by Tom Davenport

Getting to the Root of Knowledge Management Problems

Aug 01, 20037 mins
Enterprise Applications

Solving the problems of knowledge worker productivity and performance is a daunting prospect, so it makes sense to start with the most simplistic approach to research I know—studying…me. I’ve been known to develop enormous insights about others just by looking at my own problems and approaches. And, as any good Buddhist will tell you, observing oneself is the path to enlightenment. I’m not a Buddhist, mind you, but that’s OK since my aims are more modest than enlightenment: I’m only shooting for a little sanity.

Like everybody else these days, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by my own personal information and knowledge environment. I have lots of electronic devices—it seems like a lot to me, anyway. For these purposes, I’m intentionally ignoring the devices my family uses, for which I am the first-line (if somewhat reluctant and ineffective) provider of technical support. For my own use, I have a desktop PC at home, a laptop PC that travels with me, a PDA and a typical cell phone. None of them communicates very well with each other (though my PDA, for example, communicates reasonably well with my wife’s and my assistant’s PCs), and I occasionally have to send e-mails from one device to another as if they were distant cousins. I know they could be made to communicate better with each other, but I don’t have time to figure it out, and frankly I am grateful if they are all just working.

E-mail has become the core of my information flow, but I get too much of it. I have four addresses, which get forwarded into two different e-mail clients. I know that isn’t ideal, but if you work with multiple organizations, you tend to have multiple e-mail identities. A couple of those identities I access only at home, which makes my response time to them slow, but it keeps me sane.

Today I got 72 e-mails through one account and 29 through another, for a total of 101. About a third (a much higher fraction on weekends) were from spammers, which I am coming to believe are the lowest form of life on the planet. I sent out 32 messages during the day. I did all this through a broadband connection in my hotel—pretty cool—and it only cost me $12.95 and the hour I wasted trying to get connected to it. I finally called the front desk for help, and the attendant told me that it wasn’t working but I should keep wasting my time trying to connect because it would probably be working soon.

Then there’s my inbox, in which I have 1,716 messages. You may find that scandalous, but it works pretty well for me. I’ve basically created one big filing cabinet for stuff I might need later. I delete about two-thirds of my messages on any given day, and the other third slowly drift up the screen. Every so often I delete a couple hundred old e-mails. I recently attended a time management class in which the instructor suggested emptying your inbox every day, but I found that ludicrous. Maybe I’m just undisciplined, but I find I have to think about a lot of the e-mails I get—or solicit a response from someone else—before I can answer them.

I also get lots of voice mails in my three mailboxes—a total of 22 in today’s queue (in part because I didn’t get around to checking them yesterday). I don’t like voice mail very much, and I try not to listen to my messages on my cell phone while driving anymore because I’m tempted to write things down in order to respond—particularly difficult in the car. I hope voice mail goes away soon or gets merged with e-mail. If you want to make my day, call me and hang up. Being able to delete a blank voice message seems a considerable accomplishment.

I have consciously chosen not to add certain tools and technologies to my information environment. I don’t do IM, for example. I used it for a while, and I didn’t like having my attention held hostage by anyone who felt like sending me a message. I also don’t have any interest in wireless e-mail. I can’t remember any e-mail that was so important that I needed to read it in a taxi. And I don’t blog or read others’ blogs—although one might wonder exactly how this rambling column differs from a blog other than being in print.

Once, at a time management course, the instructor advised making my PDA the center of my digital life. I tried for a day to use it for “to-do” lists and so on, but I couldn’t get used to it. Instead, I would write phone messages on any paper I could find, but not surprisingly, I lost a lot of them. So now I restrict myself to one notebook at a time. The only problem with that is that I consider it too important to waste on to-do lists and phone numbers, so I still write those on scraps and promptly lose them.

The Roots of My Informational Problems

At best I consider myself only fair at managing my personal information and knowledge environment. Where do I go astray? I think about that a lot, and I have a few hypotheses.

First, I’ve got too many devices. Keeping them in sync would simply take too much time. Unfortunately, this problem is only going to get worse—for me and for the world at large. I was at a conference recently where all these technologists kept telling me that intelligent machines already outnumber humans 10-to-1, and they are growing at a much faster rate than we will. Of course, the technologists are saying that these devices will all be seamlessly linked, but I know better.

My second problem is that I don’t seem to get much help from my organizations. There is some assistance available for the use of each particular tool (except for PDAs, home computers and networks), but the support is fragmented. I don’t really blame them because no organization seems to do this well, and I’m not sure anyone really knows the key to personal information effectiveness. I do believe that a substantial amount of business advantage in the future will come from making workers more effective and productive in the use of all this stuff, so more resources ought to be injected into assisting us poor sods.

I’ve already suggested that technology doesn’t work well enough. Too many things break; too much software has bugs; too many features don’t function. Somebody once said that technology is “anything that doesn’t work very well yet,” and by that definition we’re employing lots of technology.

After blaming everyone else, let me also blame myself. I, like most people, underinvest in my own information environment. For some reason I have a neurotic fear of spending too much time on personal organization. I’d much rather write an article or book chapter or even an e-mail than write down an address or an appointment. On an airplane, I’d read 10 books or newspapers before cleaning up my to-do list. At least I know my preferences—and I’m willing to live with the negative repercussions.

So there you have it—a sad tale of a knowledge worker’s informational peccadilloes. To all you vendors out there, I’d pay a lot of money to anybody who could change my life without too much personal sacrifice. And to all you employers of people like me, throw us a lifeline—as soon as you can figure out what it is!