Monday, March 21, 2011

Knowledge Management in the age of Social Media

Last week Dinesh, Nikhil and I encountered the second stage of our social business journey at ThoughtWorks. Over the week, we had a few conversations with other ThoughtWorkers focussing on one common question, "Where do I put x?". While our platform itself places no restrictions on where users can post content and while we have a really powerful search engine, the mental model of folders to place your information is still prevalent. It's been about four years since I last created a very structured folder system on my computer. Today I just save files where I please and then let Spotlight or Quicksilver find the files for me when I need them. Coming back to our social business platform though, the primary driver for this initiative was to answer a long standing knowledge management challenge at ThoughtWorks. Our aim at least when we started off, was to map our organisational capabilities and make them explicit for the average ThoughtWorker. While social media seems to have lowered the barrier for content creation and sharing considerably, there's a separate question about structure that we need to answer. How does the traditional world view of knowledge management fit in the world of social business?

Prescriptive Structure Leads to Empty or Neglected Containers
Useful content doesn't come up by magic. Content also doesn't come up as a result of an imposed structure. Content arrives on platforms because some people feel a strong ownership for it and believe that there's value in sharing it. Over a period of time they use metadata such as tags, ratings and comments to provide a layer of information and commentary to the content. Given a reasonable amount of time, the structure for all the content on the platorm starts to emerge. Tag clouds help create a map for users so they can browse through the content. Search engines start throwing intelligent results for searches. User commentary, ratings and flags provide a layer of quality control over the content, helping all members of the community find the best content for the purpose. This is the phenonmenon of emergent structure that Andrew McAfee has spoken about in his book - Enterprise 2.0. The key however is in understanding that while content is valuable, context is significantly more precious. To know your colleague who wrote that phenomenal blogpost, to be able to see how people used her ideas, to be able to look at the other contributions by this user, etc are a generative side to the knowledge management puzzle. It's a side that opens up possibilities for serendipity which traditional content focussed approaches are unlikely to achieve.

No Structure is a 'One-Size-Fits-All'

The same presentation that I upload to a conferences space could be the one you look for in the technology space. While I like a Twitter style approach to finding interesting content, you may prefer a Digg style model. While one person may choose a communities of practice model to personal learning, another person may just look for a more structured sitemap/ folder approach. Regardless of which approach you choose, you're likely to marginalise a certain group of people. The modern internet has given us so many options that we're almost spoilt for choice and everyone looks at stuff differently. The key is to give people a way to personalise their knowledge intake in a way that suits them. Flexible consumption is the need of the hour.

Personal Knowledge Management and Sense Making is the Key

The modern workplace requires modern skills. While it's all too well to complain about chaos and information overload, a key skill in this age, is the ability to set up filters that help you make sense of everything. As Clay Shirky explains in the above talk, it's not really information overload - it's filter failure. People also need to be comfortable with missing stuff. If things are really important, they'll come to you. Others will repost it, there'll be heavy discussion and the content will rise in popularity. A huge part of the 'information overload complaint' also has to do with the gluttony and greed to be 'on top of everything'. Managing digital knowledge that matters to you, requires deliberate practice. Harold Jarche calls this the practice of personal knowledge management. Knowledge workers need to develop the skills to connect with others, exchange ideas and to contribute effectively to a knowledge collective. This requires inward facing categorising and sorting skills to deal with the flow of information. Organisations need to support knowledge workers through the journey of learning these skills, since it's crucial to their own success. The role of the knowledge management organisation then perhaps shifts to a higher touch, personal productivity consulting role. Over a period of time knowledge managers need to move into community facilitation roles because the traditional responsibilities of uploading documents to repositories will no longer exist. The only structure that's likely to make sense, is self selected structure.
I'm keen to learn how other social media/ business consultants are answering the structured KM question in their organisations. Do you have an experience to share? Please drop in a few lines in the comments section and tell us your story. If you're keen to tell me face to face, I'm at the Learning Solutions Conference all of this week and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is there a balance I'm missing? Let me know - I'm all ears!


Nimmy said...

Good post, Sumeet. I completely agree with your conclusions with re. to the importance of multiple channels, personal knowledge management, smart filters and the 'emergence' of knowledge. The video was useful too.

I've attempted to design and implement an internal app which works on some of these principles. Happy to say that some people were quick to appreciate the idea. But we have a long way to go in terms of investing more resources and energy in building it for large-scale usage. :-)

Courtney Hunt said...

There's some great advice in here. I especially love the idea of reframing "information overload" as "filter failure." A complement to the idea of being okay with "missing stuff" is learning to skim. We should learn to do a cursory review to increase our breadth of understanding and return to specific items to gain depth of knowledge. We shouldn't try to treat all information equally.

Courtney Hunt
Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

Mark said...

Fantastic post. This take so hits the nail on the head that I needed to reemphasize it "A huge part of the 'information overload complaint' also has to do with the gluttony and greed to be 'on top of everything'."

As an info-glutton, I've always felt like I was battling some ghostly nemesis to find the most, the best information on any given topic so I could write an informed news article. Glad to know that knowledge obesity isn't just something we suffer from in the states.

I think what I'm learning, thanks to the reminder in your post, is that it's OK to miss something every once in awhile.

One other thing that really struck me was the the filter-failure concept noted by you and Clay Shirky. I tend to agree that's a key ingredient to info overload, but I wanted to offer up another idea. That info overload isn't even the problem as much as personal attention overload by gluttonous consumers of knowledge. We're bloated. We're distracted. Our individual and collective attention spans are frayed. Information is no more to blame for that than an automobile is to a traffic jam.

We drive...whether that's a car or our choice to consume or ignore a piece of content.

I'm putting the finishing touches on this concept in a white paper "A Framework for Reducing 
Attention Overload in the Enterprise." I'll shoot you a note when it gets released into the wild. In the meantime, here's a post that tee's up the subject matter.
Again, great post. Keep it coming!

Sumeet Moghe said...

Thanks everyone for the kind comments. And Mark, I'll look forward to the white paper,

Joseph said...

I like the idea of how knowledge management is linked to social media. It only shows how social media influences the interests of the people.

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John said...

Just think about how social media changes the way we deal with other people. It can be in a positive or negative way. The thing is, it continues to evolve and we need to adapt with the changes.

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Social media's audience are as diverse as real-life personalities. Thus, John, it makes sense that our approach can affect people differently, thus the need to convince them.

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As a Long Island Advertising Agency I really appreciate the information!

Bill said...

It is amazing how much a part of our lives social media is, and how much stress it causes people. We not only share ideas, but genuinely worry and stress over what others think of us online. It's amazing how technology and personalities evolve.

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I think knowledge alone will not deliver success. It should be combined with skills and good attitude. If these 3 will combine, sure success will be at hand.

George Murphy said...

Funny, seems like everyone these days is a "social media (maven/guru/expert)".

Grassroots marketing at it's best, or complete bs- usually there's a fine line.

Great post!
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