Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The cost of Classification

Rather interesting article re: faceted classification: The Cognitive Cost of Classification.

There are three related reasons I see for this imbalance between invested mental effort and perceived return:
1) Classification is hard work. The benefit of assigning a single term is small—good classification effort requires ongoing consistent diligence to pay off. There’s only marginal benefit in classifying a single document with a single term.
2) People discount the future. Saving current effort spent on diligent classification is better than saving future effort in easier document findability.
3) Classification benefits the group more than the individual. An individual can have an arbitrary method of organizing the information they create, and still have good success in finding it later—but to access that same content others rely on the guidance of a shared classification.

Read on if you're interested how social software can suppoprt smart tagging and improve the findability of information. It's the first step towards solving the metacrap problem!

ontologies, tagging and categorizing, why?

As a result of my last two weeks in Mexico implementing Autonomy mainly for information retrieval and categorization, I had the opportunity to assist to a couple of interesting lectures about ontologies and taxonomies. These presentations, I must admit, made me think over again of the value of building complex hierarchical information structures. Is it really worth the effort?

And today I came across an interesting rough-n-ready "article". I must thank
Hugh Pyle for pointing me to this rather interesting post re: ontologies and taggs(Tags != folksonomies && Tags != Flat name spaces). The more I learn about developing complex taxonomies, the more I'm against it.

...the suckiness of ontology is .....the need to declare today what contains what as a prediction about the future. Let's say I have a bunch of books on art and creativity, and no other books on creativity. Books about creativity are, for the moment, a subset of art books, which are a subset of all books. Then I get a book about creativity in engineering. Ruh roh. I either break my ontology, or I have to separate the books on creativity, because when I did the earlier nesting, I didn't know there would be books on creativity in engineering. A system that requires you to predict the future up front is guaranteed to get worse over time.

And the reason ontology has been even a moderately good idea for the last few hundred years is that the physical fact of books forces you to predict the future. You have to put a book somewhere when you get it, and as you get more books, you can neither reshelve constantly, nor buy enough copies of any given book to file it on all dimensions you might want to search for it on later.

Ontology is a good way to organize objects, in other words, but it is a terrible way to organize ideas. ....

The move here is from graph theory (arrange everything in a tree graph, so that graph traversal becomes the organizing principle) to set theory (sets have members, and the overlap or non-overlap of those memberships becomes the organizing principle.) This is analogous to the change in how we handle digital data. The file system started out as a tree graph. Then we added symlinks (aliases, shortcuts), which said "You can organize things differently than you store them, and you can provide more than one mode of access."

"Not only does it not matter where something is stored, it doens't matter whether it's stored. A URI that generates the results on the fly is as valid as one that points to a disk." And once something is no longer dependant on tree graph traverals to find it, you can dispense with hierarchical assumptions about categorizing it too.

Lets translate this to the management of my personal information. Hey, in a smaller scale, we suffer the small information overdose as corporations do.

Well, as a "good" and disciplined engineer I believe in good organisation. Until recently I used to organise all my incoming emails in folders (i.e. admin, customer accounts, personal, etc..) was a bit time consuming, but it worked, it was effective. Well not anymore, as I got involved in more and more jobs and my work load increased, I found it increasingly hard to maintain a consistent and logic hierarchy of folders. The great breakthrough, the moment I decided to stop using folders in Outlook was Blinkx, a smart tool that indexes all my emails (even the webmail ones) and also all my local documents in m y desktop, attachments, etc and points me to them instantly....When I need to check a quote that I sent through email to one of my customers, I don't need to check under the customer's Inbox folder, or the "Quotes", no...I fire up Blinkx and I type the customer name and quote and in less than a sec, I have a direct link to the document which was attached in an email.

The bottomline is, why do we want to categorise when we can rely on strong powerful retrieval tools? Don't get me wrong, categorising may be beneficial for companies that want to maintain a current taxonomy or thesauri, but hey, first of all, before you act, stop and think twice...what is the true objective behind categorising? is it just allowing people to easily access and find information? then, you may be surprised to learn that categorising and structuring your own information universe may be an arduous task which will occupy to much of your valuable time and resources for far too little in return. In most cases, building up an ontology (i.e. a set of inter-related taxonomies) doesn't pay off! Let me know what you think folks...

Groove 7 minute webcasts

Interesting short webcast series highligting how small businesses benefit from the use of Groove. Small steps toward big gains!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Groove Virtual Office is here to stay

Groove is a critical business tool, more valuable than email in my case. Thanks to Groove software I can efficiently manage and fullfil my two current jobs: one as an independent Groove consultant and the other running a small services company in Spain.

1) As an external Groove Networks consultant and contractor, Groove allows me to be “connected” and in permanent touch with the professional services team in Boston. Above everything it gives me visibility and awareness. Let me expand this idea: We have a space for managing client engagements, where I see what jobs I’ve been assigned to, what products + services the client has bought and why (i.e. business pain), contact details, etc..but the best thing of all is that I can also see who else is doing what and when, and this fact allows all of us on the pre-sales and consulting front to share insights into our jobs, the client in particular, common support incidents, tips into how to deliver a new course, how to approcah structured interviews, etc..As a consultant I can acknowledge and alert one of my pre-sales colleagues to contact a current account and offer a new product that I envision may be needed. Pre-sales people also alert me about the need to emphasize or focus on X, Y or Z during my engagement due to all the knowledge generated during the sales process.

On a separate space we manage training jobs, both online and on-site courses. Thanks to the “always-synchronised” Groove capability, I know who does what and when; that is, if one of my colleague trainers cannot make a course and it has been assigned to me I would be notified, also everyone knows my availability thanks to our calendar tool, etc. Also there is a Time-cards tool designed in Forms 2.5 where we input all of our hours of work, which are synchronised with Notes in the back-end, which later invoices the customer. All of it happens automatically. Of course all these spaces also host discussion boards where we share our ideas on how to improve the way we work and AOB.

Being part of these spaces allows me to permanently stay in synch with all work mates (i.e. members of same workspaces), who are mostly based in the Boston area. It breaks time-zone barriers (I’m based in Madrid these last few weeks) and organizational barriers (I’m self employed in this case), and provides me awareness without constantly having to check on progress.

2) Groove is also a big part of our small business in Spain. We use Groove as our CRM, our Intranet, our project management tool and as our shared file system. And we use for two main reasons: One is because it’s cost-efficient (it does require any servers, shared drives, etc..), and requires no admin, and two, because it drastically boostes our productivity.

We have 4 main spaces or space areas:
- CRM Space: This is the space where we store and synchronise our current and prospect account. Here we can check contact details of each customer, what our role in each account has been, who the main contact is, whether there are any future opportunities, etc. We use a customised version of the Customer Reference rapid solution. We’ve also added two more tools: a pipeline tool to manage our forecasts more efficiently and to be more reactive to customer demands; and a Time Cards tool where we input the hours spent on each account. This last tool is I would say one of the most crucial ones because it allows us to invoice customers in accordance with time and dev time spent.

- Team Space: This is where we go and check our availability, our incoming jobs, key deadlines, etc.. through a Team Calendar tool. Very easy but terribly valuable. My motto is Think Big, start Small! I like simple things that work. Also we have a discussion board where we share ideas, jokes, etc..this space is our own intranet, where our team dynamics happen.

- This third space I would say is just a collection of spaces, a folder of spaces. We have one for each customer, and this is where we manage deployments, support or relationship matters.

- The fourth space is a big GFS folder where we store most of our files. It’s synchronised and works nicely.

Some of those funny days, where our ISP plays with us and leaves us with drops of connectivity, well….the only (operational) thing that works internally in the office is Groove! We loose connection to our mail server, no Skype,…all it’s left is Groove and the good old phone!

Summing up, Groove is a critical part of my day-2-day jobs. You need figures? Well, as a consultant and working very closely with customers during the early stages of engagements, coming up with hard metrics is a must. I try quantifying how much money a tool like Groove saves to our business, however once the tool becomes a part of your day to day activities you stop thinking about figures, the value is so tangible that you cannot think of living/working without it. If you can figure out the ROI for your email or telephone send me a message.