More Efficiency, Less Knowledge Glut

Part III of a four part series on developer efficiency and knowledge sharing. You may read parts I, II and IV once you have finished.

Shall we play a game? It’s the classic line from the 80’s movie War Games. What a young hacker thought was a fun diversion ended up nearly triggering geothermal nuclear war. Spoiler alert, they avert war when the hacker asks the computer if it could win “the game” and the computer realizes victory is impossible.

Not as sinister as HAL9000, but close…

Can you count the number of systems you go to in any given day to do your job? More specifically, when you need some information, have a question, or require some sort of reference, what does that process look like? If you draw it out, it probably looks akin to a doodle.

This is state of knowledge today in most organizations. A tangle of repositories, documents, and systems that are weaved together in a jumble called knowledge management. The idea was sound, but the game is impossible to win. Instead we have mutually assured mass confusion.

The corporate need for speed
Every conversation I have with senior IT leaders is around achieving startup speed, otherwise more commonly called agility or transformation. It’s the number one imperative driven by the board of directors and the CEO.

The ability to create and launch a new product into the market has never been faster. That is due to the ease, availability, and cost of technologies that enable quickening cycles of innovation. Consider that within the decade autonomous driving, smartphones, cloud, and AI have become commonplace.

Technology has also leveled the playing field. Startups are becoming global giants in their own right with less people, assets, and legacy technologies to slow them down. It has corporate executives scared out of their wits knowing that any one of those startups could overtake them at any moment.

Unfortunately, all the advantages of people, assets, and sheer size are now a competitive drag. Even if big corporates wanted to launch products faster and deliver superior service to customers, they are hindered by a morass of processes and legacy technologies that slow progress and stall innovation.

Role of knowledge and efficiency
Much of the mad rush towards agile, DevOps, and Digital Transformation however is merely putting lipstick on the pig. The scrums and kanbans and customer stories are an afterthought to give the appearance of spurring on innovation and collaboration, but it does not address the core challenge.

Developers need to be closer to the business and aligned on goals. Developers also need to be able to collaborate and leverage resources that help them to achieve those goals. What ties this together is the free flow and access to knowledge that enables alignment and collaboration.

Ask any developer and they will say the biggest hurdle to productivity is getting “stuck”, which can happen for any number of reasons such as:

  • Thinking and creative aspects of turning logic into code,
  • Optimization through re-engineering or refactoring code,
  • Debugging and figuring out things that do not work,
  • Recall of common procedures and code used across projects.

While the problem is generally acknowledged, the approach taken by enterprises is hardly one that seriously addresses the productivity gap. The answer to date has been more knowledge and systems for knowledge.

Tackling the knowledge “glut”
This has led to a knowledge glut in organizations. There are thousands of documents, a maze of wikis, servers full of unstructured emails and chats, and a multitude of systems and tools that hold bits of disconnected knowledge fragments. That is the world that knowledge management was meant to solve, but instead we are drowning in knowledge.

Per this McKinsey article, spending resources corralling knowledge does not help users:

The truth is that the real value comes less from managing knowledge and more — a lot more — from creating and exchanging it.

The problem with knowledge management is that people in knowledge management are more enamored with the idea of knowledge management than with the problem it solves. It is the classic build it and they will come story. That might work for a movie about baseball and corn fields, but not when it comes to solving business challenges around developer efficiency.

Consider Stack Overflow which to most observers is simply a database of the world’s programming content. However, knowledge management is simply a means to that end. The end goal of Stack Overflow is to help developers level up their skills and careers, and in turn help developers become better at their craft. Their vision is to help developers be more effective and better at coding.

From knowledge to intuition
By focusing on the problem of developer efficiency and taking a developer-centric approach, we can move from the knowledge glut to a knowledge market. The mechanism to enable this market is a central exchange built on a platform that captures tribal knowledge and enables collaborative problem solving.

But what about other systems? What about the volumes of documentation, code repositories, FAQ’s, etc. that are floating around. They are still relevant, but only when connected to the exchange which can wrap contextual knowledge and assign value that is most useful for developers in the time of need. The fragments of knowledge then connect into ideas that lead to intuition and foster cross-organizational innovation.

What is needed is a Knowledge Architecture that works for developers. One that is built on market principles and can be the arbiter of knowledge across the developer workstream, aligning the business and technology teams.

How does one build that however? That is for the next post in this series.

Have you experienced the glut of knowledge in your organization? How have you been able to sift through content to find answers quickly?

Why is it harder to build quantum computers than classical computers?

Welcome to the fuzzy world of computing…

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉