K Street Newsletter :: Directions

March 2020    |    VOLUME 18, ISSUE 3

Bring Your Data to Life

Many corporate decisions are ultimately data-driven, whether they involve product launches, train schedules or marketing campaigns. Somewhere inside MGM, an analyst with a spreadsheet looked at the likely impact of COVID-19, and decided to postpone the release of the latest James Bond film. What would be the cost of the promotional campaign, the chance of theaters being closed? A lot of money is at stake, so better safe than sorry.

More kinds of corporate roles work with data every day, but it's easy to forget that most of that data is generated by people. It's produced when people click on a social media link, select a product on Amazon or set up a new smartphone. Big data originates in the millions of tiny decisions that people make as they go about working, living and interacting on line. But it generates patterns that can support effective decision making. This article points out that explaining the data well requires the same kinds of skills that apply to other kinds of communication. It's all about storytelling. You can help people make better decisions by putting the raw numbers in the context of a story. And that means finding the characters that can bring the data to life. Who is the hero? Who is the antagonist? For businesses, the heroes could be employees, customers or partners. You need to understand the archetypes behind the numbers if you really want your audience to understand what the data is telling them.

 

The Rise of the Machines

As big data gets bigger and processors get faster, we're approaching the point where computers will be able to take on tasks that so far have only been do-able by human beings. They may not actually be thinking in the same way we do, but they'll be doing a pretty good approximation. It might even make humans unnecessary for certain jobs, perhaps increasing productivity but at a cost of greater income inequality. The invention of industrial machinery initially put a lot of people out of work. But as companies grew larger and production increased, more jobs were created over time.

What's happening now is that computers are taking on tasks that require complex analysis, subtle judgments and creative problem solving. They can learn from experience, performing trillions of calculations a second and tapping into the contents of huge databases. They have better voice recognition software, with natural language interfaces and the ability to understand conversational context. So it's not hard to imagine a time when companies may include computers on work teams, working alongside their human counterparts. No more keying in search queries, but simply asking and answering questions. Think HAL 9000, although hopefully with a happier ending. If you can imagine that, how long will it be before the computers take on the manager's job?
 

 

Street Smarts 197: Beware of information zombies.

Knowledge has a natural life cycle, a KM principle that goes all the way back to The Knowledge-Creating Company. Nonaka and Takeuchi saw knowledge creation as a very organic process, through which a new idea is recognized, socialized and gradually merged with the background understanding of a given field. So in their view, new ideas don't really die. But they do surrender their newness to the larger narrative of a particular context. That's how it's supposed to work.

However, with the almost limitless storage that's available today, lots of people have forgotten the importance of archiving information. Any collection of knowledge artifacts can grow into something so massive that it becomes unusable. And a repository that's cluttered with old and irrelevant content will soon be judged of low value by its users. If managing content is within your scope, be sure you have a program to age things into the background and keep the zombies under control. Otherwise, they'll eat your brains. Thanks to this article at idm.net for inspiring this tip.

 

 

Communications and COVID-19 

Communication is never more important than during emergency situations, whether they're natural or man-made, local or global. And successful communications have three things in common. They need to be clear, consistent and credible. The last point is a function of both the preexisting credibility of the communicator and the degree to which the content is aligned with what's available in other places. It's important to get information out quickly, but dangerous to push it out before it's been properly vetted and verified. It's better to admit you don't know something than to undermine your credibility by getting it wrong.

When it comes to COVID-19 in the US, we're unfortunately burdened with an administration that already has very low levels of credibility. And it gets worse every day, as the government tries to spin the information to its political advantage. This article elaborates on the negative effects of that kind of mixed messaging. On the positive side, though, there are lots of resources to help put together a good communication plan. The World Health Organization has a rich collection of advice for risk communication, including a briefing package for healthcare facilities. Help is out there, for communicators at every level.
 

Dialing In

Over the last decade, we've written often about the importance of remote working. It's something that's moved into the foreground as most work teams have become at least partially virtual. Here at Knowledge Street, we've never met any of our current customers face to face. They've all come to us as referrals from other customers. One way we hold on to them is by making good use of virtual meeting tools. So we liked this article about running a great virtual meeting, although we might take issue with some of its recommendations. Recommendation #1 is to use video. That's a good idea, but we've found most folks are reluctant to enable their cameras. Just shyness, or is it because they're wearing pajamas?

The keys to a good virtual meeting are the same as a good face-to-face meeting. Have clear objectives, use an agenda, outline next steps and send out follow-up communications. Try to stay away from canned presentations, since the point of a meeting is to have discussion. If you're the host, don't be afraid to call on people by name, asking for their thoughts. There are also tools that can help, and this article reviews how Google, Microsoft and other tech companies are addressing the spike in remote working that's expected because of COVID-19.

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