Tag Archives: Knowledge Management

Spelling and National Security

A former co-worker of mine always used to joke about our company’s customer database by posing the deceptively simple question: “How many ways can you spell ‘IBM’?” In fact, the number of unique entries for that particular client was in the dozens. Here is a sample of possible iterations, with abbreviations alone counting for several of them:

  • IBM
  • I B M
  • I.B.M.
  • I. B. M.

I thought of this anecdote recently while I was reading an article about the government’s Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list (TIDE), an attempt to consolidate the terrorist watch lists of various intelligence organizations (CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.) into a single, centralized database. TIDE was coming under scrutiny because it had failed to flag Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the elder suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings) as a threat when he re-entered the country in July 2012 after a six-month trip to Russia. It turns out that Tsarnaev’s TIDE entry didn’t register with U.S. customs officials because his name was misspelled and his date of birth was incorrect.

These types of data entry errors are incredibly common. I keep a running list of direct marketer’s misspellings of my own last name and it currently stands at 22 variations. In the data world, these variation can be described by their “edit distance” or Levenshtein distance — the number of single character changes, deletions, or insertions required to correct the entry.

Actual Name Phonetic Misspellings Dropped Letters Inserted Letters Converted Letters
Kinde Kindy Kine Kiinde Kinoe
Kindee Inde Kinder Kimbe
Kindle Kimde
Kindde Isinde
Kindke Pindy

Many of these typographical mistakes are the result of my own poor handwriting, which I admit can be difficult to transcribe. However, if marketers have this much trouble with a basic, five-letter last name, you can imagine the problems the feds might have with a longer foreign name with extra vowels, umlauts, accents, and other flourishes thrown in for good measure. Add in a first name and a middle initial and the list of possible permutations grows quite large … and this doesn’t even begin to address the issue of people with the same or similar names. (My own sister gets pulled out of airport security lines on a regular basis because her name doppelgänger has caught the attention of the feds.)

The standard solutions for these types of problems typically involve techniques like fuzzy matching algorithms and other programmatic methods for eliminating duplicates and automatically merging associated records. The problem with this approach is that it either ignores or downplays the human element in developing and maintaining such databases.

My personal experience suggests that most people view data and databases as an advanced technological domain that is the exclusive purview of programmers, developers, and other IT professionals. In reality, the “high tech” aspect of data is limited to its storage and manipulation. The actual content of databases — the data itself — is most decidedly low tech … words and numbers. By focusing popular attention almost exclusively on the machinery and software involved in data processing, we miss the points in the data life-cycle where most errors start to creep in: the people who enter information and the people who interpret it.

I once worked at a company where we introduced a crude quality check to a manual double-entry process. If two pieces of information didn’t match, the program paused to let the person correct their mistake. The data entry folk were incensed! The automatic checks were bogging down the process and hurting their productivity. Never mind that the quality of the data had improved … what really mattered was speed!

On the other hand, I’ve also seen situations where perfectly capable people had difficulty pulling basic trends from their Business Intelligence (BI) software. The reporting deployments were so intimidating that people would often end up moving their data over to a copy of Microsoft Excel so they could work with a more familiar tool.

In both cases, the problem wasn’t the technology per se, but the way in which humans interacted with the technology. People make mistakes and take shortcuts … it is a natural part of our creativity and self-expression. We’re just not cut out to follow the exacting standards of some of these computerized environments.

In the case of databases like TIDE, as long as the focus remains on finding technical solutions to data problems, we miss out on what I think is the real opportunity — human solutions that focus on usability, making intuitive connections, and the ease of interpretation.


  • July 7, 2013 – In a similar database failure, Interpol refused to issue a worldwide “Red Notice” for Edward Snowden recently because the U.S. paperwork didn’t include his passport number and listed his middle name incorrectly.
  • January 2, 2014 – For a great article on fuzzy matching, check out the following: http://marketing.profisee.com/acton/attachment/2329/f-015e/1/-/-/-/-/file.pdf.

Three Rules of PowerPoint

The sheer ubiquity of the Microsoft Office suite has created a cottage industry around the evaluation and critique of its bundled applications. Microsoft Excel, with its attendant realm of spreadmarts and shadow databases, seems to draw the most negative attention from the business world (particularly IT) but PowerPoint isn’t far behind.

At various times, the world’s leading presentation software has been banned by CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, called an internal threat by the U.S. military, and served as the driving force behind the establishment of the Anti-Power Point Party — a Swiss political party whose only stated goal is to rid the world of boring presentations. It has even been suggested that the “chronic use of PowerPoint” at NASA helped obscure critical information that might have prevented the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

How has a little presentation program like PowerPoint earned the ire of so many people? Sure, the tool has its flaws (discussed here, here, and here) but are these shortcomings really the cause of all the world’s slide show ills? Well, yes and no.

Generalized applications like those found in the Microsoft Office suite help companies hold down costs while providing their workforce with a fairly decent toolset. However, once these programs are in place, there is rarely any business incentive to provide additional training or purchase more specialized applications for more complex tasks. This leaves users in a bind. Either they can sit around waiting for more instruction and more powerful tools or they can start experimenting with the tools they already have available.

Like its close cousin, Excel, PowerPoint suffers from the fact that most people end up using it for tasks that it was never designed to do. In the case of Excel, a simple accounting application has become the de facto database and analytics package for most businesses while, with PowerPoint, a basic slide management tool has supplanted lectures and written reports to become their sole information delivery platform.

You would think that PowerPoint would be well-suited to this role. People seem to prefer multimedia presentations over standard lectures and studies in dual-coding theory suggest that they retain more information from presentations that have both verbal and visual content. However, because most speakers don’t really emphasize the full visual capabilities of PowerPoint, their presentations become a combination of verbal and textual content … and retention of information presented in this format may be much worse.

The problem is that cognitive process of creating a presentation in PowerPoint is a lot different from the cognitive process of watching a presentation in PowerPoint. Speakers get so involved in the preparation of their slide deck that they rarely give much thought to how it will be received by the audience.

Max Atkinson sums it up:

“PowerPoint makes it so easy to put detailed written and numerical information on slides that it leads presenters into the mistaken belief that all the detail will be successfully transmitted through the air into the brains of the audience. “

This assumption fails because:

“… the audience’s attention is split between (1) trying to read what’s on the screen at the same time as (2) listening to and following what the speaker is saying and (3) looking repetitively from speaker to screen and back again.”

Simply adding a graphic element to a text slide doesn’t necessarily improve knowledge retention, either. Researchers have found that the use of unrelated pictures in a presentation (think clip art) can actually distract the audience from the main content and interfere with overall learning. This is because people end up paying too much attention to the non-essential material on the screen and not enough to the text or narration.

A more effective technique involves the use of custom-designed images that relate directly to the concepts being presented. Even very complex topics can be tackled using such a combination of pictures and text and the level of information recall is much higher. However, this approach requires a better understanding of how people absorb information and not everyone will have the time or inclination to learn the basic principles of multimedia design.

The realities of human learning would seem to suggest that a presenter error on the side of simplicity, but that approach comes with its own set of pitfalls. For example, some experts say that you only use one slide for every 2-3 minutes of speaking while others suggest that you should never use more than 2-3 sentences per slide. Doing the math, this means that the “ideal” PowerPoint presentation would deliver no more than 1 to 1.5 sentences to the audience every minute and an hour-long presentation would have a maximum of 90 sentences. Even an adult with below average reading skills can tackle that amount of text in about 10 minutes. Expecting people sit through such a glorified guided reading course is a recipe for boredom.

Some executives respond to this kind of presentation bloat by imposing an upper limit on the total number of slides … say six or so. While this directive cuts down on the overall size of the presentation it also starts to have a negative impact on the content. To meet this restriction, presenters are either going to try and cram more information on the few slides they have available (making their presentation incomprehensible) or dumb down their presentation entirely (making it irrelevant or even ridiculous).

Therein lies the dilemma. Some say that creating a meaningful presentation in PowerPoint is impossible:

“There is simply no way to express precise, detailed and well-articulated ideas or subjects through Powerpoint.”

Others say that the tool is perfectly fine and that any fault lies with the user:

“Is PowerPoint bad? No, in fact, it is quite a useful tool. Boring talks are bad. Poorly structured talks are bad. Don’t blame the problem on the tool.”

My own thoughts tilt towards the idea that the tool has been badly misused and its reputation can be redeemed through proper use. Many people have written extensively on what you should and shouldn’t do with your PowerPoint presentations (here’s one) but I have distilled my own thoughts on the subject down to three basic rules or guiding principles (with exceptions, of course):

  1. Don’t use any text – That’s right, you heard me people … none. PowerPoint is a visual medium and should only be used for visual images. You’re supposed to be telling a story, not writing a grocery list. Simply putting your speaker notes on screen is a cop out and will leave your audience squirming in their seats after the first five bullet points.  Yes, you can create an outline to help organize your thoughts, but by the time you’re done developing your presentation, these blocks of text should be gone. Exceptions: Every visual medium uses some text on occasion. Things like titles, section breaks, tables, end notes, and explanatory text on charts are all welcome in moderation … but, if you strive for a slide deck that is 100% text-free, you might actually achieve something that is 80% text-free, which is way better than 90% of PowerPoint presentations out there.

  3. Only use images or videos that you create yourself – As you struggle with the content of your presentation, it is always tempting to add a little cartoon, GIF animation, or random stock photo to spice things up. Don’t do this. Your presentation should be tailored to deliver a specific idea to a specific audience. Adding someone else’s work to your presentation – even a picture from your company’s own brand library – is just a distraction. Build your own charts, draw your own diagrams, and create your own videos. You will be rewarded with a presentation that is consistent and perfectly suited for your message.Exceptions: If you are you are truly creatively challenged, find someone else who can help you visualize your ideas. Don’t appoint a committee to the task, however, since you want to maintain a consistent visual language.

  5. Focus on your delivery, not your handouts – Using PowerPoint to display pictures and graphs that support your presentation is good … using PowerPoint as a crutch to help you get through your talk is bad. Memorize what you want to say and prepare notes that you can use for reference while you are speaking. The audience should be getting a well- delivered presentation from someone who is organized and confident, not the half-formed thoughts of someone reading from their slide handouts. Exceptions: Seth Godin recommends creating a written document that complements your PowerPoint presentation and handing it out after you’re done speaking. This document shouldn’t substitute for adequate preparation but it should support your key points and provide additional details that help your audience understand the topic.

P.S. For a PowerPoint presentation of this post, click here.


Addressing the Loss of Institutional Memory

There was an interesting article in the news today that highlights the struggle organizations face when they try to preserve knowledge, codify decisions, or record experiences in a way that can be passed on from one generation of staff to the next.

The backstory is that United Airlines recently re-assigned the numbers Flight 93 and Flight 175 to existing Continental Airlines flights, triggering protests from pilots and flight attendents who felt the reuse of these numbers was disrespectful to the people who lost their lives in the 9/11 hijackings. The two companies are in the process of merging and a spokesperson for the airline claimed that the revival of these particular numbers was “an unfortunate and inadvertent mistake” caused by a computer glitch.

I certainly believe that the error was unintentional but I think it’s disingenuous to blame this on a simple computer glitch. This is clearly a business process error stemming from the consolidation of two different systems.

My guess is that somewhere in the bowels of the program that handles the random assignment of flight numbers, there is (or was) a hard coded sequence that screens out codes like 93 and 175 (and, for superstitious reasons, 13 and 666). With the merger of United and Continental, this process was either erased or bypassed, allowing the error to manifest itself in an improper assignment.

Nobody caught the problem at this point because the activity of assigning flight numbers became disassociated from the cultural weight given certain numbers. In other words, the company’s business processes and business rules were no longer capable of conveying the rationale behind a particular business decision.

This kind of knowledge hiccup happens all of the time (although probably with less media impact). Most companies are just not very good at setting up a system that reliably captures institutional memory in a way that guarantees continuity. Instead, they rely on their employees to learn and store important aspects of their business. This is called experience or, alternatively, job security.

The problem with this approach is that demographic trends are working against you. With the inevitable retirement of older workers and the more nomadic nature of the younger workforce, businesses are going to need to start paying more attention to the transmission of knowledge and resources from one person to another. Don’t wait for a knowledge management mistake to show up in the media before you act.