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March 16 2011

Knowledge management in the age of social media

Twitter and office buildingKnowledge management, which is broadly defined as the identification, retention, effective use, and retirement of institutional insight, has been an elusive goal for most large organizations. It is motivated by practical business intent, such as the distribution of knowledge to avoid relearning the same best practices over and over. However, in reality it is a requirement that is remarkably difficult to attain. Some of the smartest people I have worked with have been frustrated by their efforts, not through lack of trying or ability but by the inherent challenges it presents. The emergence and impact of social media in the enterprise forces us to rethink knowledge management and creates completely new challenges.

Today, some of the core issues with existing knowledge management approaches can be categorized as behavioral and technical (I recognize the complexity of the subject and acknowledge there are many more qualities to examine; using the following two should be sufficient to support the points in this blog).

1. Behavioral

In order for a knowledge management system (KMS) to have value, employees must enter insight on a regular basis and they must keep the knowledge current (we can all agree that out-of-date information, which has reference value, is much less useful as the general desired state of actionable knowledge). Seldom are either of these behaviors adequately incentivized. By sharing tacit knowledge, many employees believe they are reducing their own value to the organization. In addition, updating the information requires effort, which is rarely a priority against the core responsibilities of the employee.

Psychic income earned on your own time might provide incentive for Wikipedia updates, but it doesn't often translate to well spent effort on company time.

2. Technical

When presenting to audiences I often ask if it is easier for them to use a public search engine to find information about their organizations or use their own organizations' websites for a search. As you might guess, the majority of the room goes with the public engine.

It's remarkably difficult to organize information in the right manner, make it searchable, and then present it so the most relevant responses are at the top of the search results. In addition, organizational information is hardly the example of pristine structure. While public search engines benefit from counting the number of links between items (a good measure of popularity), internal systems have no such equivalent. Unstructured content is the king of the public web, whereas it is the bane of the enterprise. (Things will change in the future as new technologies, such as those that support the semantic web, are broadly adopted and implemented).

The situation is compounded when employees are disillusioned by the effectiveness and effort to use the KMS and resort to old habits, like asking colleagues or improvising in the absence of guidance (thus repeating mistakes or missing best practices). The system often fails to be adopted — or at best is used by a small proportion of the organization — and no amount of resuscitation is enough to bring it back to life.


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Social media completely changes the existing knowledge management paradigm

It may be time to put down your tools in trying to make the old model of knowledge management work; social media is a completely new beast that changes many of the rules.

In the old world order, knowledge was usually created and stored as a point in time. In the future, organizational policy or insight may not be formed by an individual creating a document that goes through an approval process and is ultimately published. It will likely begin with an online conversation and it will be forever evolving as more people contribute and circumstances change.

Social media takes knowledge and makes it highly iterative. It creates content as a social object. That is, content is no longer a point in time, but something that is part of a social interaction, such as a discussion. It easily disassembles the pillars of structure as it evolves. As examples: content in a micro-blogging service can shift meaning as a discussion unfolds; conversations in enterprise social networks that link people and customer data can defy categorization; and internal blogs and their comments don't lend themselves to obvious taxonomy.

The days of the single, authoritative voice are coming to an end. The community has prevailed.

The shift to the adoption of enterprise social computing, greatly influenced by consumerization, points to one emergent observation: the future is about managing unstructured content.Let's consider the magnitude of this for a moment. Years of effort, best practices, and technologies for supporting organizational insight in the form of curated, structured insight has to be rethought. It's an enormous challenge, but it may in fact be the best thing that ever happened to knowledge management.

There is an important silver lining to this story

In the long run, social media in the enterprise will likely be a boon for knowledge management. It should mean that many of the benefits we experience in the consumer web space — effective searching, grouping of associated unstructured data sources, and ranking of relevance — will become basic features of enterprise solutions. It's likely we'll see the increasing overlap between public and private data to enhance the value of the private data.

For example: want to know more about a staff member? Internal corporate information will include role, start date, department etc., but we may get additional information pulled in from social networks, such as hobbies, photos or previous employment. Pull up client data and you'll get the information keyed in by other employees, but you might also get the history and values of the company, competitors, and a list of executives, gleaned from the broader repository of the public web. I'll leave the conversation about privacy for another day.

It's likely that social-media-driven knowledge management will require much less of the "management" component. Historically we've spent far too much time cleaning up the data, validating, and categorizing it. In the future, more of our time will be spent analyzing all the new knowledge that is being created through our social interactions. Smart analysis can result in new insight, and that has powerful value for organizations.

No doubt this is an enormously complex space and social media magnifies the challenges. The time is right to evaluate your knowledge management strategy. New value creation starts now.

Photo: Office, by ianmunroe on Flickr



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