social net

I‘ve been trading comments and e-mails with Gary Lawrence Murphy at Teledyn about the current craze over Social Software and Network Enablement, and how that plays into the current sorry state of Knowledge Management. A big problem with KM is that, like the six blind men feeling different parts of the elephant, the term has come to mean many different things to different people, and hence nothing at all:

  • Academics: KM is anything that allows us to do something better in business than we can do without it
  • Consultants: KM is an aspect of business process improvement
  • IT People: KM is any software that concerns itself at least vaguely with databases or content management systems
  • Librarians: KM is the new name for what special librarians have always done
  • HR People: KM is the process surrounding non-classroom learning curricula

In most organizations KM is epitomized by the corporate intranet, the extranet, community-of-practice tools, sales force automation tools, customer relationship management tools, data mining tools, decision support tools, databases purchased from outside vendors, and sometimes business research and analysis. In other words, it’s certain specialized technologies and information processing roles, with a thin wrapper of ‘knowledge creating’ and ‘knowledge-sharing’ processes.

Most of the organizations that have implemented KM bemoan their people’s inability to find stuff, the lack of demonstrable productivity improvement, the complexity of the technology, and the absence of significant reusable ‘best practice’ content.

Now along comes Social Networking and Social Software, also with its adherents from academia, consultancies, and IT. Beneath the torrent of hype and theory, it may reveal an important truth about KM, business, and how we learn: Social networks can provide the essential context needed to make knowledge sharing possible, valuable, efficient and effective .

What are ‘social networks’? They are the circles in which we make a living and connect with other people. They transcend strict delineation between personal and business (there’s often overlap between the two). They transcend organizational boundaries and hierarchies (we often trust and share more with people outside our companies, and outside our business units, than those inside, and often get better value from the exchange to boot). We are beginning to suspect that the essential yet elusive lesson of the PC is also the essential lesson for KM: It’s all about portability and connectivity, not about processing power or content.

If we were to ‘reinvent’ KM as, say, Social Network Enablement , what would change?

  • Intranet as connector and link harvester: The intranet would become a people-to-people connector instead of a content repository. It would become a ‘link harvester’, scanning all traffic across it and dynamically identifying connections to people and their knowledge. New tools would be needed to allow such functionality.
  • Decentralized content, with blog as surrogate for the individual: Content would shift from centralized, shared databases to personally- or team-owned databases, journals and stories, where the owner(s) provide essential context. (See my post on The Weblog as Filing Cabinet ). Each individual’s subscribable, personally-indexed Weblog would be a surrogate for the individual when s/he’s not available personally.
  • Decentralized security, organizational boundaries blurred: Organizational boundaries become irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the person you are sharing with is a work colleague, a supplier, customer, friend or advisor, an individual or a team, inside or outside the company. You share what you know with those you trust, the same way regardless. Security would be provided at the individual level, not managed by the enterprise. The same way employees know what hard-copy documents can be shared with whom, they set up subscription access to their blog categories correspondingly.
  • Greatly enhanced weblog functionality, emphasis on access: Today’s blogs are not nearly enough to fully enable social networks. They need much more connectivity functionality. A user should be able to call up a visual of their own network, or the network of expertise corresponding to a particular subject. The tool that does this would operate much like a search engine except it would retrieve people (and links to people) instead of documents. It would also have to aggregate various means of access to those people: e-mail, voice-mail, video and whiteboard, meeting scheduling, IM, weblog subscriptions and commenting, and new means of access just being developed. And it would need some mechanism to create a ‘biography’ of the user by automatically summarizing the total content of their weblog.
  • Enhanced organizational change functionality: The exhaust from the increased connectivity could be browsed and canvassed to identify organizational change opportunities. Popularity indexes could pre-sage emerging business issues needing management attention, and could be used as a key part of the performance evaluation and reward process, and to identify de facto organizational thought leaders and potential strong recruits. It could incorporate Tipping Point functionality to propagate important ideas, Power Law analysis to identify and spell employees suffering from ‘network overload’ , and perhaps even new “Network Traffic Analyses” to identify communication logjams and disconnects. Intriguing, and perhaps a bit scary.

Four important unanswered questions:

  1. What role can Social Network Enablement and social software play in enhancing individual and organizational learning? 
  2. How do you measure and reward contributions to a network (a) by full-time knowledge workers (people in the organization, like researchers and help desk staff whose sole value is contributing to the network) and (b) by network ‘players’ outside the organization? 
  3. How do organizations equip and foster networks without unduly controlling their actions and membership and therefore crushing them?
  4. How do we capture summaries and abstracts of organizational conversations that occur in other than written form (voice-mail, teleconferences and meetings), so that the blog record of networks is complete?

The diagram at the top of this post is repeated below, to save scrolling.

Suppose you are the person in the lower right corner of this chart, the CFO of Company Y, and you need to find out about a proposed change to the tax code for Research Tax Credits. Before Social Network Enablement (SNE), you would have typed the term into the intranet search engine, checked the public IRS website or some purchased tax service your company buys, or just picked up the phone and called Jan, your accountant who works for Company X. Alas, Jan just left on a three-week vacation.

Since you’ve implemented SNE, however, everything gets easier. You key the term into your Expertise Finder and up pops the picture below.  As you expected, Jan appears (the person depicted at the bottom of the Company X oval) but that’s just the start. This Expertise Network diagram shows only the experts and connections related specifically to the subject of Research Tax Credits. It tells you that the R&D department of your company has some information on tax credits on their team blog, which they’ve posted to the R&D Community of Practice intranet site. It also tells you that Jan has access to this intranet site, and that this intranet site subscribes to Jan’s Tax Credit blog category. It also identifies two other people at the accounting firm that have expertise on this topic, since Jan is unavailable, and a customer of both your company and your accountant, who outsources his R&D to your company and qualifies for a ‘flow-through’ of the Research Tax Credit and hence is very knowledgeable about how these credits work. And a supplier who sells a Tax Credit Analyzer to your accountants, and a tax credit expert advisor to your accountants who, it turns out, went to high school with you and might cough up the knowledge you want for free, are also identified.

So you have lots of alternatives. In Jan’s absence you can phone or e-mail or IM any of six other identified experts, or subscribe to their blogs, or buy the Tax Credit Analyzer yourself (knowing your accountants thought it good enough to buy), or tap into the R&D group’s CoP tool or the accountants’ extranet. Problem solved.

social net
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  1. Vivion says:

    Hi, thereAs an ex-high tech consultant who had a lot of contact with end-users, management, implementers, and programmers….but as someone who also loved documenting and attempting to capture the sort of thing you are talking about… I can’t help but be sceptical of what I think is the general reluctance of most people to… WRITE. Hence the general flop of collaboration software (with numerous specific exceptions, but only when there is a BIG incentive to use it). Maybe I don’t know enough about knowledge management implementations in particular, but I would be stunned if they have avoided the pitfalls of their predecessors, including Lotus Notes, and so on.Also, there is, I think, a hidden problem underlying a corporation’s attempt to automate and “capture” the intangibles of experience and knowledge, which is the fundamental desire to achieve the replace-ability of the individual employee. This, combined with many corporations’ underestimation of employees’ core value, just reflects today’s culture of a mobile, depersonalized, and non-unionized white collar workforce.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Vivion: That reluctance to write is exactly what social software is about. Instead of connecting to written documents, the software uses what is written (e-mails, and ideally v-mails and transcripts of meetings etc.) to automatically create maps of expertise and hence to connect to people. In my example, even if Jan has no blog, and hence no surrogate, an ’empty’ blog with Jan’s harvested links and expertise still serves to connect Jan, and Jan’s e-mail address, phone #, IM address etc., to the rest of the network on all subjects Jan is deemed to be an expert on. Eventually I would see the performance system encouraging everyone to keep a somewhat more robust record of their expertise.As for corporations’ desire to suck the knowledge out of employees’ brains and then spit them out, it’s been tried, and because of the lack of useful context it has always (to my knowledge) failed. Most employees realize that this uncodifiable ‘tacit’ knowledge is their ticket to job security, and sharing what can be usefully encoded actually helps reinforce just how valuable that irreplaceable tacit knowledge really is.

  3. Michael says:

    Impressive. This is why I look forward to reading your site daily!

  4. Vivion says:

    Dave: points taken. I guess time will tell how this all plays out. I just remember so well how excited everyone was about software that allowed collaboration and process modelling…the concept was marvellous — as is the one you describe. It would be great to see something like this actually work. Gosh, sorry I sound so much like Eeyore…. too many ambitious software projects shelved or failed because of the people factor…

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Mike & Vivion – thanks. I think Vivion’s skepticism about software is well-founded. My optimism is that there’s a good model for this that, if followed, shouldn’t allow too many mistakes. It’s the telephone. The individual blogs are really like telephone sets: they connect people very simply, they transfer messages, and they operate around directories. The connecting software (which largely supplants the intranet) becomes as simple as a telephone switch — it serves its function invisible to the user, and is very small. All the action is in the end-nodes, where it should be, and where users can base their blogs on their own personal mental models and taxonomy and not be forced to adapt to someone else’s imposed standards. Even if the first version of the software that computes and draws the Expertise Finder is typically inept and over-engineered, it’s such a simple algorithm that rapid prototyping and individual invention should be able to produce a suberb working version relatively quickly.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Another advantage: No obsolete, legacy or orphan databases or content. All the content resides with, and reflects professionally on, the owner, so it should be much higher quality than ‘shared’ knowledge in central repositories. And when an individual leaves or retires from the company, nothing is lost — his social networks, and all the connections remain intact. Your ‘portable’ blog becomes, in fact, your resume.

  7. Ray Jefferd says:

    The issue in KM that just won’t go away is “relevance”. Most will agree there are good reasons people should share their knowledge. The business problem is what “will” cause them to actually share knowledge through contribution to repositories. The answer is incentives, ones that approximate the value of the knowledge contribution to the receipient. The incentives must be appropriate and the system that tracks and records the contributions and calculates incentives must be automated, and not subject to easy manipulation. Even with the POV of enlightened self-interest the personal benefits to share knowledge must exceed the advantages of not sharing. The rewards must take the form in ways yielding “psychic income” and a more tangible form of income such as “material income” also known as cash.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Ray, you’re right, bribes work. Unfortunately they get compliance with contribution targets, not quality, and if they’re not sustained they stop working. And when users say they can’t find stuff and when they can it’s old and fuzzy, the whole value proposition falls apart. That’s why I’m reluctantly changing my view that business should focus on connecting people-to-people, not people-to-knowledge, and should make blogs fun, useful and simple so that the knowledge in the blog serves as the surrogate, the ‘second best’, when the person is not available.

  9. Rayne says:

    There’s always “chumming” and the “gatekeeper”, which lie outside a hardwired network — the office professional/administrative assistant (gatekeeper), who somehow sees the links between all data and knows where the smoking guns and dead bodies are in the organization…the same person who keeps candy in a dish on her desk (chum) and milks information from every sweet-toothed supplicant. There’s a need to capture this organic structure within this inorganic system.After reading Alex Wrights The Sociobiology of Information Architecture, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t already an organic model to which we can look for guidance.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne, I think there is one. It’s called the Rolodex.

  11. Rayne says:

    Speaking from experience, no. Rolodex is static information only, not dynamic, and it’s little more than an analog, unnetworked hard drive. If I wave my hand over this Rolodex, will it tell me the executive who’s about to interview me is extremely allergic to perfume and I’d better not wear any if I’m going to make a successful sales pitch? Highly doubtful. And try putting a price on that kind of info.There’s a need for a more intuitive interface, gifted with fuzzy logic — humans are a cheaper fit than software to fill this gap. The challenge is that “gatekeepers” are often treated as less than worthy of documentation. Example: A certain Fortune 50 company has extensive KM and Records Management policies. Surfing the corporate intranet reveals reams of date, lots of policy details, general location of a population of documents. But the intranet can’t tell users who can pull that key, unscanned document fastest or mine the document database quickest with least errors. The Records Dept. secretary, unlisted in the intranet, can disclose this info. Organically, I know that. The intranet (as little more than a form of on-line Rolodex) doesn’t.

  12. mrG says:

    Well said. You may have also created the first really lucid info-mercial for

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Rayne: I wasn’t promoting the Rolodex per se. The attributes a Rolodex has, that are worth emulating in intranets, are (a) each person owns their own, and sets it up with what they want and need, and organizes it the way they want it organized with annotations and post-its attached etc., and (b) the Rolodex connects people to people, where most intranets connect (if you’re lucky) people to knowledge. My argument is that no software or database will ever effectively capture or leverage the tacit knowledge of the Records Dept secretary. A good Social Software could, however, pinpoint the Records Dept secretary as being the person to call on a range of subjects, so the user can quickly phone or e-mail that person instead of wasting time searching the intranet for documents that probably aren’t there anyway. And where the person with the candy dish probably doesn’t show up in any of the intranet documents, he/she would show up a lot on an Expertise Locator that tracks who in past has supplied information on what to who.

  14. I like to think that the core incentive to share knowledge is “access to” a group of people you could not approach before. It because you share what you know that you become recognized as an expert in your field by your peers, and increase your reputation. I think it is a big mistake to think about incentives to share knowledge in terms of financial rewards. Social networks are learning environments and as such work a little like universities. You don’t think about “return on investment” when applying at Harvard, but you think about your future reputation as a graduate, and about the network you will be part of. As a student, you are ready to pay huge sums of money for this. If successful later in your career as an alumnus, you are also likely to fund the development of your former University and attach your name to it. I think the economy of the web is not a market economy of buyers and sellers of products and services, but a learning economy of students and teachers with tuition fees. It’s not about ROI, but about recognition.

  15. Valdis Krebs says:

    I don’t think a Rolodex or Blog takes the place of a real social network. In an early job I was left with the prior employee’s rolodex and flow chart of ‘who to call for what’. Guess what? I did not work! Though I contacted the ‘right’ people I did not have the relationships necessary to get things done. Eventually I develope ties to some of those in the rolodex, plus others. Once I had my network the job was easy.BTW, here are a few social network maps for everyone…* email flows –* knowledge exchange –

  16. yong hyoung says:

    We are making planhood as you are saying ~ isn’t it marvelous thing? actually, planhood depends on the concept of PRP( personal resource planner comparing to ERP) anyway, nice to meet you ~ david.. just call me yong..

  17. R Gulati says:

    We have a unique vision regarding community networking that is much inline with the issues raised in your blog. Just wanted to say congrats on the article and point out how from our perspective of building a strong community presence over the last many years, we have come to realize that the internet is indeed an electronic manisfestation of the self in the most philosophical sense. Regards.

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