Maximising findability in a People-Finder system – the online dating model

In another reprised post from the archives, we look at People Finder systems, and suggest they should follow the model of dating sites rather than Facebook

Image from wikimedia commons

A “People finder” or “Yellow Pages” is one of the key supporting tools in knowledge management, but at the moment many organisations are using the wrong model when it comes to creating or buying such systems.  They are using Facbook as a model, rather than or Udate, which would provide much better findability.

Let me explain why.

Given that much of an organization’s knowledge is tacit, and not written down, then you need to be able to find people with specific knowledge in order to be able to ask them questions, and to tap into what they know.  Many organisations really do not know “who knows what”, and tacit knowledge often cannot be searched for, other than searching for reports and hoping to talk to the author.

A dedicated tool such as a people finder or yellow pages allows just this possibility of searching for people based on “what they know”.  The idea is that you should be able to  type in a query such as “who knows about marketing pet food in Southeast Asia,” and receive a list of people who you can talk to for advice.

Many companies that I have spoken to realise the value of a people finder, but seem instinctively to go to analogs of Facebook in order to create the sort of functionality.   They look for software such as SharePoint MySite where people can create a personal page, which is then available and searchable by others.  Or maybe they look at LinkedIn is an analog; again somewhere where you can create a personal CV, and maybe build some groups and some discussions threads around this.

However both Facebook and Linkedin are pretty poor at finding people based on their knowledge.  They are promotional sites; they are not sites aimed at findability, or locating people based on a set of criteria.  Facebook allows you to communicate with people who are already your friends, but is not set up to allow you to find people you don’t already know. I tried recently to search LinkedIn for people with KM skills in Sweden, and was surprised that this was not possible.  I’m sure those people are out there, but Linkedin could not find them (unless you have an expensive Recruiter account).

However there is a whole class of Software Systems which are 100% designed for finding people against a set of criteria; and these are the online dating sites.

Why dating sites are a good model for people-finders

Everybody who has used an online dating site (and that is nearly half the adult single population, at least in the USA) knows that this is a very different experience to Facebook.

Instead of a free form text-entry input page, where you can enter things like your taste in music, what you had for dinner or your favourite band, an online dating site requires you to choose your criteria from pull down menus.  Age, height, build, hair colour, eye colour, location, smoker or non smoker, preference for music types, preference for leisure activities, preferred restaurant type; all of these are chosen from a pre-set list of categories.

This taxonomic structure means you know what criteria you can search for. If you are looking for someone who likes folk music, for example, then you search for “folk music” under “favourite music”.  You know that your potential folk-music-loving new friend will have chosen that option, rather than saying that they like folk-blues or folk-jazz, or Fairport Convention, or Mumford and Sons.

Using these preset lists is constraining in terms of data entry, but it massively enhances findability, and findability is what online dating is all about; finding the right person

Effective systems for finding people with tacit knowledge need a similar knowledge-based taxonomic structure.  The best yellow pages or people finders I have seen have used the same online dating model.  They require you to select criteria from a whole set of preset lists, including knowledge topics, levels of expertise, office locations, job title, and so on.

Finding a knowledge manager in Sweden is as simple as selecting “knowledge management” from the list of knowledge topics, and “Sweden” from the list of countries, because you know that Swedish knowledge manager will have chosen those same criteria from those same lists.  Using these preset lists is constraining in terms of data entry, but it massively enhances findability, and findability is what a People Finder is all about; finding the person with the right knowledge.

So when you are considering building or buying an in-house People Finder system, base it on the systems that work.  Base it on maximum findability.

Base it on the online dating sites

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Why good Titles are important in KM

If you want knowledge in a lesson, post or knowledge article to be found, give it a good title.

One of the occasional recurring themes of this blog is the importance of Knowledge findability. Knowledge needs to be used in order to add value, and before it can be used it needs to be found. This includes the ability to find knowledge in lessons within a database, stories within a story folder, relevant posts within a community blog, or experience within the head of an expert.

One of the key enablers of findability when it comes to documented stories, lessons and knowledge articles is a Good Title. The Title is the most prominent item in any browsing system or set of search results. The purpose of the Title is to enable the reader to understand whether the item is likely to be relevant to them. Based on the Title, they decide whether to open and read the item. If the title makes no sense, then the seeker may not even realise they have found the knowledge, and may pass over it unknowingly.

So part of the role of the publisher of knowledge, in ensuring findability and reusability, is to give a knowledge item a good and relevant title – not a lazy title, or a “clever” title, or an artistic title, but a title that tells the reader what’s inside.

Bad titles

Would you know what the lessons listed were about, before opening them? Would the titles help you find relevant content? Would you even bother to open them? (although I could see you might be intrigued, in some cases). Apologies to any of you who wrote any of these, by the way.

  • Duplicate
  • Learning 1 of 3
  • Public Lessons Learned Entry: 0406
  • Additional learning from (Incident X)
  • Spurious event on (Project Y)
  • Z Project – After Action Review (Lesson Learned)
  • When you sweep the stairs, always start from the top (this one was not about stair sweeping by the way)
  • From take-off to landing (and it’s not about flying a plane)
  • Problem

Good titles.

If you want to see good practice in using titles, browse the NASA lessons database where you can find titles like these:

These titles clearly tell you what the lesson is about, and the reader instantly knows whether the lesson is relevant to their context. In almost every case the lesson is related to a process – handling of panels, mapping PC boards, fabrication of cable – or to a component such as Hypergol checkout panels. Someone planning a similar process, or designing a similar component, can find the lesson based in the title.

If you want knowledge to be found and used – pay attention to the title!

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Is your knowledge base more like a sock drawer or a supermarket?

There are three models for a knowledge base – which one is most like yours?

before & afterYour online Knowledge base is where you store your documented knowledge, It is a repository – but more than that, it is a knowledge resource for others. Someone looking for documented knowledge comes to the knowledge base to search and browse.

So what do they find?

Generally knowledge bases fall into one of three categories. Let’s call them the underwear drawer, the library and the supermarket display.

The underwear drawer (see top picture), if you are anything like me, is the place you pile all your clean washing, generally with the newest washing on the top. The drawer is easy to fill – you just cram everything in – but you know that the hard work will be done when you search (often early in the morning, in the half-light) for a set of matching underwear with no holes. All the work is done when searching, and very little is done when storing. The knowledge base equivalent is the uncontrolled filing structure, where you rely on a good search engine to find what you want. Dump it all in, then search for what you need.

The library (or the organised underwear drawer, see bottom picture) is a managed and structured repository. You know the category, you know the title, and you find the book. Or you know the drawer, and the relevant section, and you find a rolled set of underwear of the right colour. The work is distributed between the seeker and the storer. You categorise when you store, and you browse to the right place when you search. The knowledge base equivalent is the organised and tagged knowledge base, where you can browse or search for the knowledge you know you need.

The supermarket goes one step further (see my post from last year on the knowledge supermarket). In my local supermarket, for example, you can find a section that displays pasta, pasta sauce, Parmesan cheese and Italian wine, all within the same attractive display. Without searching, you are presented with all the ingredients for an Italian meal. Similarly with curries – curry sauces, poppadoms, nan bread, Cobra beer, lime pickle – all in one display. Lots of work is done by the storer, so as to minimise the work for the seeker, and as a result, they pick up the Impulse Buyer – the person who was not actually looking for this material in the first place, or who had forgotten that they need lime pickle with their poppadoms. The knowledge base equivalent is the Knowledge Asset; the one-stop shop for knowledge on a topic – the wiki page or portal that gives you everything you need to know, whether you knew you needed or not.

So what’s the lesson for Knowledge Management?

I believe there are three reasons why a supermarket is the best of the three models for your knowledge base.

  1. Firstly the main barrier for KM is not supply, but re-use. Many companies have no difficulty in creating knowledge supply, but all companies struggle with re-use. Therefore if we are to lower the barriers, let’s lower the barriers for the seeker and the re-user. Let’s invest in knowledge packaging, and the creation of knowledge assets, so that there is no excuse not to re-use.
  2. Secondly, although the search engine vendors will say that the search engine can do all the finding work for you, most people start by browsing rather than searching when they are shopping for something. Supermarkets are built for browsers, unorganised underwear drawers aren’t. 
  3. Thirdly, a search result will not return the “unknown unknowns” – the things you did not know to search for. The supermarket, on the other hand, is well designed for ensuring you find the impulse-buys which were not on your shopping list. 

Think about the knowledge user when you design your knowledge base, and don’t make them or their search engine do all the work.

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