Month: December 2013

Institutional Knowledge

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group.

This is especially important in companies. When someone leaves, you don’t want them to take all of their knowledge with them. You want to have that knowledge written down and shared.

The lack of institutional knowledge is a real problem for any company. Recently, I walked into a situation where I would be part of a two-person team supporting a product.

Three days later, my co-worker was fired. I panicked, but felt OK because they had processes and procedures written down. Surely, I would be able to find the information I needed because it was available to me.

It was not.

There was nothing written down. Nothing had been documented. I had a huge pile of Word and Excel documents loosely groups into folders. I had multiple copies of many files, some of them incomplete, all of them differing versions of the same document.

If you don’t write it down, you have good intentions. Every last bit of institutional knowledge about the product walked out the door when my co-worker was dismissed. I was starting from scratch.

Those good intentions don’t go very far when I’m left to support a product in a specific environment and I know nothing about the environment. I can support the product. I know how it works. I know how to use it and can explain it to the user community.

What I need is the process put in place in this company to perform that task. That’s the part that went out the door with the firing of the last knowledgeable person.

For instance, I can create a user account. I don’t know the process for requesting that user account be created. Who needs to request it? Who needs to be notified of its creation? Who is paying the bill for this account? These are the things I’ve had to slowly learn and document along the way.

I am a firm believe in writing things down. Not only for the next person when I leave, but when I need to do something 6 months from now, I may not remember how I did it last time. Who did I get that information from? How do I create this report and where do I send it? I need to write it down for me.

Once I write it down, it can be transferred. And if I write it down clearly, then it can be shared. Now I am on the way to having transferable institutional knowledge.

Ron Ashkenas writes about a similar problem.

I was recently perplexed when I received a request to speak to a group of senior managers about reducing complexity — mostly because I had worked with their company fifteen years earlier on the same subject; and they had since developed a reputation for being good at simplification. Why did they want to revisit what was already a core competence?

How did this group of people, supposedly excellent at reducing complexity need a refresher?

Once I met with the senior management team, the answer became very clear: Whatever institutional knowledge about simplification that had once resided in the company was now lost.

This is an extreme example as he points out. But it’s a problem I face now and one I’ve seen in every place I’ve ever worked. Information is gained, it’s retained by the person who gained it, and it’s never written down so it leaves. Institutional knowledge is an extremely valuable resource that’s not given nearly enough attention.

Organizations spend a lot of time and resources developing knowledge and capability. While some of it gets translated into procedures and policies, most of it resides in the heads, hands, and hearts of individual managers and functional experts.

It’s fine for the knowledge to start in the heads and hearts of those who use it and need it daily. However, there comes a time when that knowledge needs to be passed down. Like stories from our fathers and their fathers, we need to pass down our stories.

These stories are not exciting. They don’t involve adventure or the time grandpa set the barn on fire. But just as those stories shape us, the stories of your company shapes it. It’s not sexy to talk about the configurations of your network or what IP ranges each building is assigned. But it’s vital information to pass along.

It’s not exciting to document how to start a WebEx training session and what pitfalls there might be in planning one, but it’s vital the day of the event when you’ve got 1,000 open phone lines and terrible feedback and noise.

Institutional knowledge are the stories of the company. They are the story not only of why things are but often how they came to be. There is a reason behind a process or a way something is done. As a new person, this way of doing things may seem backwards or needlessly complex. However, once you learn the history behind it, it makes sense. Working in government of healthcare, there are a huge number of laws and regulations that must be followed. So procedures are put in place to keep the company compliant with these regulations.

With a huge workforce of contractors who may leave at any time, or full-time employees looking for a change, how do you keep this institutional knowledge?

First, there needs to be a culture of documentation and information sharing. Nothing else matters if no one is going to contribute to it. Lead by example. Ask yourself the question, what does everyone come to me for? What are you the go-to person for?

If you don’t know, ask a co-worker. Many times I’ve been a resource for something I didn’t consider myself very good at, but others saw me as the guy to see. Start there. Write up what you know.

Second, write it down. Pick a system. I recommend an internal wiki because it keeps track of changes and accountability, via user accounts. It’s a living, public document that’s easy to update.

Make it as easy to use and update as possible. A wiki is typing words into a web page. Anyone can do that. You don’t need any special knowledge.

That’s all you need to do. Encourage everyone to write things down. Then actually do it.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But there are some places to start. Such as your help desk and support staff. Surely they already have some system for keeping documentation.

I briefly supported a call center and their documentation system was a huge green folder.

This was filled with screenshots, printed out and highlighted. Someone had taken the time to type the how tos and procedures. Then destroyed the searchability by printing it all out.

When I worked at the National Institutes of Health, they used Atlassian’s Confluence wiki which was wonderful because we each had accounts and could create and edit pages as needed.

It was perfect for collaborating in a large team environment. Since it was part of our review process to create and update the documentation, it was actively maintained by everyone.

The participation was also high because it helped us to better do our jobs. There’s one thing if you’re doing something because you have to. It’s an entirely different things to see the benefits of it.

That’s the biggest advantage to writing things down. It’s a resource for your team that’s specific to the company. I’ve spent hours searching the web for a solution to a particular problem. Why would I throw that time and effort away by not adding it to our wiki?

If I have to answer a question once, odds are I will need to answer it again later so why waste the time looking for the solution again? Write it down. Document it. Helping your team is helping yourself.

The Psychology of First-Person-Shooter Games

Far from isolating us in a virtual world of violence and gore, first-person shooters can create a sense of community and solidarity that some people may be unable to find in their day-to-day lives—and a sense of effectiveness and control that may, in turn, spill over into non-virtual life.
via The Psychology of First-Person-Shooter Games : The New Yorker

It’s about teamwork and community. It’s about working together to carry out a goal.

In 2009, the psychologist Leonard Reinecke discovered that video games were a surprisingly effective way to combat stress, fatigue, and depression—this proved true for many of the same titles that critics once worried would be isolating, and would negative impact on individual well-being and on society as a whole. In other words, the success of Doom and the games that have followed in its footsteps haven’t sentenced us to a world of violence. On the contrary: for all of their virtual gore, they may, ironically, hold one possible road map for a happier, more fulfilling and more engaged way of life.

Games give us a common goal to work towards. It brings us together and it allows us to carry out goals and be rewarded for it. The reward could be more experience, or better weapons, or armor.

It’s the same idea as playing any game where you’re invested in it. Growing up, two of my favorite games to play were NBA JAM and Secret of Mana. My brother and I would play both of these games for hours.

They were both perfect because they allowed he and I to play cooperatively. NBA JAM was perfect since it was 2-vs-2. My brother and I played and we’d keep our own records. We’d try to most dunks in a game, most rebounds, more steals or assists. We’d try to blow the other team out as much as possible.

We’d try to keep the other team scoreless. We had a whole list of scores and records we kept on a notepad next to the Super Nintendo.

Secret of Mana was perfect for the same reason. We could play through the adventure together. We both enjoyed playing role-playing games for the adventure and the exploration. We would sit for hours and explore icy worlds and desserts. We’d hone our character’s skills and take on evil forces.

As we’ve grown up and no longer have long summer days and weekday afternoons to lose in the foreign lands of our youth, our habits have changed.

I’ve started playing first-person shooters, usually with other friends. I miss the adventure and the teamwork. But I don’t have the hours and hours to devote to a character.

Instead, FPS games allow me to pickup and play for a few minutes or a few hours.

It isn’t just the first-person experience that helps to create flow; it’s also the shooting. “This deviation from our regular life, the visceral situations we don’t normally have,” Nacke says, “make first-person shooters particularly compelling.” It’s not that we necessarily want to be violent in real life; rather, it’s that we have pent-up emotions and impulses that need to be vented.

There’s a reason violent games exist and are so interesting to many people. Where else can we, as grown adults, blow off steam constructively without the use of controlled substances?

“If you look at it in terms of our evolution, most of us have office jobs. We’re in front of the computer all day. We don’t have to go out and fight a tiger or a bear to find our dinner. But it’s still hardwired in humans. Our brain craves this kind of interaction, our brain wants to be stimulated. We miss this adrenaline-generating decision-making.”

There are days, when I come home from work I’d love to go out and fight something. I want to punch things, or take on a bear. Unless I had a job as a professional football or hockey player I can’t go out and hit someone.

Video games are how I blow off steam. Video games are how I relax. They’re how I goof off with friends. They’re how I get to recapture those long days with my brother adventuring.

Windows Community

As a matter of profession and interest, I have always tried to keep current on both side of the Great Computer Divide. I have Windows running with my Mac at home. I support both and I’m fluent in both operating systems.

I try to keep up on the latest developments, ongoing issues, and a running list of interesting applications or ones that play nice across the divide.

Empty seats

Empty seats

And while the Mac is seemingly in a class by itself in terms of the quality and quantity of excellent software available for it, Windows is catching up. The biggest thing the Mac App Store ever did was to collect all the great applications in one place so the normal user could find and use them.

Windows is on its way there and given a few years, may have a competitive store. For now, seeking out great Windows applications is more difficult because there is no one go-to place to find them all.

Technibble is a one-stop shop for PC techs. I’ve found most of my tools from the site and it’s a great resource for all things related to computer repair and troubleshooting.

Another post place I refer to is Scott Hanselman’s Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows. It’s been a couple of years since he wrote one. But he just published his list for 2014.

While I am not a Windows developer, his list of Power User resources is second to none. It’s well worth the bookmark. I’ve found that even if it didn’t have the answer I was looking for at the time, I will often return to it and find something to fill a need I have later.

Thomas Brand got me thinking about it this morning. He makes the point in his excellent post Banished to Bootcamp.

I wish more technology enthusiasts would do the same. Using the product you love is not enough. You must first banish yourself to the alternative before you can confirm your beliefs.

Where are the great Windows writers? Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the Mac world so I know that circle better.

I know Paul Thurrott‘s out there. The podnutz network has some good Windows shows. But they’re for repairing and maintaining Windows. I don’t want to learn how to repair Windows.

Writemonkey and Haroopad are good markdown editors. Notepad2 one of my first changes to Windows once I get it installed. SyncBack is a wonderful file backup/sync tool and Scup recently filled a wish I had to take a screenshot and upload with one click. I should be better about writing up these finds and I intend to in the new year talk more about what I use and what I’ve found to do somthing I wanted ot needed.

I’m tuned into a good set of Mac power users who share tools and tips and tricks. But where are their Windows counterparts? Are we all slogging through the tech support trenches without the time or desire to write-up our finds? That’s certainly how I feel many days.

2013 Holiday Gift Guide

Are you excited about all the new gifts you’re going to receive this year? Take a moment and think back to last year. What did you get? How much of it do you still use? I have a gift guide won’t end in buyer’s remorse. My holiday gift guide to you is a mostly a collection of free things I like. I think you’ll like them too. We don’t buy things, we buy into things.

Read at your leisure


Instapaper. It’s a free service that lets you save things to read later. It isn’t the only one but it’s simple and I’ve used it for years. Whenever I run across something I want to read, like a long article, interview or just something I can focus on during my subway trip home it goes into Instapaper. I’ve started forwarding some of the newsletters to Instapaper because it’s a nicer way to read them. The app is not free but the service is, so I’m still counting it.

But what about books?

You need a Book Gorilla. Go to the site and choose genres you like to read. Then the gorilla will send you a daily email with deeply discounted or free Kindle books.

I look forward everyday to receiving a list of things I might like to read for free or at least cheaper than usual.

Listen at your leisure.

If you had asked me yesterday what I use for this, I would have said Huffduffer. It’s perfect to one-off podcasts or a single episode of a certain podcast or it could be an audio file someone posted of a talk or interview that’s not a podcast.

It’s Instapaper for audio. But I’ve never used any of the social features of HuffDuffer and today I found Latr. It has a sparse web page that once you sign up provides the same thing.

Add an audio file. It will create an RSS feed you can then add to iTunes or your favorite podcast player and it will update with new things you put there.

I’ve heard about podcasts but how do I find ones I like?

iTunes is still the biggest and best place for new podcasts. Head on over to the podcast section and look at what’s popular or search for things you’re into. I guarantee you whatever you love, someone else does too.


If you’re into computers/comic books or related things, I highly recommend the good people of the 5By5 Network There are a ton of shows about working from home, movies, web design, pens, android and quitting your job.

Another place to look is Huffduffer. Since it’s a collection of saved audio, search for what you like and see where it leads you. It can be less overwhelming than iTunes.

Can’t you just give me some recommendations?

Sure can, there’s a few shows that I listen to as often as they’re released. I tend to be geeky so a lot of mine are about tech what else did you really expect from me?

Do you like radio dramas? Remember those old-time radio shows? I used to listen to Gunsmoke in the car with my dad on Sunday nights. If you love radio dramas, I can’t recommend this first one enough.

We’re Alive.
It’s a story of survival that begins in California right after the zombie apocalypse. The voice acting is superb, as are the sound effects and music. The tale follows our survivors through their struggles and triumphs. Before you recoil at the thought of zombies, it’s far more about the people surviving than being eaten.

I’ve become attached to the characters and each time we lose one of them I feel a little sad. It’s a wonderful story that I can’t recommend enough.

Where to start: Episode 1. You have to start at the beginning of the story.

The Support Ops Podcast interviews people working in the trenches of customer support. Chase writes:

Customer support is not a hard concept. Someone has a question/problem and it’s your job to fix it and make them happy. Not just satisfied but happy. And if you do it wrong, it can leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Customer support is everyone’s job. Even if you don’t work in support, you could learn something from those who do. Those fine people who deal with angry customers and impossible situations. If nothing else, remember there are other people on the other side of that phone line, email or twitter handle.

I would start with Episode #18 – Tech Support with Carl Holscher because it’s me and I was completely blown away when Chase asked me to be on the show.

Generational / Technical Difficulties Podcast

This show had an identity change as the hosts tried to figure out what the show was. But I recommend starting from its beginning. There are some great episodes about technology with kids, being the IT guy in your family and even some great travel tips.

The show reborn as Technical Difficulties features some beautiful show notes. Seriously, they’re little novellas for each episode.

Where to start: There’s no way to choose just one, so here’s a few to get you going.

Reinventing yourself with Merlin Mann on the heels of his interview with The Great Discontent is wonderful. Advice about life, work, doing what you do and defining yourself.

Configuring IOS for Others has some great advice on helping friends and family setup and use their new iPhone or iPad. This is particularly useful around the holidays.


Myke Hurley, who founded and ran the 70 Decibels Podcast network until it merged with 5By5 has a way of putting his guests at ease and asking great questions. You can tell the man does his research. He knows who he’s interviewing and has a way of getting good stories out of them. No matter who the guest is, the show is a joy to listen to.

Where to start: That’s like asking your favorite flavor of ice cream. There’s so many so here’s a few to get you going.

#53: Being Pseudonymous, with Dr. Drang is a great talk with the good doctor about the balance of using your real name and a handle in the online world.

#44: Apple and Education, with Fraser Speirs is a good talk about just what it says. Fraser has a deployment of 1:1 iPad to student at the school where he works. He talks about the successes, challenges and joys of such a deployment. He is doing really interesting work with technology and education and co-hosts his own podcast Out of School.

Special mention: The Enough Podcast
Enough deserve a special mention. Even though the show recently ended, it was the one show I eagerly looked forward to every week. Even though it has ended, there is an archive available.

Each week was a conversation between Patrick Rhone and Myke Hurley about what is Enough. Enough is different for everyone. Enough is also a book. I recommend. For some people it’s a big house and fancy cars. For others it’s a backpack and an airplane ticket. Enough is personal. Enough is individual.

Every episode would teach me something. It would change the way I saw people. It would help me find things in my life I could change. It made be a better person for listening.

It helped me find Enough for myself. Enough was not a destination but a journey. And while this chapter of it has ended, the journey goes on.

I love interviews with interesting people!

The Setup is a wonderful collection of interviews I’ve written about before. Each person is asked four questions.

  • Who are you, and what do you do?
  • What hardware are you using?
  • And what software?
  • What would be your dream setup?

The answers to those questions are as varied as the people being asked them. There are years of interviews available so I’ll recommend you start with these to get you going.

My eyes hurt from using the computer late at night.

You need f.lux. F.lux, as well as being a clever name, will warm the colors of your screen after the sun goes down.

This will give your screen less of a white/blue glow and more of an orange glow that’s easier on the eyes. I use it on all my computers and wouldn’t work without it. It has a setting to disable it if you’re doing work where the color matters. But for me, when I’m typing words on a screen, color doesn’t matter.

Give me something new and interesting to read.

You need the pastry box project. Described as 30 People Shaping The Web. One Thought Every Day. All Year Round. Sugar For The Mind I’ve always enjoyed reading it.

There is something new from someone new everyday. Some articles I like, some I ignore, but the rotating cast of writers keep things fresh and interesting.

Sssimpli, “a conscious approach to geekery” is always filled with something new and interesting. If you’re interesting in automating your web there’s a pile of goodness for you. I keep a book journal in Evernote that’s powered by GoodReads.

I love a good email newsletter!

The Listserve is a fascinating idea. There are now 24,886 people subscribed to the list and everyday, one of them is chosen via lottery to write to the list.

Everyday, I receive one email from the list. The emails are wildly different. Some talk about a cool project or charity. Another could be a heart-wrenching story and tribute to a grandparent. Another could be a list of advice.

The writers are young and old and from all over the world. Recently, I recall seeing people from San Francisco, Iowa, London, Paris, and The Netherlands. It’s an interesting experiment and experience. All submissions are sent from the creators so you won’t be spammed, nor subjected to hate speech or other nastiness.

What about something shorter?

I love 3 Things from Sid O’Neill. Every one of them has three things. There is a sample letter on the site when he mentioned a great iPhone app, an article about keeping your day job and a new project called WritingMusic which is a collection of music to write to.

Everyday it’s different and only three things long so it’s a little burst of interesting for your day.

Do you have a good news roundup?

Next Draft is the news, everyday. You can download the iOS app or simply receive it in email as I do. Here’s a taste of the most current newsletter. It truly is a collection of news from across the web about anything and everything.

I read it everyday and always find a couple interesting things in it.