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:
- What role can Social Network Enablement and social software play in enhancing individual and organizational learning?
- 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?
- How do organizations equip and foster networks without unduly controlling their actions and membership and therefore crushing them?
- 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?