Knowledge in the Workplace: Have It Your Way

 have it your way
I‘m trying to understand why social networking applications (and to some extent online research) are still not getting much mainstream traction in organizations. The vast majority of SNA use, it seems, is for personal purposes, or by technology geeks. Meanwhile, researchers and buyers of external databases continue to lament the underutilization of their skills and resources.
Recently I devised what I called Pollard’s Law for communication and collaboration tools (“they have to be simple and ubiquitous and meet an urgent need, or they won’t be used”). But what about the other types of SNAs and research applications — the ones focused on collection rather than connection?
Marshall McLuhan famously said that all technologies are extensions of the organs of the human body, to compensate for our bodies’ inherent limitations. So for example the automobile is an extension of our legs (giving us more speed and endurance), and the telescope is an extension of our eyes (giving us more acuity and reach). The personal computer, he predicted (it was still in its infancy when he was alive) would be an extension of our brains — our thinking processes, memory, and social networks.
Humans, at least modern ones, have a predilection for wanting to own, rather than share, such bodily extensions, so they are available precisely when, where and how we choose to use them. In the workplace, too, people want their own stuff — their own phones, offices, PCs etc., even when they may be unnecessary to the effective performance of their jobs. So perhaps it is not surprising that we want the information that we get in the workplace, our way, in our own space, organized in the way it makes sense to us. We resent getting sent information (e-mail and snail mail and by telemarketers) that we did not ask for and do not want.
If you look at the vast majority of websites on the Internet, and most of the social networking applications that are content-rich (weblogs, libraries and databases, news pages and feeds, public weblogs, ‘groupware’ etc.), you’ll find that their content has been put out there by its author or webmaster just in case it is of interest to others. Some of it is filtered, specialized and intended for specific communities (meant for you to browse, if you’re a member of one of those communities). The rest of it is unspecific, general or uncategorized (meant for you to search). Most of us browse only when we have the luxury of time to do so, and search only when we can’t find what we’re looking for more easily by just asking someone.
This content is not served up our way. For the most part, you cannot easily save it in a format that is easy to retrieve, change, annotate or otherwise ‘make your own’ (though many SNAs have been developed to try to let you do this, awkwardly). If you participate in an online forum or post comments to someone’s weblog, you will probably not recall what you said or where you posted it — it’s lost from your ‘extended memory’. Try to track all the interesting stuff you stumble on and you’ll end up with huge blogrolls and bookmark folders that are utterly unmanageable, and you still won’t be able to find what you’re looking for, even with Google Desktop, without a tedious search.
Consider the analogy of our transportation network, which, like online networks and technologies, enables us to meet with people and to find stuff we’re interested in. Imagine if the transportation system was so complicated that we gave up trying to meet with some people because we just couldn’t master the technology, or imagine the technology was so unwieldy that we couldn’t actually use it to take home most of the stuff we bought — every time we wanted to use it, we’d have to get back on the system and go out and use it at the store, and then return home.
Perhaps that analogy is stretching it a bit, but given the power of technology, why shouldn’t we have all the information we want, organized the way we want it, in our virtual ‘home space’, and why shouldn’t we be able to ‘bring additional stuff home’ and put it precisely where we want it? This awkwardness is, I believe, a key reason why so many are averse to using information on the Internet and averse to using content-focused SNAs. It will take a change in focus from content-provider to user-need, to overcome this.

The following table shows what I think is the average organizational user’s perception of the value of today’s main communication, collaboration and content-‘delivering’ applications:

Tool / Application Value as a Conversation & Collaboration Medium
 (how easy to use & ubiquitous is it?)
Value as an Information Transfer Vehicle
(does it deliver content ‘your way’?)
Websites n/a poor
Groupware poor poor
Document libraries n/a poor
Discussion forums fair poor
E-mail good fair
IM fair good*
Skype & desktop videoconferencing fair poor
RSS newspages n/a fair
Weblogs poor poor**
Wikis poor poor
Telephone good good*
Face-to-face meetings excellent good*

* content is delivered in context    ** great for the author, not so useful for the reader

This is not to say SNAs like blogs, wikis, desktop videoconferencing and groupware are not useful — just that they will not become mainstream in organizations until they become easier to use, ubiquitous and/or provide information content in a format that lets individuals save it in their own ‘space’ their way.

I would give Facebook and MySpace the same scores as Weblogs, and predict that this type of structured personal page will not make headway in most organizations either.

This table also explains why people are deluged with too many e-mails, phone calls, teleconferences and meetings in most organizations. These methods get the highest scores, but they are sub-optimal for many purposes. The problem is that the methods that work better just aren’t easy and ubiquitous and don’t give people the content they want their way.

Acceptance of these new technologies is exacerbated by security officers in many organizations who actively (and often unfairly or arbitrarily) discourage their use. It’s also true that researchers in organizations tend to browse more (because it can provide better context, and because they often know where to look) than researchers outside (who often have to depend on hit-or-miss searches across the whole web), so technologies that depend on such broad searches are considered a last resort.

The graphic at the top of this post depicts what I think the average organizational user would ideally like as an ‘extension of his/her brain, memory and social networks’. All of the content s/he wants would be in one physical (hard drive) or virtual ‘place’. That place would list all his/her networks with one-click connectivity to those networks and the people in them, using simple and ubiquitous communication and collaboration tools.

The remaining content would be ‘collected’ in three ways that are analogous to how our brain collects information:

  • Using just-in-time canvassing tools to ask people in his/her networks who/what they know (and then use the communication & collaboration tools to collect that information),
  • Using just-in-case and just-for-fun RSS syndication tools to collect information that s/he has chosen to subscribe to, and
  • Using just-in-time harvesting tools to automatically collect information on new topics that s/he has decided s/he needs to know more about, in an ‘inbox’ in his/her preferred format, so it can be sorted, browsed, read and disposed of at his/her leisure

The idea is that you would never have to go ‘out’ for information — it would all be ‘delivered’ in the format and according to the schedule that s/he chose — his/her way.

This content could include his/her personal and collected files, messages, music and video, photos, bookmarks, weblogs, addresses and contacts — any stuff, both personal and professional, both authored and ‘adopted’ by him/her, that s/he wants at his/her fingertips. This ‘auxiliary memory’ would be completely portable: We expect people to take charge of their personal career and learning now, and it’s important that, subject to confidentiality requirements, people not be forced to give up information when they change jobs, any more than we expect them to forget what they learned in previous jobs.

So, just as the most valuable communication and collaboration tools/media will be those that are simple and ubiquitous, the most valuable content-and-collection tools will be those that transfer and deliver information content the way the user wants it, direct to the user’s ‘home space’. Give it to ’em their way, and they’ll value it, use it, and make it their own.

I think it’s possible that, with some practice at managing all this ‘stuff’, some kind of natural neural organizational structure might emerge. But all of this is a long way off. In the meantime we need to start to think about how the next generation of SNAs should be designed. And, in our experiments in the workplace with these tools, we need to be cognizant of how and why people like to use, or resist using, information and information technologies.

Until we can improve the scorecard in the table above, we can expect the process of getting acceptance of SNAs in theworkplace to be slow going.

This entry was posted in Using Weblogs and Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Knowledge in the Workplace: Have It Your Way

  1. mattbg says:

    Control of information and networks is a part of it, I think. It goes back to the idea of your Rolodex being the most guarded thing you own.Management doesn’t like to expose their networks to others, nor do they like to give up information to others unless they have to. They hold their positions by knowing more than others; not by knowledge acquisition, but by hiding what limited, specialized knowledge they have from other people.In early IT, for example, the guy who had the manuals to the mainframe guarded them like gold. He was the guy everyone had to come to. Now that electronic documentation is more available, it’s not so easy, but the same attitude exists.There’s also the issue of management not wanting to use what they don’t understand. If someone understands something more than they do.And, of course, there’s the tendency to get excited about a new technology, be motivated to apply it in your organization, but then not fully think it through and apply it in such a way that it gets a bad reputation in the corporate memory… portals are one good example :)All of these things play a part with different people in different circumstances in the same organization, I think…

  2. Cliff Allen says:

    The value (and usage) of a social networking application inside a corporation is probably tied to how well it’s integrated into the day-to-day tasks of a majority of people within a department (i.e., CRM in the sales department, accounting system in the accounting department, etc.).Just like the “help” function is built into most applications, social networking will probably become more integrated in day-to-day applications.A small portion of a company’s staff are assertive enough to use a stand-alone social networking tool to reach out to other departments, or to people outside the company, for a piece of information that will help them do their day-to-day tasks.

Comments are closed.