Where Classification can Make-or-Break

April 16, 2009
Ekranoplan

Ekranoplan

Seemingly simple acts of classification can have enormous consequences.

Last year, James May – a co-presenter with Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear – took a spin in an unusual vehicle developed by the Russians called an Ekranoplan (see the BBC video).

What’s unusual about the Ekranoplan is that it’s a hybrid between a boat and an aircraft, a class of vehicle known as a Ground Effect Vehicle or GEV.

GEVs rely on aerodynamics in combination with the ground effect. ‘Ground’ has to be defined loosely here, because GEVs are mainly confined to water surfaces, these being more consistently flat than most terra firma. That poses a problem for KO: is a GEV to be classified as an aircraft or a boat? Does it matter?

Well, in the scheme of things, it appears that classification can make or break a technology. A previous GEV – the hovercraft – was classified as essentially an aircraft, making it subject to the same stringent regulations applicable to true aircraft. That proved to consign the hovercraft as a public transportation vehicle to the scrap heap (although I made a very comfortable crossing to France on one in the 1980s). Hovercraft are now mainly confined to the domain of hobbyists. But, I suppose we ought to be grateful at least that we don’t need a pilot’s licence to use a hover mower on our lawns.

The Ekranoplan and its ilk on the other hand, have been classified by the International Marine Organization as a ship, and are therefore subject to far less stringent regulations. So hovercraft technology is detained indefinitely whilst other GEVs are released without charge – all through an act of classification.

Thanks to Max Boisot on the Cognitive Edge blog as the source and inspiration for this post.

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Making Sense of Human-Machine Symbiosis

April 12, 2009
Cynefin Model

Cynefin Model

A NUMBER of people have remarked to me that Dave Snowden’s title for his forthcoming talk to ISKO UK on 23 April 2009 is less than informative. Well, it depends on how well you know his work since he moved on from IBM’s Institute for Knowledge Management and the Cynefin Centre to focus on his own company, Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd.

I’m no expert in Cognitive Edge’s pioneering approach, but maybe I can shed some light on themes he might address in his talk by describing the context within which I apprehend it, and making a few other links along the way.

The processes of organizing and sharing knowledge are complex because people are involved in both the input and the output. However much we try to codify and structure both, there is always that residue of ‘fuzziness’ – un-order – which Checkland in his Soft Systems Methodology described as giving rise to ‘ill-defined’ or ‘soft’ problems.  Although the computer can help us greatly with codification and structure, it has been virtually useless in the face of soft problems – until perhaps the advent of Web 2.0.

As we are increasingly obliged to acknowledge, organizations are comprised of both formal and informal relationships, and it is often the latter which provide the real channels for knowledge and information flow. But how do we tap into these informal networks, and even if we can, how do we make sense of and derive value from what we find? Major shifts and trends (good and bad) often start as ‘weak signals‘, almost undetectable by conventional means. How can we spot these early enough to be able to discourage bad trends and encourage good ones?

Cognitive Edge addresses these questions within an organization by collecting narrative and organizing and analyzing it for meaningful patterns using its open source methods supported by its proprietary software suite SenseMaker. It should be readily apparent that such early intelligence could prove vital to effective decision-making in many situations where the degree of risk is not clear.

Less readily apparent perhaps, is that knowledge organization has a key role to play in this scenario. As UCL alumnus Patrick Lambe says in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness:

“Categorisation is, of course, fundamental to the management of risk. Different kinds of risk must be identified and grouped together based on origin, severity or remedy. Risk intelligence systems need to identify the signals or clues that would indicate particular categories of risk and put in place monitoring mechanisms (strategic early warning systems) so that these signals are picked up whenever a risk is emerging (Gilad, 2001).”

Moreover, it does not take a huge leap of the imagination to suggest that if software such as SenseMaker can discern patterns and trends even when weakly detectable, then it could presumably be employed in bridging the gap between formal vocabularies and newly emergent terms and concepts. Such tools are needed to help us move beyond the spurious divide between the formal taxonomic ‘elite’ and the folksonomic lumpenproletariat which is advancing the cause of neither party.

Interesting thought: If software like SenseMaker had been deployed at Lloyds, would they still have gone through with the HBOS takeover?


SKOS Matures

April 8, 2009

ISKO UK’s SKOS colleague Antoine Isaac advises that after a long gestation period, SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System) has matured to become a W3C candidate recommendation. This has been achieved only after an enormous amount of work and endless discussion by the SWD-WG (W3C Semantic Web Deployment Working Group) over several years. To accompany the recommendation, a new Working Draft of the SKOS Primer has also been published.

The SWD-WG is now calling for ‘implementations’. Implementations can include:

  • any vocabulary (thesaurus, classification system, subject heading system, taxonomy or other KOS) or mapping between vocabularies that has been published in the Web as machine-readable data using SKOS, and/or has been made available via programmatic services using SKOS
  • any software that has the capability to read and/or write SKOS data, and/or can check whether a given SKOS dataset is consistent with the SKOS data model
  • Once an appropriate number of implementations and comments have been recorded and verified, the Candidate Recommendation will become a Proposed Recommendation and subsequently a full W3C Recommendation. W3C Recommendations are comparable to standards published by other organizations.

    SKOS will then join other key W3C recommendations such as XHTML, CSS2, GRDDL, SPARQL, SVG, XSLT and of course, XML itself, as building blocks of the Semantic Web.

    We congratulate our SKOS colleagues on a truly impressive achievement.


    KO and the Enterprise of the Future

    April 6, 2009

    KM World recently ran a short but spot-on article entitled The Future of the The Future: An opportunity for real change by Art Murray. A couple of short excerpts should suffice to convey the flavour:

    In today’s economic climate, it’s clear more than ever—traditional business models no longer work. They are too slow and impede the flow of knowledge—the exact opposite of what is needed to succeed in a turbulent, high-risk economy.”

    “At the very least, we need to momentarily halt the process, introduce some serious changes and reboot. Here’s a partial list of specific transformations, any one of which will introduce a new way of doing business that will help propel you forward.”

    Murray’s five transformations (on which he elaborates) are:

    • Make the move from hierarchies to networks once and for all
    • Make the cultural shift from silos and knowledge hoarding to openness and knowledge sharing
    • Move from slow, random learning to a systemized approach for fast learning
    • Become fixated on systemic improvements rather than point solutions
    • Move from saying, “That’ll never work here,” to “Let’s find a way to make it work.”

    A better checklist of survival initiatives I cannot imagine. Similar sentiments are being expressed elsewhere, from Clay Shirky’s Ontology is Overrated a few years ago, to the challenge posed by Web 2.0 to structured information management disciplines like Records Management  (see e.g. Steve Dale’s recent blog entry EDRM and Web 2.0 – where two worlds collide).

    The question is, where does this relentless drift towards the informal, the unstructured and the ‘wisdom of crowds’ leave the highly structured world of KO?


    Explorations in Information Space

    March 27, 2009

    Different organizations handle the complexity of the knowledge and information they need in different ways, according to their structure and authority relationships. This results in different degrees of codification and abstraction (KO) which in turn determine the type of dissemination mechanism employed.

    That’s the interesting theme of an article in Information World Review (Bizmedia, March 2009, Issue 253) available online and entitled Shrink or Swallow?. It’s a very good article and I recommend you to read it, but it fails in one important respect: it mentions nowhere that the theory expounded was developed by Prof. Max Boisot and colleagues and described in their book Explorations in Information Space: Knowledge, Agents and Organization (OUP, 2007).

    My advice: read the article, then buy the book. It’s a classic.