Fools' Rules

May 02, 2006


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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Fools' Rule #1. It's the tool! All we need is a new content management system and all our content problems will be solved.

Fools' Rule #2. It's the Web site! All we need is a good information architect to redesign our Web site with taxonomies and folksonomies to get all our content on Google's first result page.

Fools' Rule #3. It's a user experience problem! We need better usability--information designers, visual designers, and interaction designers will craft a highly entertaining and dazzling interface using the latest AJAX, Flash, and Rich Internet Application technologies.

Fools' Rule #4. It's a knowledge management problem! We only need a collaborative wiki or group blog and everyone will share their expert knowledge and make the rest of us into experts too.

Sadly, these tools and techniques will not suffice. You need people and processes, content flows, and a content lifecycle. If you have these things--and all of the above can facilitate the process--most of the top tools will do a terrific job for you. But it's not tools and techniques that create the content and its organization, make it usable, credible, and desirable, in short make it into valuable knowledge that is actually used.

The Hard Truths
Tools do not a craftsman make. Desktop publishing tools did not turn people into publishers, but they did make publishing a great deal easier for those who already were doing it. I speak from personal experience having written the first desktop publishing tool for the Macintosh in 1984, called MacPublisher. The latest Creative Suite Premium (which I just received from Adobe) is a magnificent tool set. It does not make me a better artist, but it does make the work I already do much easier.
Tools will not get communities to share their best practices. The problem is very simple, very old, and very human. Everyone wants to share the other person's knowledge, but not one's own, thank you very much. Consultants put up pieces of their knowledge--on their own Web sites--to tease their clients into coming back for more. What good is it for them to put it up on a community Web site? Tools do not organize information, people do.

Three Communities of Practice (CoPs)
Some of the industry's leading communities--Content Management Professionals (CM Pros), Information Architecture Institute (IAI), and the Interaction Designers Association (IxDA)--are all wrestling with their current Web site tools, CMS, architectures, user experiences, and knowledge management (this last being a major perceived member benefit).

Developing a stream of content with designated content owners who are regular contributors is a particular problem for communities who are dependent on volunteer members to provide unpaid content.

These CoPs all offer resource libraries. They have event calendars and glossaries of professional jargon. All these are nothing without members contributing resources, events, and definitions. The communities all have ambitions to translate their content into many languages, to be true international communities. But the core content of greatest value for all three CoPs is found in two things: their member directories and their community mailing lists.

If you want to be on top of the latest developments you should be a member of one or more of these vital virtual communities. I belong to all three, plus a fourth, Seth Earley's TaxoCoP for taxonomists (a Yahoo Group), which as yet has no community Web site capturing their knowledge, so I recently set up www.taxotips.com.

Member directories give you valuable access to experts, who might become your mentors. But the simple mailing lists are a true source of continuously new and valuable content. You can post a question and possibly be answered by the very top players in these professions. If you're lucky, you might start a dense thread of give and take about the best practices surrounding your particular problems. Membership fees are miniscule compared to the extraordinary value of these information exchanges. 

Unfortunately it is difficult to capture ephemeral conversations and turn them into a community knowledge base. Particular mail messages are notoriously hard to find in your inbox. And the mailing list archives have miserable interfaces. Enter Jeff Howard, a young interaction designer recently graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a Master's Thesis in Wayfinding. Unhappy with the clumsy navigation of the IxDA mailing list archive, he crafted a superb Web interface that collects the messages from a single threaded discussion in the form of a blog-like page, with a navigation column down one side that lists all the threads, with named links to the posts in each thread.

Howard's interface takes relatively inaccessible mailing list content and turns it into Web content--just what a community of practice really needs. I hope to help all three communities add such a mailing list Web page. With simple techniques like Howard's, we can greatly improve the valuable, fresh, changing-every-day, content on these important CoP Web sites without foolish and wishful thinking that we must change the CMS, change the IA, or do a new design to repurpose a vital workflow.