Platforms – are they a distraction to the real work of knowledge sharing?
I’ve been following a couple of discussions on technology platforms this week, one at the UN Knowledge Fair, and another in a professional group of Enterprise 2.0 practitioners that I’m a member of. In both cases it’s clear that there are strong preferences (both personal and institutional) for particular technologies that are often different to reconcile. And it’s not uncommon to have these kind of discussions in house too 😉
Development and management of technology platforms for knowledge capture and sharing is a major part of Knowledge Management work in any organization. Many organizations (including ours) spend a great deal of time discussing technology tools, platforms, operating systems, information architecture etc. and people often have very strong opinions about both what type of tool we should be using and the particular tool (Sharepoint vs Domino, Outlook vs Notes, Drupal vs WordPress, Yammer vs Twitter, Teamworks vs Communities vs Crabgrass etc. etc.), as well as what features should be included when a tool is developed and rolled out.
While technology provides incredible opportunities for enhanced knowledge capture and sharing and is critical to good Knowledge Management, discussions around technology platforms and the time taken to propose them, argue about them, develop them and encourage people to use them can take a good deal of time, money and personal energy. I’m wondering if we need to take a step back, to think first about what we trying to achieve, and then look at how we apply technology to solve them, rather than being too focussed on the specific tools we may know, like, have heard of etc.
Most knowledge sharing problems are fundamentally about people, how they create, store and share knowledge and how they communicate and collaborate with one another. While technology can greatly help, I fear it will not do so unless we look at our KM related business processes, and our behaviours and build technological tools that will support positive behaviour change, but which also recognize the ways that people work together.
No technological tool or implementation is perfect for Knowledge Management related work, and people’s tastes differ in terms of how they prefer to use technology. Furthermore these patterns change over time. We have to accept that there are no silver bullets in social technology. If we focus too much on the tools and not enough on what we are trying to achieve with them then we risk to develop tools that no-one will use, or tools that will reinforce existing knowledge silos and bad sharing practices. For Knowledge Management practitioners we also risk being pigeonholed as techies, rather than being seen as people who want to help with substantive knowledge sharing. And we also can leave the impression that if only we had the right technology we could fix all the problems we have with KM, which then leads to disappointment when the reality fails to live up to the hype.
Don’t get me wrong, I love trying out new technology as much as anyone – in fact probably more than most people. BUT it terms of developing platforms and tools for use within an organization (or across the UN system), I think we need to first focus on the human practices we wish to encourage and reinforce and then design our solutions with people in mind first and foremost. Rollout of technological tools needs to be complemented by support for changed working practices, and the success of a platform or tool needs to be assessed on how well it supports improved sharing in reality – not on how good its functionality is in theory.
So, of course we need to invest in technology for knowledge sharing (and certainly much more than we have done to date), but we also need to acknowledge that there are no perfect solutions, that it won’t solve everything, and that we might need to use several technologies in parallel for different things. And of course we should remember that some knowledge sharing needs can be supported by existing technologies, or no technology such as a phone call or a cup of coffee.