Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lotus Knows

There are several interesting aspects of the IBM "Lotus Knows" campaign.

The campaign started as a debate with the extended Lotus community (people inside and outside IBM) about the best ways to promulgate the benefits of Lotus. The debate itself used some of the latest crowd-sourcing and idea-sharing features of the Lotus platform (including a third party app called IdeaJam), and therefore served as a practical demonstration of some of the topics under discussion. The campaign is therefore an exercise in metacommunication - an act of communication between two or more agents that also communicates something about the communication itself and/or about the relationship between the agents.

Much of the resulting material consists of a long enumeration of all the complicated details of our daily lives that Lotus "knows". For example, whether to take an umbrella to a meeting.

Okay, here's my algorithm for taking an umbrella. If I am wearing my best suit, and I expect to walk in a dignified manner across an unsheltered carpark, then I will take an umbrella if the probability of rain is greater than 25%. If I am wearing smart casual, then I can always sprint if there is a shower, so I will only bother with an umbrella if the probability of rain is greater than 50%. And if I'm slumming it in jeans, the threshold goes up to 75%. If the meetings in my diary are classified by dress code, then Lotus should be able to combine my schedule with the local weather forecast, in order to give me an up-to-date umbrella advisory.

But the important point is that my umbrella preferences may not be the same as yours. So how does Lotus know what my umbrella preferences are? Presumably I have to teach it my preferences. And how exactly do I do that?

Alan Lepofsky adds

'"Lotus Knows where that file is" would mean more to me if it said "Lotus Knows how you can share files with your team, or with your customers".  Or, "Lotus Knows which calls you want to answer, and which ones you want to avoid".  Make it personal.' [Cute Lotus Knows ad, but]

For my part, when I see the slogan "Lotus Knows", my first question is not "How many different things does this clever Lotus actually know?" but "How exactly does Lotus know the things it knows?".

In other words, I want to know the process. I want to think of Lotus not as a bit of magic that produces knowledge from nowhere, but as a platform supporting an intelligent and collaborative way of working.

And what about the collective brainstorming that kicked off the Lotus Knows campaign? How much reliance can be placed on ideas that emerge from a free discussion? David Tebbut points out a small flaw.

"A terrific idea, except it's a bit like asking a church choir what songs they should be singing. They're going to choose the easy ones, the catchy ones, the ones that appeal to the choir itself." [Lotus knows, but do you?]

In many situations, the intelligent approach is neither entirely traditional nor entirely crowd-sourced, but a balanced combination of both. So how does a platform like Lotus help us achieve this, and how do we know if we've got the balance right? How does Lotus know whether what it knows is Good Enough?

(I expect there are good answers to these questions, and I intend to discover them, but they are not the questions that are given most emphasis on the Lotus Knows website.)


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