KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Social networking lessons from Booz-Allen Hamilton

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A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Walton Smith (@walton3) of Booz-Allen Hamilton (BAH) about their experience in fostering social networking and knowledge sharing within their organization and in their consulting work with others. I’m ashamed to say I’ve only gotten around to writing it up now.

BAH developed a social platform for staff which has had a tremendous staff take up and usage by their staff and within a short time frame. So what was the secret of their success?

I’ve included below the slide deck from the presentation (thanks to Walton for allowing me to share it). There was a lot in there, but a few points that stuck out for me were:

1. Focus both the development of the tool and how you market it to your staff around solving key business problems they face, especially current pain points. Focus on how it helps them to do their work better – not on the software platform itself and how great or high tech it is or what bells and whistles it has.

2. Develop the platform in an “agile” manner – i.e. allow for frequent changes and continual improvement to meet the needs of users – in particular to quickly fix things that are not working, or add new highly requested features. Interestingly the BAH platform is built on Sharepoint 2007, not generally known for its social networking capabilities, b ut they were able to make it work through adding on various open source tools. This flexibility to combine  different tools into a  system is an interesting idea to ensure you can adapt to evolving user needs rather than just focusing on choosing a single platform – but I also imagine it must be a developers nightmare.

3. Work with your users, especially the power users and system champions to get continuous feedback on how to improve the system. Make these people happy as they are the people who can help improve your platform and will be critical in getting people to use it.

4. First impressions count. Make sure it works well and is easy to use the first time people try it (or they might not come back). Keeps things as simple and intuitive as possible, and ensure  that performance is good (if it is too slow people will lose patience).

5. Clear senior management endorsement, encouragement and support is essential both to push through and support the project, but also to drive adoption and set the right incentives for people to try using the system. Working socially is a change management process and needs the same type of leadership support that is required to get people on board and sustain commitment in other change management activities.

6. Allow people flexibility to create their own spaces, including for non-business purposes such as hobbies – don’t stifle their ability to express themselves or try to censor or pre-moderate content, or try to prescribe how people use the system – people will find  their own uses that you might not have expected, and this will help bring more people on board.

7. Employ gardeners. While you want to leave people as much flexibility as possible in how they use the system it’s still important to have community managers who  clean up content, add tags or taxonomy to help retrieve content later, help advise users and stimulate effective use.

8. Build out profiles. Helping people find each other inside an organization and having information about your staff so you can more easily build teams or tap into expertise is one of the advantages of having s social platform and can be a quick win in terms of providing something that was not previously available.

9. Integrate the platform with existing business processes to help support them to be more efficient rather than having the social system as a parallel or add-on to “regular work”. That way users will more quickly see the benefits of how it can help them to work better.

10. Measuring ROI is hard. Even in the business sector its  hard to calculate the return on investment on developing social platforms, and the exact benefits are both hard to quantify and are unpredictable and unevenly distributed. The better way to show success is through case studies which demonstrate how the system has created value in practice (this seems very akin to the idea in Wenger’s and De Laat’s value creation framework) as these benefits can be both large, and through use of a storytelling approach quite convincing.

There were also many other good tips in the presentation. There was an interesting discussion on how to apply the same type of tools in an extranet environment to involve customers or partners, and we got an inside peek at a couple of public sector type applications. Here the issue of content ownership and permissions as well as authentication of users  becomes a little more thorny, and sustaining participation is also more difficult and this is an area where I would have like to heard more as it’s very relevant to a lot of what we would like to do in the United Nations in working with government counterparts, donors, NGOs etc. but unfortunately we only had time to scratch the surface of this.

After the presentation it struck me that BAH did have a few natural advantages over UN agencies and other development organizations in developing this type of system:

1. Money: As Walton said in BAH it’s always a struggle to get enough resources to invest in developing (and continually developng) a social platform – but my guess is that it’s easier to make the case, and resources are more plentiful in large private sector organizations like BAH.

2. Bandwidth: BAH is in many locations worldwide – but most of them are in places with good internet connections. With us working almost everywhere in the world we are not so lucky, and having adequate bandwidth for a system to work satisfactorily in all our locations, or when people are on the road can be a big challange.

3. Knowledge focus: This is perhaps the biggest challenge for development organizations. While we might consider ourselves to be knowledge workers and think that knowledge is one of our biggest assets – the actual demand for knowledge (and the incentives to create and use knowledge) is not as great as we might wish. In consulting companies knowledge really is the core of their business and their ability to mobilize it directly affects their bottom line. Until that becomes more explicitly true in development work, and until it is demanded of us y our donors and partners, and er demand it of ourselves it will be more of a struggle to get people to use these types of tools.

That said, I think the lessons from BAH are very pertinent and I’m hoping we will be able to apply them in our own work going forward (or even more than we already have).

Here’s the full presentation:



Written by Ian Thorpe

December 8, 2011 at 2:54 pm

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  1. […] here:  Social networking lessons from Booz-Allen Hamilton « KM on a … AKPC_IDS += "31533,";Popularity: unranked […]

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