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Social Signals, Social Noise and Knowledge Management

2014-10-July-Train-Signal-Noise.jpgSocial information is very different from traditional documentation. We've grown accustomed over the past few years to referring to documents as “unstructured data.” But even PowerPoint is neat and orderly compared with the wild frontier of enterprise social.

Hashtags, "likes" and abbreviations are all part of users conveying information. Almost all organizations with enterprise social deployments turn to it after traditional documentation, but in many cases, social knowledge management is an afterthought — if it's performed at all.  Yet information theory shows us that enterprise social is much more likely to contain meaningful enterprise knowledge than traditional documentation. 

How should we approach knowledge governance in social streams?

The World Wonders

James Gleick, in “The Information” revisits the classic Marshall McLuhan medium/message conundrum for the internet era.

Information Theory teaches us that almost all information carries extraneous clutter, background noise, padding, carrier waves, etc., that are unrelated to the core “message.” The earliest days of analog signaling rapidly uncovered the signal to noise problem — if a message is hard to hear because of background static, turning up the volume amplifies the noise along with the signal.

Digital signals are not immune from signal/noise issues. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, US Navy Pacific Command lost track of the fleet group Task 34 commanded by Admiral Halsey when he chose to pursue a decoy Japanese fleet instead of following an order to protect an Allied amphibious landing force. In those days, coded messages also included extra words that had nothing to do with the core message. As a result, the encrypted message listed below included extra padding at the end. (The actual message is in bold.)

TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS"

Unfortunately, when the message was decrypted, the corpsman handed the Admiral a message that probably generated even more noise.

WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR. THE WORLD WONDERS”

2014-10-July-Task-Force-34.jpg

Task Force 34, Located? © 2014 Christopher F. McNulty

The actual information in the message — where is the fleet — was contained in a lot of extraneous data. (For more, see The World Wonders). The point? It can be hard to distinguish signals from the noise.

And we don’t need as much detail as we think to convey a message. Consider the two following “signals”:

  • At the June meeting, the committee established November 10, 2015 as the end date for the Montana project. (92 characters)
  • @ Jun mtg - cmte set 11/10/15 4 Montana prjct end (49 characters)

Both convey the same information. The second message is more succinct, and probably has a higher signal to noise ratio. However, a verbose message may be more easily read — and a terse message is more susceptible to misunderstanding e.g.,  is 11/10/15 November 10, 2015 — or October 11, 2015?

During World War II, Claude Shannon focused on the likelihood, or unexpectedness, of a message as an expression of its information carrying capacity:

2014-10-July-Shannon-Method.jpg

A simple example? In English, the letter q is almost always followed by u. So the u conveys almost no actual information and could be considered part of the noise — not the true information. Even if I leave out the second letter of the airline:

QNTAS

You can probably still understand the name.

Social Signals, Social Noise

Like the Pacific Fleet, we have well practiced habits of “padding” our documentations with logos, headers, explanations and properly written sentences. However, the “nut” of a given document might be a simple fact — e.g., the committee approved the project because the chairperson believed it would reduce operating expenses. This may however be buried in an executive summary or at the end of meeting minutes.

Managing enterprise social information was viewed to be a simple undertaking. Earlier in my career, we debated the pros and cons of social migration tools. It had been thought that enterprise social messages were transient parts of a collaboration process that might be purged in a few months — all you ever needed to retain were the end documents.

 

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