Highly recommended ways to dispense IT advice

Michael Schrage has some advice, and it’s not just for IT managers.

The co-director of the MIT Media Lab’s e-Markets Initiative was recently featured in an article published by the Conference Board Review that looked at how technology will influence the way people seek out recommendations before making decisions in business. Schrage, the author of Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, floated the idea of companies appointing a “chief advice officer.” A CAO, he argued, might become the person who drives technology-driven advisory networks. ComputerWorld Canada editor Shane Schick decided he had to learn more.

How realistic is the idea of a chief advice officer, and how do you think it would come about?

Michael Schrage: The CAO is sort of a tongue-in-cheek neologism, but I think it underscores the larger point, which is, increasingly, the currency by which things get done and how people really decide what makes sense is through the medium of advice, not the medium of information.

We can play all kinds of semantic games, but the reality is, we go to an encyclopedia or an almanac or Google for information, but, if I have an issue with an algorithm, or if I have a concern about some individual I’m working with (or not working with), I want advice!

Obviously, we need to consider the source of the advice, but at the same time, there is a difference between a recommendation for action versus information. And the idea that you can design an information system the way you can design an advisory system is just nonsense. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s like the notion that you can teach somebody by giving them lots of multiple choice questions. Maybe that’s a way to assess what they’ve learned, but that ain’t the way you’re going to teach them.

So those are the kinds of issues I was really trying to get at, and when you look at the very successful deployment of recommendation engines, I really think that we’re moving into an environment where the automation and augmentation of advice is becoming an everyday phenomenon. In the same way that e-mail and SMS texting has been transformative over the past 10 years, technologies that support advisory behaviours and choice will be even more transformative over the next 10 years.

Describe what you mean.

MS: It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which wikis become the platform or prism in which advice is codified and filtered and shared. I can see that being done with blogs. Additively, I can see them integrated. Now let’s ask people to start tagging their PowerPoint presentations and memos. Imagine if the corporate database won’t accept your submission unless you tag it with five words. Then I append a Google box to it. All of a sudden I have an advisory-flavoured search system. Now I’ve had one or two people in HR who say, “Hey, I can repackage this or repurpose this for on-boarding or training purposes.” Bang! That’s how it happens.

What should the IT manager’s role be in these kinds of projects and how should they start to prepare for the kind of transition you’re talking about?

MS: There are CIOs whose fundamental job is to make sure the lights stay on, and they are chief infrastructure officers more than chief information officers. They just need to make sure that their platforms, their apps, don’t get in the way of those individuals and groups and teams who would be self-organizing systems for advisory exchange.

Then there’s the smaller group of CIOs who really are looking to use technology as an enabler, as a differentiator, for value creation inside the organization and out. They’re the ones who are going to be figuring out, “Geez, we should be seeding the organization with some SharePoint or wiki infrastructure. Maybe we can do customer support in an FAQ or wiki type of way, and maybe we could be a leader/partner and enabler of these sorts of things.” The problem is, IT always runs into the situation where they hit diminishing returns on people skills very, very fast.

You really need to find champions of information-sharing who are the natural internal “vendors” and repurposers and repackagers of these sorts of ideas.

The reality is, organizations can’t do this without IT. Unless — and this is not a minor unless — organizations are so ticked off, pissed off and frustrated with their IT that they disintermediate them. Then you have, basically, a Facebook/MySpace social networking infrastructure that really is not social networking but a mentoring and advisory network. It happens outside the firewall.

Is there a fundamental difference between advice and knowledge management?

MS: Expert systems, on one hand, were positioned as mechanisms to replace experts, or they were positioned as mechanisms to add value to networks. It really depended on the sensibility of the enterprise.

I really think traditional knowledge management suffers from — let’s create a phrase — “database syndrome.” That is, once we’ve got the knowledge codified, it could be considered advice. And, sadly, we know that’s not true, because that’s not how people get advice.

For example, I use Google a lot, but four out five times when I use Google, I’m not going to the first two things the search gives up. I’m not really using Google as a search engine but an iterative search engine. Sometimes using Google I’m going to go off on what I would have thought was a tangent but wasn’t really a tangent at all — it’s a better notion of what it is I wanted.

I really think we need to start treating advice as much as an interactive conversation than some module or piece of knowledge that gets plugged in to solve my particular problem of the moment.

How close are we to the algorithms that would do that?

MS: The algorithms already exist. Go to Amazon, go to iTunes. What we haven’t had is the enterprise commitment. Look at Gmail. They’re already using a recommendation engine, because you see these ads on the right-hand side of a message. If Gmail were smart, they should have, “Based on your previous traffic, you should be sending an e-mail to so-and-so.” What’s the cost of doing it? If you don’t want it, you’d ignore it? If I’m an advertiser, I’d love to be adjacent to that. That’s a recommendation engine.

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