KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Social networks at work: Cartel, Competition or Collaboration?

with 11 comments

Within the UN system (or any large organization or enterprise for that matter) there are often several competing platforms, tools and methods for knowledge sharing, internal communication and work related social networking.

There’s the official tools (such as Teamworks in UNDP, UNICEF communities in UNICEF, or “unite connect” in the UN Secretariat, or various Sharepoint implementations). There’s the unofficial tools that people have set up such as Yammer, Ning Networks, Google groups etc. And then there’s the use of public tools such as facebook, twitter and Google plus as well as individual websites and blogs.

Having so many options can be confusing and lead to knowledge fragmentation – but getting leadership to agree on a single tool can also be very contentious and getting people to follow official direction can be challenging, especially when people have different preferences for how they network in terms of tools, functionality and the crowd of people they want to exchange with.

Here are three possible approaches for dealing with this:

Cartel: Management agrees on a common set of tools and makes it clear to all users that they MUST use these tools and no others, and that only officially sanctioned tools will be supported.

Competition: Management makes available a set of corporately supported tools, but doesn’t impose them outright. Instead they actively work to convince people to use the official tools by convincing them how much more useful, well supported and secure they are than the unofficial tools. They tolerate, but don’t support or encourage  tools and provide incentives for people to use the official tools.

Collaboration: The organization provides official tools which it encourages and supports people to use, but also recognizes that for some purposes people prefer to use non-official tools and so they build interfaces to allow people to link them together e.g. to share posts via twitter or to bring in a feed from Yammer. Over time they might incorporate features from external tools that users find most useful or use external tools to provide those services which are harder to develop in-house.

This situation is made more complex in the UN because each agency has its own official tools which are different from agency to agency, as well as its favoured unofficial tools which have spread within and between them. There is no single decision point (person, agency or committee) that can map out a single approach to this for the UN as a whole, only on an agency by agency basis with informal co-ordination at best between them.

Which of these approaches (or combinations of them) do you think will work best? And how can this be applied to bring some coherence to the UN’s overall approach in this area?


Written by Ian Thorpe

March 1, 2012 at 8:55 am

11 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian,

    I read your posts after notification on my Gmail account (one of many btw) because I try to keep my bosses mail system a bit cleaned-up. My question would be: ‘what problem are you addressing?’. I read ‘knowledge fragmentation’. But that is always true; one cannot have one place to cope with that. Most of ‘my knowledge’ I have offloaded to networks and email threads. And knowledge fragmentation is key in the complicated realms of development (in simple or complicated realms SharePoint can help :-(). That fragmentation is key to KM4Dev ( and IKMergent (

    Today every-digital-thing is a URL (with some text attached to it in the form (!) of email, blog, wikipage, document, tweet,, a WhatsApp message, SMS, IM, Yammer etc etc. What is important is to find it and luckily there are many roads (dashboards) leading along serendipity to Rome 🙂

    I can imagine a UN hierarchy would like to present a coherent body of information (not knowledge!). Also that can be done in numerous ways nowadays (because they are all URLS with ….). For a worker, an individual, this is only one source, one repository, for one identity (official UN worker), but for all the other identities to fit the official one would be ‘bringing water to the sea’: perhaps fun (for a while) but pretty useless. So my advice would be to think Dutch: non-UN systems are not allowed but it is OK to use them 🙂

    Where UN orgs HAVE to shape up is in their systems for vacancies. Just for fun I researched once how to apply for a job at UNICEF, UNDP, OPCW, WB and some other UN bodies. Well, it is a nightmare because for all orgs you will have to fill out a whole bunch of details in DIFFERENT forms! Come on; do something about that.

    For ‘knowledge’ (read knowledge-able people) I would advice ‘connect’; get all staff on a good social network or integrate all the SNs they use.

    Cheers, Jaap


    March 1, 2012 at 9:42 am

  2. Thanks for this blogpost Ian, it triggered some thoughts

    The collaboration perspective makes a lot of sense to me if knowledge sharing is the real driver behind the entire process. Some reflections:

    – We have to find smart (interface) ways to transform competition into collaboration. We see it already happening when important platforms start to talk and communicate to each other (your blog post will be immediately tweeted, automatically connected with Linkedin and through some additional crossposting mechanisms will also appear in several other networks (teamworks, yammer). A hybrid approach where serendipity will lead to knowledge sharing results that you might never have imagined might be much more fruitful than a command and control strategy that wants to keep users within the institutional technological framework.
    – The argument – will officially be not supported – is not really convincing for most people. What official support do you need for vibrant informal knowledge sharing networks (KM4Dev, yammer). They are already officially supported by a strong community behind it and they can bring added value to the officially supported tools without much additional backstopping (just syndicate and aggregate). The current social media tools have deleted the notion of technological support. They are so simple that in some cases we do not talk about the technology anymore (who perceives facebook or twitter as technology that needs support? ). I agree that there are plenty of other issues out there (whether they are about security or privacy … in the end we will have to deal with them in a meaningful way that goes beyond blocking these tools).
    – The amount of tools and networks is indeed growing. To keep up with the information overload we can use additional aggregation tools (either within the official framework or again use off the shell tools such as Netvibes etc. ). At least through the aforementioned syndication and aggregation mechanisms you create a one stop place with a general overview of what is currently happening but at the same time let serendipity take you to one of the decentralized places that jumped to your attention.

    Balancing on these different types of complexity will be key and therefore new skills and digital literacies will be part of the workforce of tomorrow.

    My initial reflections might favor an approach that builds on the underlying principles of these social media and networks (interaction, collaboration, networking and communication) and this will be build around the tools that are supported by a collective intelligence that is present and out there, whether this is today Teamworks or Yammer is not that important for me as an individual, as long as I can track and monitor it systematically from an organisational or institutional perspective I am fine with it, and we know that the technological means for doing that are out there.


    Tom Wambeke

    March 1, 2012 at 10:05 am

  3. Reblogged this on buridansblog and commented:
    In what is perhaps a weaselly position, a hybrid of the ‘Competition’ and ‘Collaboration’ approaches would provide the benefits of competition, while leveraging access to established networks and integral functionality of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Experience has demonstrated that the ‘Cartel’ approach is ineffective. The expanding use of personal devices for work purposes – smartphones and tablets in particular – and the concomitant access to niche tools to meet individual needs, means that ‘Cartel’ option is DoA.


    March 1, 2012 at 11:36 am

  4. Thanks Jaap, Tom, Brian for your comments. Of course I do have my own views on which is preferable which I didn’t explicitly state in the blog.

    I think it’s important to recognize that institutions (and project leaders within them) have strong incentives for wanting to get you to use their system – partly for concerns such as security and confidentiality and partly because if they have invested in them they want people to use them (and are likely to be judged not on the healthiness of knowledge exchange but rather on the amount of take up of a platform). Similarly organizations often want to associate their networks with their own brand. These institutional factors push them more towards the cartel or competition approaches.

    As an individual I’m more likely to want to go where I can find what/who I need so a collaborative approach might better serve my needs. But we also need to recognize that those of us who write blogs, work on social media or actively engage in knowledge management related activities are probably not typical of the average staff member of an institution – for many staffers it would be much easier if they could go to one place that they feel comfortable with to find most of what they need rather than having to go to many.

    I think I’m probably on the same wavelength as Brian on this – yes, let’s take a collaborative approach to try to link the different tools that are out there in a way that respond to the needs of the organization and its staff – but at the same time if you are building something to help pull together people inside the organization I think it’s good to sell it to your staff and to compete in the sense that you want to encourage people to use it and give them incentives to do so, and you want to copy and build in the best parts of other platforms to help improve your own offering. Of course the best incentive is to offer something that gives people what they need! I also like Jaap’s dutch approach “non-UN systems are not allowed but it is OK to use them!”

    However great we make our own systems people will still also be using facebook or other tools for business related purposes – we would be better off thinking about how to make the best of this.

    Ian Thorpe

    March 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    • Last night I read the chapter on this subject in Euan Semple’s book, “Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web”, entitled ‘Unleash the Trojan Mice.’ Semple summarizes the chapter by recommending that, “Instead of having expensive tools or large scale change initiatives, have lots of small ones. Small things that don’t require a lot of budget or permission from too many people but that will work away together to achieve significant benefits.” Moving to the practical application of this recommendation, Semple argues what is means is that you allow “people to set up their own initiatives using your tools and establish their groups no matter how small. Watch what they are doing and see what works. Keep telling stories about what is happening and share what is working with people who you think it would benefit. Encourage them to copy what is working and to develop it further in their own spaces. Work together to determine some simple operating principles for what works and proactively share these. Build networks of people running the networks and harness their collective energy and learning.”

      I was comforted by this advice as it closely resembles the path that we (Royal UN KM community ‘we) seem to be on.


      March 2, 2012 at 9:52 am

  5. […] Read more: Social networks at work: Cartel, Competition or Collaboration? […]

  6. Hi Ian

    I thought this was a very interesting post and that this is a problem for all organisations, not only the UN organisations. In the past, I think many organisations went for a cartel position but, of course, as Biran noted, this means DoA for knowledge sharing. Although I think a competition approach is acceptable, my personal recomendation would always be for a broader interpretation of collaboration which encourages, uses and supports external tools, either social media or other tools developed in common by a number of organisations with developmental objectives in mind. This was one of the reasons that Dgroups was set up in the past decade: that it would be run by a common pool of resources from development organisations; and that it would offer more safety in communication than commericially run services who might be more sensitive to pressure from governments. The latter might be a bit ”pie in the sky” but it certainly was part of the vision.

    I have a couiple of main reasons for my preference for an appraoch based on broader collaboration. First, many development organisations are spending millions of development funds on their own IT systems. In fact, I’ve seen at first hand how this cartel approach and a “not invented here” mentality have wasted enormous resources. Second, I think that we should approach development knowledge as more of an ecology and as a global public good so that external linkages and connections are to be encouraged.

    As a bit of background to my response, some of my colleagues (Mike Powell, Tim Davies and Keisha Taylor) have recently written a paper on IT and the development sector which I would like to recommend in this context. They are critical of the impact of ICT use within the development sector, arguing that it has mainly been applied to make the organisations which were already ‘information rich’ even richer. If you’re interested, you can read here:

    I enjoy your blog and it’s nice to have an opportunity to respond.

    Best wishes


    Sarah Cummings

    March 2, 2012 at 4:40 am

  7. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } (via @ElaMi5) – Today, 6:59 […]

  8. I think it ought to be somewhere between the cartel and the competition models, ie. a competition model with few tools. The reason is that you want staff to work with knowledge resources in one information ecosystem, where info is easily available to anyone in the organization, and with formats that are rapidly recognized.

    In my opinion, people who use tools not included in the small menu of given options ought to adopt one or more of the ‘official’ ones (eg. Teamwork in UNDP), recognizing that the common good of all staff supersedes personal comfort with a given tool. It´s not that much to ask.


    Manuel Acevedo

    March 4, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    • @Manuel I think one’s view best approach to this depends to some extent on whether you are thinking as an individual or as an institution. For individuals it might seem better to be able to go to where the people you want to interact with go, or to use whatever meets your needs best, and for you to be able to link together all the different crowds, whereas for an institution they would prefer everyone to mostly go to one approved place.

      I think for internal knowledge sharing then an internally provided tool is both safer and can be promoted clearly as a “one stop shop” – the challenge here is that whatever is provided needs to do a good enough job and be flexible enough to stop people using rogue third party apps. For external knowledge sharing I think it’s a bit different since you can’t always expect people to come to your place to interact, often you have to go to them and so if organizations want externally focussed sharing and dialogue then they will need to be more open minded in terms of supporting their staff to use various platforms.

      Ian Thorpe

      March 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

  9. Having stumbled across this discussion a bit late, I have a few thoughts on this issue:

    -Re Brian’s suggestion that a BYOD policy means that an organizationally-mandated approach to social networks is DOA: I can’t agree. BYOD refers to hardware, while any decent software platform will accommodate multiple devices. This is more true every day as platforms migrate to the cloud and build apps for multiple devices.

    -The strongest argument against a cartel approach seems to me to be the fact that ‘knowledge cannot be conscripted’ (HT Dave Snowden). The danger is in prescribing an organizational platform that can’t do what users want or need, or in prescribing not just the platform but also precisely how it must be used. Both of these approaches would choke off participation.

    -The strongest argument FOR a cartel approach is, I think, the need to achieve a critical mass of participation in order for networks to become self-sustaining. This is especially true in an environment where the majority of staff still are not very comfortable sharing information on social platforms (which I think is still true in the UN, although it is changing). Knowledge fragmentation, arising from use of a multitude of platforms, may seem fine to experienced networkers but will be deadly to staff who are just learning how to work socially.

    Eric Mullerbeck

    November 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm

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