KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Archive for September 2013

Is social media ruining knowledge management?

with 8 comments

Nick Milton shared an interesting blog post a few days ago “Social media will destroy the value in KM – discuss”. In it he looked at some of the ways that social media is undermining knowledge management and some of the risks it can pose to management of organizational knowledge management efforts.

I shared some of his concerns, but I think that social media also has a lot to offer for knowledge exchange. But it also requires us to think a little differently about what knowledge management is and how to go about it. I think we also need to recognize that individuals and companies are increasingly embracing social media and so knowledge managers need to adapt to it and figure out how to use it for good or risk being marginalized, whether they like it or not.

So what are some of the ways in which social media challenges “traditional” knowledge management? Here is my take riffing from some of Nick’s observations:

The most significant shift for me is that social media is mainly focused around the individual rather than the organization, or around formally established communities. Nick mentions that the greatest value added in organizations is the realization that knowledge lives in communities, not individuals. I agree – but the difference with social “me”-dia is that communities can be self organizing and much more porous within technical disciplines and organizations and can form and disband based on shared interest. This flexibility allows a lot more diversity of thinking and ability to respond to needs based on emerging needs, but it poses challenges for organizations as a lot of this is happening outside the control or even the view of the organization.

A positive consequence of the shift to individuals is that it is empowering to the employee in given them tools to connect and share on their own terms to meet their own needs not through channels and formats that are imposed upon them, and individual employees often have a much better grasp of what they need than more distant managers and are also more willing to move quickly to resolve them if they are given the tools to do so. Of course individual needs are not always totally aligned with organizational ones or the direction followed by self organizing groups might differ from the policy which emerges top down. This can be both positive and negative depending on your point of view – it certainly undermines traditional decision-making models and policy,message enforcement, but it can also allow your staff to be more responsive to circumstances and also can increase their motivation  through giving them more control over their working lives.

This “bottom-up” approach to knowledge sharing and collaboration does pose a few challenges:

1. The sheer volume and unstructured nature of knowledge exchange through social media channels can make it very hard to find what you want, and relevant conversations can easily be missed due to volume, number of diverse channels and the quick speed of exchange without any good system for archiving, taxonomy or search.

2. Unclear methods for quality assurance and fact checking. Anyone can publish anything no matter what their level of expertise – and so this puts the onus on the consumer to be able to judge the quality of knowledge shared.

3. It’s hard for organizations or teams to “capture” and retain their knowledge as the individual focus and tendency to use non-corporate channels (twitter, Facebook, blogs) as well as corporate ones (e.g. internal social networking tools such as Jive or UN Teamworks) makes it that much harder for an organization to keep track of its core corporate knowledge.

4. The increased openness and loss of control over how knowledge is exchanged does potential pose some reputational risk as dirty laundry might be shared publicly, trade secrets leaked or poor judgment might tarnish the organization’s image.

I agree with Nick that it is a mistake to think that organizational knowledge management can be replaced by the introduction of social tools, but to be able to take advantage of the new technologies we also need to rethink KM a little. Here are a few thoughts on how:

1. Given the greater focus on the individual more emphasis needs to be given to developing “personal knowledge management (PKN)” skills of staff (Harold Jarche has a lot of great writings that explore this topic further). Giving staff the skills to use social media tools effectively for knowledge sharing, both with official corporate tools and non-official tools, including on the people side of using the tools to enable them to be empowered not only to use tools, but to know how to use them effectively.

2. New policies will be needed to accompany PKN – especially around what can and cannot be done on social media especially to avoid risk 4. above. At the same time these policies need to be sufficiently flexible to allow staffers to engage externally since one of the greatest benefits of new social tools is the ability to easily reach out and interact with people outside your organizational unit, professional grouping (community) or even organization.

3. One thing that will still be needed is community facilitation and curation – although it will need to take a  different form. I’ve seen many organizations introduce social tools without enough emphasis on the people/community aspect of using them, Many organizations or communities are not large enough to sustain ongoing conversation and exchange without a facilitator to help stimulate the discussion, reach out to potential resources, summarize, categorize and store the distilled knowledge for future use. But the difference in using this with social tools is that the boundaries of a community are porous as are the sources where knowledge can come from. The facilitator/curator role might be more to help pull together diverse strands of conversation and connect them and the people involved in them. They might help oversee any organizational wiki as part of their job to ensure it’s not just left to enthusiasts. They might also act as curator for an organizational record of relevant exchanges that take place inside and outside the organization’s official communities by also tagging and sharing relevant twitter discussions or blog posts by staff and external partners.

4. Decisions on what is “quality knowledge” need to be looked at differently. Instead, or in addition to having experts or facilitator/curators determine what has value many social tools are now also built with “crowdsourced” quality assurance tools i.e. ability to collect “likes” and “shares”, and also use these to search and organize contributions. These are very valuable complements to expert opinion (although not necessarily replacements for it) but your social technology needs to be set up to allow this and there is some thinking needed on how to do this well (e.g. the Amazon 5* rating might work well on products or publications, but individual contributions are best rated with “likes” as people are often not willing to give or receive poor ratings to colleagues work which can be a real discouragement to sharing – but “thumbs up” is more neutral and still allows quality to rise to the top). A good social system will also allow your staff to rate and share external resources that are not part of your own “knowledge repository” but keep track of these to help them locate high quality external knowledge resources.

5. Social enabled KM needs and benefits from personal profiles. These can be used to help people locate expertise, but are also an important tool for self-expression and personal marketing. A balance is needed between “official information” such as your title, location, certifications and personally maintained information on your skills and interests, a record of your knowledge contributions, as well as some thinking about whether and how people can rate or recommend each other. This requires technology, but also thinking about design and support and encouragement for people to use profiles effectively.

These examples show how organizational knowledge management can take advantage of social tools, but also  needs to adapt because of it to stay relevant. For me the role of the knowledge manager is to ensure that ensure we are still meeting the needs of organizations and that they are taking full advantage of the possibilities that new social tools bring, while trying to inject some realism into how this should be done from our experience, in particular to avoid the type of “build it and they will come” techno-utopianism that is used by some purveyors of social media tools to market their products without any clear idea of how they will improve an organization’s use of knowledge and its bottom line.

Written by Ian Thorpe

September 25, 2013 at 9:00 am

%d bloggers like this: