Monday, 12 July 2010
This is not a research paper, its a germ of an idea that came to me when researching our forthcoming book “Knowledge Management in Sales and Marketing”, when I was looking through various sites and communities on Facebook.
Two of the sites I looked at were the BP corporate site and the Boycott BP site. Two more polarised communities it would be impossible to find, although conversations within the communities on both sites were focused on the same topic. Both sites were full of conversation about the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, and BP’s role in the spill and the clean-up. While the BP America community were talking about the technical details of the clean-up and the unprecedented resources and skills being deployed by BP, the Boycott BP community (more than 30 times larger than the community on the BP America site) were sharing horror stories about alleged breaches of safety and responsibility. Almost certainly the truth lies somewhere between these polarised views, but almost certainly there was no interchange of knowledge (or even of opinion) between the two groups. Nobody was on the BoycottBP site arguing that maybe BP isn’t the pantomime villain that some community members were claiming, and nobody was on the BP corporate site arguing that maybe BP isn’t the innocent victim that some community members were claiming. There was no dialogue - just a parallel separate pair of incompatable group monologues; loads of opinionated people agreeing with each other.
What has happened here? Facebook and her sister social networking sites are being quoted as the next step in KM - the technology that will breach the social barriers and allow free flow of knowledge, but this pair of sites is just an extreme example of what’s happening throughout Facebook, LinkedIn etc. Conversations and groups are forming largely among like-minded people who reinforce each others’ opinions, rather than challenge them. I am no doubt as guilty of this as anyone, as I know there are certain Linked-In groups I prefer to contribute to, because my opinions will be supported by the posts of others, rather than radically challenged. My opinions are roughly that of the group, and those other groups, where the shared opinions are at odds with mine, are the ones I tend to avoid.
Social Networking groups are building new silos of group-think, rather than exploring the truth that lies between the silos; the truths that come out when group-think is challenged.
I think we may be seeing a combination of two factors. One of these is the bottom-up, unstructured nature of these tools, which means that you can set up as many Knowledge Management groups, or BP groups, as you want (there are greater than one hundred KM groups in Linked-In, for example). Secondly, one of the incentives for using Social Media is the endorsement and affirmation you get. As it says in an article in this week’s New Scientist, “In two studies of college students, Nicole Ellison of Michigan State University and colleagues found that the frequency of Facebook use correlates with greater self-esteem. Support and affirmation from the weak ties could be the explanation, says Ellison”. (By weak ties, she means the loose acquaintances in your online social circle). So you get more support, affirmation and self-esteem from people who agree with you, and there are enough groups out there that you will find one you agree with. And then, the more you contribute to that group, the more you reinforce the opinions of the group - the ones you already agree with, and so already agree with you. If people disagree, there’s another group not far away that probably suits them better, and where they will get more affirmation and greater self-esteem.
This could well all be fine in a non-business social networking world, where the primary driver is value for the individuals. However within an organisation, I would suggest that we need to challenge group-think, otherwise we just create a new set of silos - silos divided by opinions rather than by geography or by organisational hierarchy.
To start with, we cannot afford plural communities covering the same topic. There needs to be one community covering knowledge management, not 100. There needs to be one community covering oil-spill recovery, not two highly polarised ones. Then within each topic, disagreement needs to be sought and explored, in service of finding the truth. This is part of the role of the community facilitator - the role of allowing a diversity of opinion, and promoting and facilitating the dialogue that allows this diversity to be explored and resolved.