One of my motivations for starting a Weblog was to explore the potential business applications of ‘blogs’. I work as a knowledge officer for a large global organization. I also belong to two consortia of knowledge management (KM) leaders of their respective companies. We have all struggled with ways to capture tacit knowledge (mostly ‘know-how’) as effectively as we capture explicit knowledge (mostly ‘know-what’). This is a challenge for three reasons, best illustrated by using the example of capturing the knowledge of an outstanding sales executive:

  • Know-how is knowledge in the context of its application , so simply capturing the sales executive’s rolodex contents, sales presentations and client visit schedule is not enough. We want to be able to capture what it is (the know-how) that enables him to leverage this ‘know-what’ so much more powerfully than others with the same ‘know-what’ at their disposal. Some of this know-how is process, some of it is style, some of it is existing relationships (‘know-who’) and some of it is interpersonal skills.
  • Some know-how is not individual at all, but a team dynamic. This sales executive and the industry specialist with whom he normally works are far more effective as a team than they are individually or working as part of other teams. Why? Probably because each has know-how, know-what, and know-who that covers gaps in the other’s knowledge set. 
  • Not only do we not know how to capture (or codify to use KM jargon) know-how, we don’t know how to motivate or reward the sales executive to get him to codify his knowledge. He’s so good at selling, why would he want (or we want him) to take time away from that to codify or blog what he knows?

It’s an over-simplification, but it’s not unfair to say that this challenge is the #1 reason why KM has made less traction in most companies than many had hoped, despite the enormous promise it holds out.

I recently reviewed a book by a colleague who is the knowledge officer for a large insurance company. The book is about something called Communities of Practice (the networks that form, by both formal and informal means, among business people within and between companies). It was while doing this that I finally realized (I think) what blogs could accomplish in business:

Weblogs could be a mechanism to coherently codify and ‘publish’ in a completely voluntary and personal manner the individual worker’s entire filing cabinet, complete with annotations, marginalia, post-its and personal indexing system.

If that seems like a strained analogy, let me explain. For most of us in business, the filing cabinet is more than just a place to store copies of documents. It is a representation of the way we think and work. It is organized according to our personal mental model of how our job breaks down, so that two people doing the same job will often have completely different-looking filing cabinets. The advent of PCs, especially their database, desktop folder and e-mail archiving functions, has detracted somewhat from the importance of the filing cabinet, but filing cabinets typically have lots of multimedia documents clipped loosely together, often annotated in different readers’ handwriting, highlighted, sorted in a mixture of date and subject order etc. PC tools have been developed that mimic these functionalities but they are awkward and unintuitive. But let’s look at what a blog has to offer relative to the filing cabinet:

  • It allows each worker to personally identify who he or she thinks actually belongs to and participates in his or her networks (using the blogroll – the blog equivalent of a rolodex), rather than who their manager thinks should be in those networks
  • The blogroll consists entirely of active links to the blogs of the other community members, so knowledge is electronically and personally connected
  • Knowledge can be simply and flexibly indexed (and sorted or filtered) by date and category (using each indiviual’s personal taxonomy or ‘filing system’, not some standard taxonomy system imposed by management)
  • Instead of containing redundant copies of knowledge from other people like a filing cabinet, the blog simply hotlinks to the ‘permalink’ (the dynamically-generated URL for a particular piece of knowledge or ‘knowledge object’) in the other person’s blog/filing cabinet
  • The knowledge is enriched by dynamic links to URLs of relevant news, bibliographies and other external resources used in its compliation, thus greatly increasingly its shelf life by allowing it to be more easily updated 
  • The key external resources (journals, manuals etc.) that the worker uses frequently can be stored in a ‘resources roll’, consisting of the URLs of these resources; by copying and using an expert’s ‘resources roll’,  an apprentice could discover and mimic the ‘continuous learning’ process of the expert
  • E-mails are the most valuable untapped codified knowledge resource in most companies, and blogs allow knowledge to be simultaneously posted to one or more e-mail addresses and to the owner’s indexed blog/filing cabinet
  • Workers can easily ‘subscribe’ to another worker’s entire blog (or an individual category/folder subset of it), so they are immediately notified about new knowledge or news that their work teammates or mentors deem valuable
  • Blogs do not require the learning of HTML or database management, though they perform both functions powerfully
  • Blogs can easily be designed to either live within a company firewall or to transcend organizational boundaries, and to be accessible in whole or part to some or all other employees, as the trade off between security and value-of-sharing dictates

That’s not to say blogs are a panacea. They don’t really capture tacit knowledge. They don’t solve the ‘team knowledge’ capture problem. And it would take considerable training to get the average employee to learn to use a blog effectively and comfortably as a complete replacement for the filing cabinet, so that maintaining the blog would take no more time than maintaining the filing cabinet takes now.

But they do represent a potential breakthrough in both personalization and democratization of the process of grass-roots, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing of unfiltered knowledge, the paramount task according to Drucker’s Management Challenges for the 21st Century . They represent the best-yet compromise between the anarchy of personal websites on the intranet, and the straight-jacket of most ‘corporate-owned’ repositories. And I’m old enough to remember managers saying that getting executives to make their own phone calls (instead of using secretaries) was inefficient, that e-mail was a time-waster that executives would never use, and that voice-mail was simply an invitation to endless telephone tag. So although it’s not going to be easy, I think blogs might just be ready for business prime time.

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  1. Ed Loessi says:

    Dave, that was a great summary of the potential of Blogs in business. We have started using Blogs in much the same way in our own business and the main driver was trying to reduce internal email traffic, which we found was very much the know-what part of our business e.g. what is going on with various projects, customers or product strategies.We have attacked the know-how portion with a product that allows people to master questions,answers, events and actions to build on-line tools that represent certain repeatable aspects of their job, to which end we use Blogs to post the results of those activities.All in all I agree very much with your approach.Regards, Ed

  2. Jeff Holth says:

    I agree that blogs offer another forum for employees to share their knowledge in a more informal, and therefore perhaps more honest environment, but…What’s needed are organization-wide implementations of applications that capture the processes, procedures and do so without interfereing with the normal course of work.There are plenty of applications that do this, but organizations hesitate to implement them, as there is an upfront cost. Funny thing is, that the cost of these products pales greatly in comparison to calling in the exited employee as a consultant after the fact.Until organizations realize that capturing their intellectual property during the normal course of business is FAR less expensive than trying to get it back after the fact, massive amounts of IP will continue to dissapear in to the ether… or worse, go to a competitor.I know, preaching to the choir here, but darn it, unobtrusive tools are available… why are we not using them to their full advantage?

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