This is another in a series of case studies from people I interviewed in 2005 about their blogging efforts. Now as we move to 2013, I find it interesting to look back at the early days of business blogging. I will only include cases from people who are still blogging now. These cases have not appeared on this blog before.
Jim McGee has been writing the blog, McGee’s Musings for eleven years now. It has the tagline - “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Dorothy Parker. Jim started blogging publicly in October of 2001. He had just joined the faculty at the Kellogg School of Management. He was teaching a course on managing the IT function and developing a course on knowledge management. The blog gave him a way to share materials with his students in an easy way.
Before successfully launching his blog Jim had been experimenting with several other approaches to using web technologies as part of knowledge management when he was the Chief Knowledge Officer for Diamond Technology Partners, a strategy consulting firm he helped found in 1994. He gradually came to the belief that the path that was interesting to explore was to start from the perspective of the individual knowledge worker rather than the perspective of the organization. Jim started working with the idea of a content management system tailored to the individual. His theory was that the knowledge sharing problem started with the problem of sharing with yourself over time. Solve that problem and he felt you ought to be able to solve a bunch of related knowledge management problems more easily. I think he was ahead of his time here and certainly still agree with him now.
The problem is that almost all management tools start with an organizational problem such as enterprise document management but this does not solve the individual’s problem. There was no easy way to share knowledge at an individual level. He tried to put a content management system on his lap top but this did not work. What made the blog seem to stick as an individual knowledge management tool was the simplicity of the structure - those simple, short posts, automatically arranged in reverse chronological order. The unit of single post also helps. A post can be as small as a sentence and, perhaps, a link. In traditional systems, people often felt the need to fill a page and this put them off.
Email and instant messaging provided a quick way to create short bits of content but they solved only half the problem. It was now easy to create content and even share it with a few but you could not find it. It was locked up in your mailbox with no way for others to find it and no easy way for you to search through it. The blog exposed content to all and provided a searchable archive. RSS also really helped. Now you do not have to look for updates to content such as new meeting notes, they are delivered to you as soon as they are created. If everyone is blogging you only have to have inputs from your direct reports but, at the same time, you can check several levels beneath them to make sure they are not filtering out essential stuff.
Jim thought it would be generous to claim that he had any concrete objectives when he started blogging. He had been simply experimenting with a variety of tools to address problems with knowledge management that he had encountered and a blog was one more experiment. It was one more opportunity to try something and see what he learned from it. Jim’s main blogging objective was simply to play with one new tool and see what he might learn from it.
One use of his blog was as a sort of "back up brain." I like this concept and use it myself. As Jim said, “I let the blog function as a more reliable memory than my own sieve-like brain; I post things to a blog and later use search tools to find things.” He maintains both a private blog and a public blog. The private blog resides on his laptop and remembers stuff important to him but he feels is unlikely to be interesting to anyone else.
The public blog contains stuff that Jim wants to keep track of for his use and
share at the same time. One of the unexpected rewards from his early public
blog was getting email or comments from someone about something he had posted
that they had found useful. Jim started to become more conscious of the broader
social fabric connecting bloggers as they all started doing more of their
thinking in public.
Jim had been through a long series of efforts to improve knowledge management in his own organization and others. Jim felt there was something about the simplicity of a blog and its ability to plug you into a network that promises to make some significant progress on the real problems of knowledge management.
However, Jim saw several obstacles to full acceptance at the enterprise level. One problem with blogs as a knowledge management tool was that they are so simple, which makes them very suspect to those who see complexity as a source of job security. As Dave Weinberger has written, the web subverts hierarchy. People in power are threatened by this subversion. Organizations that can overcome this threat will benefit, as more people will contribution to enterprise discussions. When the barriers to participation are lowered, new phenomena surface. This is usually a good thing.
Jim said in 2005 that blogs can operate in parallel to enterprise knowledge management. They can serve as the efficient individual knowledge repositories. If enough people are using material on their individual blogs, it can be recognized and migrated to the formal enterprise knowledge repository. This can democratize content selection rather than have senior management agendas be the sole source. In this context, blogs can also help keep taxonomies current. While there may be a place for some rigid taxonomies, they should remain flat and small. Emergent taxonomies can capture the changing nature of the business. The individual nature of blogs can support this ongoing evolution. With blogs, the trend spotters, “the canaries in the mine,” can be more easily recognized. The amplifiers can also better distribute the new insights of trend spotters. The organization can become more fluid.
Jim said that if organizations can overcome these potential resistances to blogs as individual knowledge management, benefit will likely occur. For example, the average project status report will be much better conveyed in an accessible blog feed through RSS. Jim realized early that the standard office tools like word processing and PowerPoint were developed to put things on paper. They were not built for accessibility. Blogs are visible and allow ideas to bubble up and not be locked in hard drives. They make it hard for command and control management to suppress information. In an innovative, knowledge-based environment all good stuff happens at the edge. Blogs make this edge visible and accessible to everyone.
Like many who blog outside their normal work routine, Jim faced the challenge to find time to post to his blog. It was not currently an explicit part of his day job so he had to make time above and beyond. Jim often found that he wanted to think about something and mull it over for a while before he posted about it. There's been a trend toward immediacy in blogging that isn't always particularly helpful.
Jim had been a consultant for so long now that protecting client confidences is
hard-wired. He knew what he could write about and what he could not. There was
more than enough to talk about without having to draw on the particulars of his
Jim subscribed to about 340 different blogs and others sources of regular content. He guessed that 80% of his content gets triggered by something he found somewhere in his aggregator. Sometimes it was commentary on a particular item. Other times, it may be a comparison or integration of topics that he saw as a result of items being juxtaposed in his aggregator. The other 20% comes from reading and conversation.
Jim’s blog explored a set of issues that he has found of continuing interest for most of his professional career, which is how strategy, organizational design, and technology interact. More often than not, those three fields have little to do with one another and display a woeful ignorance of each other. At the same time, Jim felt that we're in a period of enormous ferment about how to put the pieces together. There are no simple strategies that you can just copy.
The other dimension that Jim’s blog explored is what it means to be a knowledge
worker in today's world. He thought the interesting answers to business
questions were going to come from looking at the trials and tribulations of
being one of this brave new class.
Jim benefited from reading other blogs by learning how really smart, articulate people parsed problems. He saw how they attack and framed issues. Better yet, Jim got to watch their thinking develop and play out over time. He found this much more informative than simply hearing the latest speech or the current hot book on a topic. Seeing great minds in action through blogs has a lot to recommend.
One thing that Jim will did was add new blogs to his aggregator regularly. If he found something interesting he would track it for a few weeks to see if he liked the flavor. Some stuff stuck, some didn't. Jim’s evolving rule of thumb was to stick with blogs that felt like they were by somebody he would like to meet for drinks. Over the three years he had been doing this so far, Jim managed to meet quite a few fascinating people he never otherwise would have encountered. That alone made this a worthwhile effort for him.
Jim advised prospective business bloggers to get started now. Stumble. Write crappy and stupid posts. If you were the sort of person who was cowed by threats that "this will end up on your permanent record" blogging may not be a good idea for you. There's no way you can project an image of something you're not with a blog. On the flip side, nothing is better at conveying who you are. Jim happen to believe that most people have something interesting and relevant to share.
Jim felt that we all get too wrapped up in notions that things have to be perfect. While he was not a big fan of sloppy either, getting in the game and making a commitment to stay with it are important. Don't try to define your niche too finely. A focus is helpful but it shouldn't be an exclusive one.
In 2005 Jim expressed some very advanced ideas that have been picked up by others. I am very pleased that he is still blogging.