Sunday, September 02, 2012

Information Pyramids: Actionable Information

Information Pyramids are a concept that Ron Weisenburger invented in 2002 when he was working with forage and beef cattle researchers in Agriculture Canada and the western provinces in Canada.

This article explains information architecture design for websites that need to guide customers to best information, current best practice and detailed information in a way that does not result in information glut and over-reliance on search. and are two websites that are structured on Information pyramids.  

Ron's challenge was that some of the researchers were about to retire. Concerned about keeping really good information visible for ranchers and cow-calf producers in the Canadian western prairies, the researchers wanted a website that summarized the best information they had on different issues on growing grass and hay and raising beef cows and calves.

As the Chief Knowledge Officer for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, Ron Weisenburger's invention was to propose an information architecture that featured three layers of information on the website.

Layer 1, the top of the information pyramid, is the knowledge nugget or knowledge summary. It is a checklist of issues are immediately relevant to current circumstances. They are the issues a well-informed customer should be paying attention to.  The knowledge summary is actionable information because the community of experts who produce them summarize in a sentence these key actions as:
  • What You Should Do
  • What You Should Avoid
  • What is Coming Over the Horizon
I contend that your value to your organization and your clients is realized when  you regularly produce knowledge summaries that clearly cover these three topics. If you don't, why are you an expert and why would anybody care what you do?

The knowledge summary is a checklist of actionable information

Knowledge summaries are at the core of good advice. And like good advice, they have a "Best Before" date stamp on them. Circumstances change and so should the knowledge summary. You usually don't see knowledge summaries written down (I will say more than I can write down). That makes them even more valuable when they are and when they are regularly updated to stay current with changing circumstances.

Ron Weisenburger's vision was that in the knowledge summary, you could click on a topic you should be paying attention to and get directed to Layer 2, the factsheet that describes "How To" do the current good practice you need to learn more about (or refresh your memory on).

 The factsheet on "How To"

The 3 to 5 page factsheet, that in layman's language explains and illustrates (pictures and graphics are important) what to do step by step, takes a community of experts to develop. It becomes a best practice guide. The most efficient way to develop checklists and factsheets is have someone write the strawdog (it will be about 80% right) and then have the community edit the draft. You will see communities of practitioners (CoPs) do this in wikis. The key is to tailor the factsheet to the level and tools that the target audience uses. With the emergence of mobile devices, shrinking good practice guides down to photos, illustrations and short text makes for in-field guides that reside on the hip and are more accessible than printed guides. Good practices guides are more static than checklists. They tend to have a lifetime of 3 to 5 years before changes in technology or research require updating.

The Details, Layer 3, presents the research articles, manuals, reports and regulatory instructions that are judged most useful by the community of experts. Information pyramids do not cover all the information on a topic, just the most relevant, robustly useful and foundational to the topic. Links from the How To factsheet bring the customer to this level if they need the detailed step by step instruction, the background research that supports the practice or the regulatory details that shape the current good practice.

The Details are the manual, research article, research report or regulatory instructions, standards and codes of practice.

Ron Weisenberger's information pyramid was a revolutionary concept in delivering really good information in a small footprint. The links allow a user to journey down to the material he/she is unfamiliar with. It also provides the opportunity to remind users to pay attention to fundamentals or key learnings they may have forgotten.

A second advantage of information pyramids is that they don't have to deliver all the information on the website. Really good detailed information can reside on other websites (e.g. factsheets or the details (reports, manuals, regulations)) and the information pyramid just links to to that information.

Today, an expert's tweet can be the one sentence line that highlights a currently relevant checklist topic. The blog can be the short introduction to the How To factsheet. And the Details can reside wherever the community of practitioners find access the easiest. Information pyramids are a different twist on the concept of news agregators. The toughest task is getting a community of practitioners to regularly review and update the checklist of currently relevant "Things to Do" today and "Things to Watch Out For".

The concept of information pyramids is introduced at
in their section "About". Information pyramids also are a key structural element in the Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network's website. The article, "Information Pyramids, Presenting Really Good Information to You" on is more detailed on how to construct information pyramids.

At the core of this is a community of practitioners who take on the task of constructing the information pyramid and then weeding and maintaining it. Without their attention, the checklists quickly become out of date. Knowledge requires the active participation of knowledgeable practitioners.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

It's About the Design: Knowledge Networks

Dr. Kirby Wright has brought new design concepts to the idea of knowledge networks (the evolution of communities of practice). The practical, visible version of what Kirby is thinking about for knowledge networks can be found at

And you can hear Kirby talk in detail about these new design concepts on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2- 4 pm at 10155-102 Street, Commerce Place, Edmonton, 4th floor, Room 4L. Kirby's presentation launches the Edmonton KM Network's fall seminar series on New Website Design Perspectives to Engage Customers in Knowledge Networks.

Kirby defines the design concepts for knowledge networks in "Website Design Concepts, Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network" and he talks about them in this YouTube video. is the website for the Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network (ALuKN), under the management of the Foothills Research Institute. I work with Kirby Wright in developing the partnerships and creating the connections to actionable information (Kirby's definition of knowledge) for land-use practitioners and policy makers. The Alberta Land-use Knowledge Network helps with effective land use planning, analysis and decision making by:
  • Providing access to high-quality, relevant, trusted and accessible information and knowledge resources
  • Supporting the many networks, organizations and individuals involved in land use issues
  • Providing technologies, resources and information management to land use professionals and organizations
  • Facilitating conversations and dialogues to explore land use challenges and issue.
In Kirby's introduction, he says: "The key for the ALuKN web presence is to focus on ideas and issues. These ideas are selected because they are topical and relevant. Land-use issues encompass environmental, economic as well as social dimensions; land-use issues are multi-dimensional and varied. To reflect this diversity, the ALuKN site will need to be continually renewed and updated as new issues are introduced and profiled."

I will talk more about our journey into supporting a knowledge network on a very large issue (land-use in Alberta, Canada) that started a year and half ago in March 2011. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Knowledge, Hype and Opinion, the Blackberry Playbook

The Summary, in My (Humble) Opinion:
  • I have one. And I bought an additional 2 Blackberry Playbooks for my daughter and son.
  • The new operating software (OS2.0) makes the Blackberry Playbook a powerful, functional tablet.
  • I have found it a useful business tool (I am a consultant at lots of conferences and meetings).
  • At its current price point ($200-$300), the Playbook is a steal of a deal.
For Canadians, it's been with a bit of consternation that we have watched the reputation and stock price of Research in Motion decline through 2011. Regarded as Canada's flagship in high tech, RIM's decline from the "must-have" technology has been hard to watch. And when their tablet came out in 2011, the rush to proclaim the Playbook as half-baked was universal.

There are some lessons here. Much has been written about RIM's struggles to be innovative. But little has been written about the analysts doing the analysis. So as a new user of the Playbook and a technology watcher, here are some observations.

The Herd Mentality about New Technology and Gartner's Hype Cycle (2011):
Here's the rub. Tablets are just coming down off the peak of inflated expectations. What will tablets do? Everything a laptop can do, plus a camera, plus a game console, plus an e-book reader, plus a music player ... How about frying eggs as a griddle? And from the time that the Apple iPad broke the ground, the expectations are that every new entry will do marvelous new things. At the beginning of 2011, at the peak of the hype cycle, the Blackberry Playbook didn't move the yardsticks as technology reviewers expected (iPad3 by RIM). And then the piling on began.

As every engineer will tell you, simple takes work. Sometimes you get complicated at the start of technology. Hence the trough of disillusionment.

Now a year later, with a new version of the operating system, is the hype (or continuing derogatory commentary) about the Playbook justified? Here's my perspective. Note this my opinion but it comes out of a consultant who uses the tablet for business.

What works well on the Blackberry Playbook:
  • Documents to Go. Word, Excel and PowerPoint files can be transferred to the Playbook and edited easily. And then transferred back to my laptop. File overwrites happen seamlessly.
  •  The keyboard. Easier to type on than my laptop's keyboard (or even the USB connected full-size keyboard I use every day). And word predictions speed up the typing. 
  • Web mail. Contacts. Calendar. Easy to get to. Easy to update. Actually more convenient to work on than laptop.
  • Video Chat. Some people think the Playbook should come with Skype. I don't use video in Skype because the service problems over my high speed cable connection. And even audio breaks up. But Video Chat over the same connection had smooth video and audio. 
  • File Manager lets me get to documents that were attached to emails. And then edit them on the Playbook.
  • Size is right. I can sit in a lecture room with their minuscule writing surfaces and take notes easily. I have stopped using my notepad binder for writing notes at meetings. The Playbook slides into an unobtrusive zipped binder (15 X20 cm) that I got years ago from a conference. I am not in a panic to leave it unattended.
  • Price Point is a No Brainer: Canadian prices are $200 to $300. A good USB 32GB storage drive costs $60. When a tablet gets over $500 I question whether the tablet offers enough to compete with a similarly priced notebook computer. The Playbook does enough of what I would expect of a decent laptop in situations outside the office and at a significantly lower price.
With WiFi everywhere, I usually can browse easily and if there is no WiFi, the Bridge connection to my Blackberry Phone means I carry on as usual.

I don't play games. I don't shoot photos or videos with my cell phone.I am a grandfather so I do carry photos and videos of my grandson on my Playbook. I have checked out the Apps store and regard 85% of the offerings as clutter. No, I do not need "Angry Birds" on my Playbook.

The Playbook lets me work in situations where a laptop would be awkward and a cell phone verbotem. And it cost me less than $300.

I am not comparing the Blackberry Playbook to other tablets. But I think right now most of the commentary about the Playbook and RIM constitutes negative hype (and herd mentality).

Simple takes work and the Blackberry Playbook got simpler.