Data lust, tacit knowledge, and social media

27 07 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Data Center Lobby

Data Center Lobby by WarzauWynn via Flickr

We are all witnessing the dawn of a new information technology era, the hyper-digitization of the world around us. While the physical world is being captured and monitored via smart sensors, human interactions in both personal and business domains are making their way to the binary realm via social media. Did we finally find the treasury map that will lead us to the Holy Grail of information nirvana? Is the elusive tacit knowledge finally within the reach of this generation? Those are questions that not even Watson can answer, but I would dare to say that we are still very far from getting anywhere close to that.

The Internet has come a long way since its early days of consumerization in the 1990s, and we’re often amazed by how disrupting it has been—and still is—in several aspects of our personal and business lives. The more people and information get connected, the more value is derived—and we often hear that there’s much more to come. This is nothing new, of course: the lure of the new has led us to believe that technology will eventually solve all our problems ever since the days when “techne” was more art, skill and craft, than space travel, jeopardy-champion computers, and nuclear science. In the last few years, as our ability to digitize the world around us improved, our data lust was awakened, and we are currently seeing an explosion of information moving from the offline world to bits
and bytes.

The expectations are high. A recent article at Mashable stated:

Do you think there’s a lot of data on the Internet? Imagine how much there is in the offline world: 510 million square kilometers of land, 6.79 billion people, 18 million kilometers of paved roads, and countless objects inhabit the Earth. The most exciting thing about all this data? Technologists are now starting to chart and index the offline world, down to street signs and basketball hoops.

Tragedies like the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant combo in Japan are powerful reminders that data alone won’t save us. Digitizing information is an important first step, but it’s the easy one. A good proxy to understand the difference between collecting the data and changing the world is the human genome sequencing effort: once we finished that big effort, the question morphed from “how fast can we do it?” to “what’s next?” We got the book, but it’s written in an unknown language that will take generations to decipher.

Raising the stakes even further, the promise of finally getting the keys to tacit knowledge—defined as “knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalising it” (Wikipedia) or, more broadly, “the accumulated knowledge that is stored in our heads and in our immediate personal surroundings” (PwC article)—has often been used as a carrot to justify social media investments in the corporate world. The same PwC article says:

Tacit knowledge can be unleashed and shared as never before by connecting people ubiquitously through social networking and its closely related partner, collaboration. In large and small companies alike, tacit knowledge is stored in the heads and personal information collections of thousands of employees of all levels, not to mention their clients’ personal stores of information. Up until now, tacit knowledge has scarcely been captured in conventional computer-based databases because it has not been easy to “tap,” summarize, save, and use in day-to-day business.

After years of observing companies aiming for that moving target, it became clear to me that most of the tacit knowledge will remain out-of-bounds to us for the time being. This is not supposed to be a blow to the importance of social media in the enterprise. In the long term, having reasonable expectations will only help us all. If you use the Wikipedia definition, it actually turns out to be an easy and obvious conclusion: if tacit knowledge is the one difficult to write down or verbalize, it is clearly not a good candidate for digitization.

The actual low hanging fruit of social media in corporations is not tacit knowledge. Using the widespread iceberg metaphor, the tip of the iceberg is the so-called explicit knowledge, i.e., “knowledge that is codified and conveyed to others through dialog, demonstration, or media such as books, drawings, and documents”. Much of that information is already digitized in e-mails, bookmarks, documents and IM conversations, but often inaccessible to those who need it when they need it. Moving conversations away from those traditional channels to more shareable and “spreadable” media, and improving the filtering and distribution mechanisms will enable us to harvest the early fruits from our corporate social media efforts.

What about the tacit knowledge? This four-year-old article provides a good analysis of it. Much of it will remain for years in the “can’t be recorded” or “too many resources required to record” buckets. Social media can help by uncovering the hooks hinting that some of that knowledge exists, and suggesting the individuals or groups most likely to possess it, but the technology and processes to fully discover and digitize them are not here yet. Even if you are an avid user of Twitter or Facebook or Social Business Platforms and operating in hyper-sharing mode, how much of your knowledge is actually available there? Very little, I would guess.

So, before declaring that you are about to unleash the tacit knowledge in your company, take a deep breath and a step back. That iceberg might be much bigger than you thought. Data lust can be inebriating, but reality will soon take over.

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Marketing segmentation and the game of averages

26 07 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Back in March, a Hunch Blog post (“You’ve got mail: What your email domain says about you”) made some noise around the net, courtesy of Gizmodo, swissmiss, and hundreds of tweets and retweets, most likely by Gmail users, who are depicted very favorably compared to Yahoo!, Hotmail and poor AOL users. But how much of that is really “utterly fascinating psychographic analysis” – as described by some of the retweeters – and how much is just over-extending the concept of marketing segmentation? Is the average Gmail user significantly different from the average Yahoo! user?

This is how that post summarized its findings:

  • AOL users are most likely to be overweight women ages 35-64 who have a high school diploma and are spiritual, but not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, in a relationship of 10+ years, and have children. AOL users live in the suburbs and haven’t traveled outside their own country. Family is their first priority. AOL users mostly read magazines, have a desktop computer, listen to the radio, and watch TV on 1-3 DVRs in their home. At home, they lounge around in sweats. AOL users are optimistic extroverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team.
  • Gmail users are most likely to be thin young men ages 18-34 who are college-educated and not religious. Like other young Hunch users, they tend to be politically liberal, single (and ready to mingle), and childless. Gmail users live in cities and have traveled to five or more countries. They’re career-focused and plugged in — they mostly read blogs, have an iPhone and laptop, and listen to music via MP3s and computers (but they don’t have a DVR). At home, they lounge around in a t-shirt and jeans. Gmail users prefer salty snacks and are introverted and entrepreneurial. They are optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the situation.
  • Hotmail users are most likely to be young women of average build ages 18-34 (and younger) who have a high school diploma and are not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, single, and childless. Hotmail users live in the suburbs, perhaps still with their parents, and have traveled to up to five countries. They mostly read magazines and contemporary fiction, have a laptop, and listen to music via MP3s and computers (but they don’t have a DVR). At home, Hotmail users lounge around in a t-shirt and jeans. They’re introverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team. They consider themselves more pessimistic, but sometimes it depends on the situation.
  • Yahoo! users are most likely to be overweight women ages 18-49 who have a high school diploma and are spiritual, but not religious. They tend to be politically middle of the road, in a relationship of 1-5 years, and have children. Yahoo! users live in the suburbs or in rural areas and haven’t traveled outside their own country. Family is their first priority. They mostly read magazines, are almost equally likely to have a laptop or desktop computer, listen to the radio and cds, and watch TV on 1-2 DVRs in their home. At home, Yahoo! users lounge around in pajamas. They’re extroverts who prefer sweet snacks and like working on a team. Yahoo! users are optimistic or pessimistic, depending on the situation.

I’m primarily a Gmail user, and definitely not a young man under 34, not single, not thin. Maybe I’m the exception that confirms the rule, but looking at how the data was collected and how it’s analyzed, you start wondering about what they mean by “margin of error is +/- 1%”. First of all, the sample is composed of Hunchers (people who bothered to answer their 20 questions to build a taste profile). The majority of respondents use Gmail, and Yahoo! is not even the second largest contingent. Contrast that with other data showing that Yahoo! Mail may have three times more visits that Gmail, even though that advantage seems to be shrinking.

Of course, this is nothing new. A year ago, as the Hunch post acknowledges, the Oatmeal has done a similar, tongue-in-cheek, analogy (please do visit their site for a more readable image):

Oatmeal: Email Domains

Similar to the Mac guy vs. the PC guy, and all the generational stereotyping, these shallow interpretations of market segmentation carry some degree of prejudice behind their light-hearted approach. Of course, there’s no such a thing as the average person, which would be Asian, Christian, a Mandarin speaker, with no access to computers or the Internet and no University degree. Most of us would not fit that profile.

That’s not to say that market segmentation is not a useful tool, but a bare minimum quality to it is needed. The text book example of inappropriate use of that tool is to divide table salt buyers into blond and brunette customers and mistake the differences between those two groups as indicators of purchasing behavior. Useful market segments need to be measurable, substantial, accessible, differentiable and actionable (Kotler et al.).

Of course, there is probably some merit in the domain comparisons with regard to AOL users. Because AOL was extremely popular as an Internet service provider in the 1990s and almost insignificant now, it does serve as a marker of a given segment of the population who remained loyal to it. Other than that, most of the attributes linked to the other major mail domains are likely to not be substantial, differentiable and actionable. Discarding Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail users as not being computer savvy or career-focused or “plugged-in” may be a major mistake in one’s online marketing strategy.