Knowledge Management : What a toilet and Nature tell us about Information Ergonomics

I am sure that the author of Ecclesiastes who said that there is nothing new under the sun was a nascent Knowledge Management specialist. Much of KM involves “shamelessly borrowing” ideas and patterns because (a) KM loves parsimony, and (b) most innovations occur when an idea that is matured elsewhere is imported and adapted to a novel purpose.

Biomemetics, for example, takes the position of Orgel’s second rule that “Evolution is cleverer than you”. There are a great many methods and mechanisms that evolution has refined and tested over millenia and which can be adopted in chunks.

For instance, when a cell is manufacturing something in your body, it sticks a sample through a port in the cell wall which advertises what is being produced. Roaming “quality inspectors” examine these on a routine basis and if the product looks suspicious, an apoptosis signal is sent to the cell to self-destruct.

Suicide is perhaps a bit over the top for a workgroup doing the wrong thing, but I am sure you can see the opportunity for either saying “hey look at this cool idea” and spreading it (Knowledge Diffusion), or alternatively to issue a “quit that!” instruction (Quality Management).

The point is that you can learn a lot from nature*.

What I really want to talk about though has to do with the balance between concision and redundancy.

Back in the days when telecom circuits were expensive, noisy, and prone to failure, we had to balance the protocol choice between whether we needed great message integrity or greater speed when sending from one machine to another. One approach was X.25, a robust protocol that had several layers of error checking and correction, and could select alternate routes, receive packets in any order, and would almost run on fencing wire. However X.25 was pretty slow, and gobbled up bandwidth in housekeeping overhead.

Frame Relay however was sleek, fast, and used most of the bandwidth for message payload and thus far cheaper per byte and far faster.

So why not use Frame Relay?

This is where toilets come in.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but during droughts in some parts of the world, reducing the flush size was a big deal. A brick or two in the cistern (or fancy adjustment) would save a lot of water over the long haul simply by reducing the quantity of water used per flush. The downside was that at a certain point, the flush was too small to be entirely effective and repeated (and embarrassing) multiple flushes were needed, and besides reducing the intended saving, the immediacy became a bigger problem than the benefit of potential savings.

Repeating a message in the datacom scenario had the same general outcome – any savings that Frame Relay had over X.25 were lost as soon as the retransmission rate crept up, and even worse, the end user was left waiting while the retries mounted and latency became observable.

This principle applies to everything from answering the telephone to sending emails – if you make the message too concise, the “excuse me?” rate will climb and message integrity will be lost.

There are some really clever formulae and algorithms that can tell you what the best concision vs redundancy balance is, but in general nature has already kitted most of us with that equipment – we just need to pause a moment and let it inform us.

So next time you answer the phone, send an email, or put instructions on a user interface – pause a moment and consider if you need to be really curt and concise to get high transmission speed, or whether you need to layer in a bit of extra payload redundancy to allow the other person to reconstruct any lost information. (Loxton, 2003)

* see Robert Full’s fascinating TED Talks video on “Learning from the Gecko’s Tail


Matthew Loxton is the outgoing director of Knowledge Management & Change Management at Mincom, and blogs on Knowledge Management. Matthew’s LinkedIn profile is on the web, and has an aggregation website at
Opinions are the author’s and not necessarily shared by Mincom, but they should be.


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: