Wednesday 22 April 2009

the "Generational war" between social media and KM

Here's a nice provocative article on the "Generational war" between social media and KM. The author believes there is a generational war between Generation Y believers in social media on one hand, and Baby Boomer supports of KM on the other.

Now a couple of things raise my hackles immediately. He characterises KM as "that venerable IT-based social engineering discipline" - which those of us who have spent years on people-centric, knowledge-based KM may well take exception to. But perhaps there is a polariation of views as he describes.

Here is one deliberately cynical explanation for why that polarisation may be happening.

The baby boomers have been around in industry for a while. They have seen knowledge management go through a number of cycles over the past 10-12 years, and have seen some false starts and some successes. They have seen various waves of technology, each of which has been announced as "the answer to KM" and each of which has, on its own, not been the whole answer (though each has provided a step forward).

1. Bulletin boards. These were the earliest form of socio-business networking, and were a real enabler for communities of practice. We know that CoPs are more than the technology they use, but the technology really helps with dispersed global communities.

2. Groupware. Lotus notes (Teamrooms, Sharepoint etc). For the first time, we had collaborative possibilities. This really helped the development of common knowledge, filesharing and virtual teaming, but we know that there needs to be a whole raft of people and process elements as well as collaboration technology.

3. Intranets and search engines. Suddenly, access to documents becomes easy. This content-accessibility revolution was seen as "the answer to KM", which is partly why the term "KM" has got so muddied by the IT-providers and content managers. Yes, you can ceess documents, that's good, but can you find the knowledge you need, when you need it, in a reliable and usable and trustworthy form?

4. Web 2.0 and social media.

A cynic might argue that Web 2.0 is the latest "technology push" ("Web 2.0 is the answer. Now what was the question?"). A cynic might argue that the reason why Gen Y sees social media as the answer, and the baby boomers don't, is that the baby boomers have seen 3 waves of technology push already, and have the experience to know that KM needs much more than technology. Gen Y don't have that experience. Personally, I would rather they did not learn the hard way - I have seen far too much money wasted by organisations buying software in the naive assumption that knowledge will suddenly be reused and applied for business gain.

Now I am not a social media cynic - I have my own blog, I work with wikis, I am on linkedin and facebook etc etc - but I have lived through many cycles of KM, and seen many technology promises fail to be delivered.

My conclusion is that KM and web 2.0 overlap. Web 2.0 is about more than KM, and KM is about more than technology or web 2.0. There are elements of Web 2.0 that can fill needed gaps in a KM system - wikis, for example, are a real step forward in collaborative ownership. There are elements of web 2.0 that are a poor replacement for existing technologies (CoP forums, for example, are far better than linkedin style forums; the best yellow pages systems are more fit for purpose than facebook, validated community knowledge is more reusable than blogged individual opinion). There are elements of web 2.0 that are not directly about exchange of knowledge at all, but about social relationship building (although social relationships can of course support business relationships, which support the culture, which enables knowledge management). And then knowledge management, in addition to the technologies, needs strategic focus, needs governance, needs a set of processes built into the operational cycle, and needs clear accountabilities.

So is there a war? If there is a war, maybe it's between naive enthusiasm for web 2.0 and jaded experience? In which case, the answer (as to many wars) lies in dialogue.

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