. That’s a model that fits a wide array of technologies, even beyond IT.

  • Process – The technology buyer is paying attention because he has a business process he suspects would be more effective if a technology like yours were incorporated in it. But what process is it? Is your product really a fit for that application?
  • People – Business processes don’t run themselves. Making any new process or any significant change to an existing process a success will require some degree of organizational culture change. Is the buyer’s team prepared to make that change?
  • Content – Most technology adoption in organizations is concerned with data or information – capturing it, making sense of it, sharing it, and putting it to work. If the adopting organization is producing the wrong information, or presenting information in an impractical form, then no technology, yours or your competitor’s, is going to provide an effective outcome.
  • Tools – Once you understand the buyer’s process, people and content constraints, is your technology the right fit? Can it be shoehorned into place even if it isn’t a perfect fit? If all the stars are aligned, that’s the time to talk technology options.

PPCTThis model has served as an effective way to help clients approach complex technology adoption projects with an appropriately broad perspective. But a new use for my little mnemonic suggests itself: As an organizing principle for a technology vendor’s Content Marketing program.

If you market a software tool – in KM, for example – you already are accustomed to a long sales cycle, as prospects work toward satisfying themselves that your tool is more likely to get them to a successful outcome than your competitors’ tools. If you accept my premise that a successful outcome requires more than a rich feature set, a friendly user experience or a low price, then here’s another proposition: Your marketing objective should be to convince the buyer that you are the authoritative source on the Process, People and Content issues that create the context for successful use of the tool.

Each of these objectives could be met in different ways. It may be that the most effective way to prepare the end users for the change to come is to involve them in a sponsored community of users from other organizations that have come through the experience satisfied and still gainfully employed.

To educate the buyer on process issues, it may make sense to produce a branded White Paper, walking the buyer through a process-oriented roadmap for adopting the business process in which your tool will be used (as opposed to the tool itself).

As for content, think about creating a set of generic templates for the kinds of documents or files you anticipate will be stored in your platform, and offer them through your web site. Think beyond your own tool, and design them for general utility in the business process you support.

If you’re still with me, then your plan should be to fill out your library of marketing content with materials that establish your credibility as a source of expertise on the processes in which your technology is applied; on the methodology for taking the adopting team through the culture change that is required for success; and on the design and delivery of world class content for these applications.

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