Monday, October 30, 2006

Company business plan

Business plans don’t normally grab the reader in the same way as an airport novel does and unfortunately, ours is no exception. Having said that, it is good to understand how/where our funding comes from (this determining who our customers really are) and to find out a bit about the other aspects of the company and what is planned for them. It was also useful to read about the priorities for my department as I could better see where some of the things that I have been asked to prioritise fit in.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Effective presentations and communication

This journal is more a record and reference for me than anyone else and as such, I wanted to include something about effective presentations. Although it isn’t a skill that is limited to the information professional’s world, it is a skill that we need and one that is relevant to developing my Chartership portfolio.

I am regularly called upon to make presentations in my current role (and in previous ones) so I have a lot of experience but I still feel like I could improve. As a result, I will almost always read an article published on the topic. In the last few weeks, I have come across a couple that have caught my attention. One was about effective presentations and the other about effective communication. In fact, once you have read about effective communication, you’ll see that in fact, good presenters are actually good communicators.

The first article (What has Al Gore and Edward de Bono have in common?[sic]) looked at a couple of presenters who the author felt were persuasive and the commonalities between their presentation styles.
  1. They both presented facts, from memory, that meant something to the audience
  2. They both told stories and included little details that added colour
  3. They both used analogies and metaphors to convey their messages
  4. They both enjoyed themselves and used humour when the opportunity presented itself
  5. The were both relaxed and confident – something that I feel I can only be when I am talking about something that I know inside and out
The second (I Don’t Think You Get My Point: the 5 hurdles to effective communication) looked at barriers to communication and identified five obstacles, any one of which could prevent effective communication.
  1. Your point must be explainable using language
    • This seemed obvious to me at first but the more you think about it, the more limited our language appears to be for the purpose of describing things that we experience (how do you recognise a good poem?). Add to that the fact that you must share a common vocabulary with your audience and the fact within that common vocabulary, there could be differences in connotation and you have a pretty limited ‘language’ to use.
    • Suggested ways of getting around this hurdle are to use metaphors and analogies (point 3 above) or to show your audience what you mean.

  2. You must be able to articulate your point clearly and persuasively
    • Clarity can be achieved through effective explanation but the real challenge here is the persuasion element. The article refers to sermonising (talk radio, the pulpit, editorials) as reassurance not persuasion as it ignores your audiences current ‘place’ in their thinking.
    • Suggested ways around this problem fall into what I would call ‘human communication skills’ – empathy, attention, openness – and practice. I think that this roughly correlates to points 4 and 5 above regarding the presenters’ disposition.

  3. Your audience must be ready to listen
    • They need to be at an appropriate intellectual and conceptual level and have an understanding of what is urgent and important before they are ready to receive your ‘broadcast’.
    • A suggested solution to this hurdle is to choose (and invite) your audience carefully

  4. Your audience must be listening
    • In my experience, they are almost certainly not listening. They may not be playing with their Blackberries (though sometimes they are!) but they are almost certainly thinking about something they have to do on the way home, a phone conversation they’ve just had or something else that is more immediately relevant to them than what you have to say. You need to get (and hold) their attention.
    • Suggested ways of doing so include the use of stories, humour and facts (points 1,2 and 3 above)

  5. Your audience must be able to understand your point from their frame of reference
    • "Frames trump facts". If your message isn’t communicated in a way that ‘fits’ with the audience’s perspective, it isn’t going to be properly received. This isn’t the same as the audience being ready to listen; this has more to do with the personal history and experiences of the audience which will colour anything that they hear.
    • The suggested way of overcoming this hurdle is to understand your audience’s frame and to explain things in their context.
So there you are. I think that both of these lists are true and when you look at them side by side, it is apparent that good presentations are actually good communications. Not that that makes them any easier to achieve!

Friday, October 20, 2006

DPA meeting

Had a meeting with the individual responsible for our compliance with the DPA. It was useful to meet him as I will need him to get involved in some of the things that I have planned regarding our e-newsletter subscribers and website users. I want to know who these people are so that I can get feedback from them on those publications that they access. I also want to be able to send them updates on our publications based on their jobs and interests.

As we should be, we are registered with the Data Commissioner and I have had a look through our registration. Looks like the plans that I have won’t require a change to the records but I’ll still need to run any DPA-related wording past this person.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Harvesting Knowledge: the exit interview

An information profession topic that is of great interest to me is knowledge retention and one about I would like to spend more time reading and thinking (Time to Think). I wrote my Diploma in Management extended essay on the topic, focussing specifically on situations of forced redundancy (with all of the additional complexities of motivation), and have been hooked on it since (helped that I aced the paper). Anyway, I now read pretty much any article that I find on the subject – especially if they pertain to redundancy situations as writing on this subject is very sparse (the focus tends to be on retirement – perfectly understandable given the developed world’s current demographics and the challenges that presents to the commercial world).

Anyway, I stumbled across an article called “Acing the Exit Interview: How to mine the data in your workers’ heads before the best ideas walk out the door”. It’s pretty brief but makes some good suggestions for getting the most out of an exit interview – something that applies regardless of the conditions under which an individual is leaving the organisation. It basically advised that:
  • the right people conduct the interview
  • you concentrate on particular employees
  • the output is readily available to users
I think that this last one particularly important but the article (perhaps due to length constraints?) misses the point of tailoring that method of making the material available to the users who require it – interactive software may be a more engaging format but if the end users really need a checklist, give them a checklist!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Creating Controlled Vocabularies

As part of the Industry Schema metadata work that I am doing at the moment, we need to create a few organisation- and industry-specific controlled vocabularies. The last time that I did something like this (establish a metadata schema for an organisation), I don’t think that we did a great job of getting the controlled vocabularies sorted out. Obviously, it was pretty easy for the elements that used external ones (like the Integrated Public Service Vocabulary or IPSV) but for the bespoke ones, we just didn’t get our act together.

So, for this one, I am going to get my extremely knowledgeable colleagues to create a starting point at our next team meeting which I will then put in front of the section heads before getting input on it from key people around the rest of the organisation. Once we have the necessary lists sorted out for my department and the organisation as a whole, I will start to get in touch with other organisations in the industry to try to achieve some convergence on this issue.

Creating the lists and identifying the elements (and creating the necessary supporting documentation) isn’t proving to be the difficult thing. It’s getting everyone to agree on a set of terms…

DITA and the Dublin Core

One of the challenges that we are going to face in this metadata project is the mapping of the DITA schema to the document metadata schema that we choose to implement (let’s call it Industry Schema).

We have a Technical Writer who is eager to introduce a content reuse policy (something very much in line with my own objectives) and would like to use a metadata architecture called the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) to do it. It’s basically an XML-based architecture that helps organisations create technical publications without having to recreate content. If you want to more, there is a pretty good Wikipedia entry on DITA and you could check out the DITA section of the Oasis website, the organisation now responsible for its maintenance (it started out as an IBM architecture).

My problem with using only this architecture is that when it comes time to create a composite document, how you know which bits of metadata should be used to describe the document? For example, it is entirely possible that each fragment has a different Subject and Creator. When assigning these elements of metadata to the composite document, I wouldn’t use any of the Creators as the Creator for the document nor would I use all of them – they would now be considered Contributors (at least in the Dublin Core Metadata Standard) and the Creator would be (I suppose) the organisation. As for the Subject, clearly a combination of individual components about certain concepts, when pulled together, do not make up a document that is about all of those separate concepts. So we need a document level metadata schema – enter Industry Schema.

I’m thinking that by creating a document that maps the Industry Schema to the DITA Document Type Definition (DTD) that we use, we can populate the DITA architecture based on the metadata associated with the original document.

When it comes time to catalogue a composite document, we will have to do so from scratch. This isn’t the end of the world; we’d have to do so if we weren’t using DITA to create composite documents so it isn’t like we have to do more. I just can’t help but think that the DITA metadata could be used to inform the Industry Schema metadata that we choose to assign. Is there a tool that we could use?

There is no doubt an article in here somewhere on the use and application of metadata at different levels of content granularity (document versus segment in this case). I would really like to speak to someone who has done this before…

How do you metadata?

Someone needs to write a book (toolkit style) on how organisations apply their metadata schemas. Maybe I should be that person. I can’t find a good resource with which to supply my boss that will guide him through the steps that I’m about to start dragging us through. There are loads of articles and books on the ‘what’ and a growing number of articles on the ‘why’ of metadata but conspicuously little on the ‘how’. I shall have a trawl of Amazon having exhausted my usual Web resources…

Time to Think

Sometimes I think that I could quite happily study forever. I have decided that I should be starting a list (I like lists) of things about which I would like to read more. Not necessarily things that are cutting-edge, brand-new, or even about which I am totally ignorant - just things about which I would like to learn more. I might start to include 'off-topic' (non-information profession) items as well (ooh, the only thing I like better than lists are categorised lists! so sad, isn't it?).

So here's a starter (I'm not introducing categorisation at this point!) and I will stick the date at the end of the item so that new additions are more obvious:
  • complex systems and the management of knowledge within them (13/10/06)
  • storytelling as a method for conveying knowledge (13/10/06)
  • other Web 2.0 technologies (e.g. del.ici.ous; flickr) (13/10/06)
  • knowledge retention in redundancy situations (13/10/06)
  • effective presentation and communication skills (13/10/06)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Metadata Schema

One of the objectives that I have agreed with my line manager is to identify, or if necessary, to develop a metadata schema that our department, organisation and possibly even our industry, could use to organise our publications and documents.

Having had a look around, there doesn't seem to be any industry-wide schema in use and having spoken to a few key people in the organisation, there doesn't seem to be a understanding of what I'm on about let along something in use. So...

Today I have completed a draft version of our metadata schema and sent it around my team for their comments / questions / suggestions. The schema is based on the Dublin Core, DC Terms and the e-Government Metadata Standard. I'm quite pleased with it, though it still needs some work. For starters, there are at least two controlled vocabularies that I need to sort out. I might even have to create them. Hmm...although that's going to delay things a little, I suppose that, along with the final standard, it will provide me with more amunition for my portfolio!

Friday, October 06, 2006

R&D programme prospectus

In my experience, the first week or two of a new job seems to entail a lot of reading. I suspect that this is a result of a few different factors ranging from cynical ones (to keep new starters busy while those with whom they need to meet are otherwise occupied) to more practical ones (new starters – particularly in a new industry – have rather a lot of background to get caught up on).

One of the things that I read in my first few weeks was the R&D programme prospectus. The funding for the R&D programme is renewed every three years and 2006 was a renewal year. The purpose of this document was to demonstrate the value of the programme and to make the case for its continued funding. As it happens, it was successful (or I would likely not have a job with these guys).

From my perspective, it was a pretty useful document to read to get an appreciation of how our work fits into the wider context of the industry, something that none of the other inductions did.