Monday 23 September 2013

"Social media will destroy the value in KM - discuss"

Five "Social media will destroy the value in KM - discuss".

This was the provocative title of a discussion topic that was proposed at a KIN seminar I attended a couple of weeks ago.

We never got round to having this particular discussion, unfortunately, but I was intrigued by the fact that someone had proposed the topic, and in the break I went over to her and tried to get at the thinking behind the idea.

The lady who had proposed the topic works at a company with an enviable record in KM, and although her topic was partly tongue-in-cheek, there was a core of concern behind it.

The concern was not so much about social media as a technology, but about the way it's social application on the world wide web can be unthinkingly applied in companies, without tailoring to the cultural needs of organisational KM. Here are some of the specific worries.

1. Where KM has added greatest value in organisations, it has been through the cultural realisation that knowledge lives in Communities, not in Individuals. This is the core culture shift behind KM. Communities of practice become the mechanism by which conversation takes place in public, in a many-to-many setting. And yet social media on the web revolves largely around following individuals, and therefore a linked network of one-to-many interactions. The emphasis shifts back to experts and thought leaders, and away from Communities as the "body of knowing". One of the worst things you can do here, for example, is the "Directors blog" - immediately sending the message that social media is about listening to senior managers.

2. Where KM has added greatest value to individuals within organisations, it has been through solving their problems. Therefore the greatest successes have come through Pull-based models (KM interactions driven by questions and by Asking). As Shell pointed out in the early days, Asking (Pull) delivers 80% of the value for 20% of the effort, while Publishing (Push) delivers 20% of the value through 80% of the effort. And yet social media on the web are overwhelmingly driven by Push; people posting unrequested thoughts, ideas, suggestions, links they have found, and so on. It then becomes a matter of luck whether one of these pushed items happen to find someone with an immediate need.  Taken to extremes, this Push destroys not just KM, but any value.

3. In a global organisation, KM can tap into knowledge from around the world, allowing access to the Long Tail of knowledge, and to a whole range of situational diversity. A question on a Community forum, for example, can gather a range of answers over 24 hours, as working hours sweep round the globe. And yet the predominant models of communication on Facebook and Linked-in for example are for a continuous ephemeral stream of conversation, into which you can dip in and out, but if you take a few hours off, the conversation has swept past. There is still very much a need for the Threaded Conversation, whichever media it sits in, as a way of collecting answers and views on a single question.

4. A Community knowledge base needs to be complete and unbiased, accurately reflecting the breadth and depth of knowledge across the Community. And yet many companies use the voluntary bottom-up nature of Wikipedia as a model for creating their wikis, despite the fact that Wikipedia taps into a tiny percentage of the available knowledge, and overwhelmingly represents the views of childless males under the age of 30.

As I said, these issues are not with social media as such, but with the use of social interaction on the web as a model for knowledge management in an organisation. We can easily apply social technology to KM, and still avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above, as follows;

1. Use social media to strengthen Communities of Practice, not weaken them. The primary social unit needs to be the Community, not the individual. Let people follow Communities, not Company Directors.

2. Use social media for Pull, not Push. Make the primary unit of interaction the Question, not the Statement (I have already argued that Yammer has the wrong prompt, for example). The Community facilitators can help influence this behaviour shift.

3. Retain the threaded discussion (here Linked-in has a good model - which adds most value when used for answering questions).

4. Put some structure, governance, roles and accountabilities around your wikis, and link them to your other business processes. Don't keep them as a voluntary isolated repository.

The answer to the debate is that Social Media can easily destroy the value in KM, if you make the assumption that the social conversation we see on the web can be translated into knowledge management within an organisation. Start from an understanding of what you need, rather than from assuming you can transplant wholesale from outside (see the post on Schlumberger technology selection for example).


Unknown said...

Great post Nick

Lisandro Gaertner said...

When I see this kind of discussion I always think people are repeating themselves. Since the 1600s:

Sometimes this is treated as a matter of technology or processes but in fact is a question about power. The leaders are ready to give it up to the masses and take the risks and rewards? Or there is another alternative? The problem is that when you create another power structure new leaders take over promissing more democratic times but, soon, they create new dictatorships. Social Media is a hearing device and, as such, has to be listened to. Not followed as a new world order. People should learn to listen and have the power to say No. That's democracy and community learning.

The other option is to live in San Marcos and believe new leaders will bring you the truth:


Anonymous said...

Nick - interesting post. I share some of your concerns about the tendency of some to think that introducing social media and social business tools will do away with the need for knowledge management I also agree with your suggestions on how to apply social tools to established KM approaches - but I also think that social requires us to rethink our KM approaches too, especially the switch in emphasis from company or theme based organization of knowledge to self-organization based around individual interests and needs. I've blogged about these implications in more detail here

Knowledgable 1 said...

Anything social supports knowledge. Knowledge generation is a social act. What's missing represents a skills deficit and organizational breakdowns. The skills needs be dealt with -- how do we ensure social literacy and empowerment as digital citizens?

Nick Milton said...

I totally agree that knowledge generation is a social act, but not all social acts are knowledge generation - many are purely social interactions.

That's why we much be careful in importing a "social media" paradigm based on social interaction, and assuming that it will translate into knowledge building.

Partly its a matter of skills, but there are other important issues - business purpose, structures, governance etc.

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