People are Already Sharing Out There
We're born with the fundamental desire to share and learn from peers. We're also a lazy race of animals. We like to get the best possible results from the smallest effort we can invest. So when we need results developers ask questions on stackoverflow, learning professionals go to lrnchat and everyone of us goes to Google. When possible, we share ideas at conferences than in team meetings. In fact, I know quite a few people who wait months to come to a conference so they can find solutions to their problems. The truth is that if a problem has more eyeballs looking, then it has a greater chance of finding a solution. That's a mathematical fact, not just because of the sheer numbers, but also because of the huge power of diversity. The empirical evidence is stacked in favour of sharing more openly, yet organisations choose to hide information behind a firewall. The few times that people look inside their organisation for learning, is when the knowledge is specific and proprietary to the firm. Given that most firms are not the only ones that operate in their space, these instances are far and few in between. This explains the low uptake of enterprise intranets.
Parallel Social Universes need Common Sense Aggregation
"People's time is a zero sum game." - Mark Oelhert, Defense Acquisition University
The drive to mimic social software in the enterprise is a well intentioned one. Having said this, I believe it's a mistake to create parallel social universes in the enterprise. For example, a lot of enterprise 2.0 implementations see a blogging, social networking and microblogging system behind the firewall. Now there's nothing wrong in setting up this infrastructure as long as it leverages existing contributions on the public internet. What happens instead, is that organisations put up this social infrastructure and then expect employees to start blogging, 'tweeting' and networking within the firewall. Again, if someone's already doing this on the big broad internet, there's no incentive for them to contribute on the puny intranet. Think about it -- why would a blogger with an established following of 3000 readers, put in a new effort to blog internally where at the most a 100 people are likely to read her blog? And why would she risk putting her ideas on a platform where her identity is likely to die the day she leaves? Now you can coerce your employees into contributing to your enterprise social infrastructure, but that takes autonomy out of the motivation game. On the other hand, if we could harness the contributions people already make to the web - their blogs, their twitter feed, their delicious bookmarks; we not only leverage the collective intelligence of our workforce, we provide people with recognition for their individuality.
Porous Walls are the Way for the Future
The open source economy makes for an interesting way to tame complexity. When an organisation open source's software, there's not just an interesting business reason behind it, but also a few interesting technical reasons. Think about free development capacity for your software. How about a few new features added for no extra cost? Well yeah, you'll discard 90 contributions to get the 10 quality commits, but free work is free work! How about having people find and fix your bugs for free? This is an extended team, at little or no cost. Now of course, most organisations choose to keep some software proprietary to maintain a strategic advantage, and that's the reason that organisations are likely to keep some knowledge proprietary as well. This said, the vast majority of discussions on company forums are hardly about proprietary knowledge.
Just as we would open source software, isn't there a case for us to open up discussions and knowledge sharing beyond our firewall, limiting only confidential discussions to be within the company? Like open source, this has it's practical benefits and then, early movers have a strong branding advantage just like early movers in the open source space. As walls of the enterprise social network start to become porous this is likely to drive two way knowledge traffic for our organisations. Some of this traffic is likely to come from people we don't even employ! We need to think about the potential of such an approach and before we start to obsess over risk, we need to understand that this is an existing phenomenon. Whether we choose to facilitate it or not, this is already happening. I don't disagree that this requires a fair degree of social media education for our people, but I believe this is an effort well worth our time.
My conversation with Charles Jennings ended on the note that I see a Stage 6 on the Internet Time Alliance's workplace learning diagram. It's a step beyond working collaboratively and co-creating in a workscape. It's about transcending organisational boundaries and embracing a state of porous walls. In my view it is a state of the world that's more in tune with reality. People are already sharing their expertise in the wide open. We can choose to be blind to that and fight the web in a battle we can't win. Or we can be pragmatic and exploit this intellect.
What do you think? Am I going bonkers? I'd love to hear what you think of my hopes for the future of workplace learning. Don't be bashful and leave your comments here -- it's been a while since I heard from you.