Is Social Software Necessary & Sufficient For KM?

The recent debate on whether social software would solve traditional problems that KM faces got me thinking on whether social software is necessary and sufficient for effective KM?

Nic Carr wrote : “McAfee sounds a note of caution along these lines. He notes the possibility that “busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding,” and points to the fact that “most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform – they just use it.” There’s the rub. Managers, professionals and other employees don’t have much spare time, and the ones who have the most valuable business knowledge have the least spare time of all. (They’re the ones already inundated with emails, instant messages, phone calls, and meeting requests.) Will they turn into avid bloggers and taggers and wiki-writers? It’s not impossible, but it’s a long way from a sure bet.”

Why are we doing tool talk again? I guess it is time to step back and understand the forces at play. If managers and other employees don’t have much spare time there should not be any spikes in participation when open and more straightforward tools are introduced. This is not the case. Once you replace complex KM systems with simpler tools that inherently support conversations there is a spike in participation. ( The same busy employees somehow FIND time). Here is a case that reflects this behaviour: (Comment by Graham Hill on Ross’s blog.)

“PwC had invested tens of millions in developing a “worldwide body of knowledge” in the form of standards, templates, project documents, etc. Trouble is, it was out of date when it was released, hardly anybody posted anything to it and it got progressively more out of date. Think of it as a knowledge land-fill.
At about the same time, an enterprising consultant called Jon Z. Bentley set up an internal Lotus Notes group called “The Kraken” to share information on-demand. Any of the 45,000 consultants worldwide could sign-up. Members would post a question about anything to the Kraken which would be copied to all members. Members could ignore it, or read it and if they had anything to say, post a response back. Common rules of etiquette were that all members were to receive the response. The Kraken very quickly grew to over a thousand consultants and discussed, debated and shared information about a wide range of consultancy (and some not so consultancy) topics. If you wanted the latest on anything, you would post a note to the Kraken and see what turned up. Very often, it was just what you were looking for, (and generally was not available in the KM database).
In almost complete contrast to PwC’s official KM activities, the Kraken delivered up-to-date knowledge to those who wanted it in on-demand. And it cost practicaly nothing as the consultants did all the work for each other.
When I left PwC to go independent, the Kraken was one of the communitarian aspects of PwC that I missed most. “

How do you explain this spike? Open,flatter systems that are more responsive and dynamic. This probably helped people get things done( manage exceptions to the process??) .

This brings us to an interesting question: Is Social Software necessary and sufficient for effective knowledge sharing to happen?

IMHO, No. I believe there are two classes of problems to be addressed to improve knowledge sharing:

1.Unduly complex systems to share knowledge need to be phased out

2.Employee engagement at work needs more attention.

Social software addresses problem 1 very well. It dramatically reduces the barriers to contribution and sharing IF employees choose to share. And to attack the “if employees choose to share” challenge we need to work on improving employee motivation and commitment at work. If employees are engaged in what they are doing and there is value alignment – knowledge sharing will work.

Here is a one of my old posts that spoke about this in detail:

“”Work done by Nick Bontis and Jac Fitz-enz addresses how aligning good HR/OD policies with KM impacts business performance.Quoting some interesting findings from the paper:”employee sentiment, as defined by satisfaction,motivation and commitment, has far-reaching positive impacts on intellectual capital management, knowledge management and ultimately business performance.””Employee commitment has a positive influence on knowledge generation (+ 0.491). Knowledge integration is preceded by process execution (+ 0.394) and is followed by knowledge sharing (+ 0.262). Finally, knowledge sharing will occur, if value alignment (+ 0.285) is evident, and this can lead to a reduction of human capital depletion.”Managing employee sentiment seems to be at the heart of a successful KM initiative.Perhaps this is the reason why organizations without a “formal” KM program still manage to flourish.(??)All this makes me think if we are asking the right questions when we begin a KM program.It seems a major part of change management that needs to be handled during such initiatives should be geared towards managing employee sentiment – I would even look at a starting KM initiative as an opportunity to understand employee sentiment and see how the KM initiative by itself can positively influence it. I feel when loose knit structures like communties become central and when “responsible autonomy” ( From ” The New Organisation” – Economist) becomes the order of the day we would understand this better.” “

So, if I as an individual believe in my organization’s vision atleast as much as the executives who wrote that vision, I would somehow FIND time to help someone who called me from some other office across the globe. I would CHOOSE to actively engage with the other person in helping him out – not because I will get a coffee mug but because I want to learn and become better at what I am doing and ALSO I see what the senior management sees – Where should WE as a company be in 10 years? [ Think Value Alignment ] . There is this “purpose beyond self” thing here.In organizations where knowledge sharing is happening all the while the key could be value alignment. When employees share what they know voluntarily, they are acting in the best interests of the organization and there is implicit value alignment at work.

I would attribute the spikes in the PwC case to :

1. Simple social tools brought in more participation from people who would have otherwise not contributed. I believe we would see this trend with any social software rollout.

2.There were people with burning issues/questions and there were engaged employees who were willing to FIND time and answer them. (Supply-Demand)

However, if we try to put the cart before the horse and deploy blogs and wikis and expect magic to happen it will not. If there is employee engagement and committment – knowledge sharing will happen irrespective of the tools you provide them. To what degree is still an open question. Social software dramatically reduces the barriers to contribution and sharing and hence accelerates knowldge sharing IF AND ONLY IF you have a critical mass of engaged employees. It is ok if this group is small. And Im sure most organizations that have been in business for a while would have a handful of employees who would adopt this given the low entry barriers.

Early adopters tend to be people who have one or more of the following traits :

1. They have a burning issue to solve and existing systems are too cumbersome and the new system is really easy to use ( And as a side effect of my action there is a contribution to a larger community).

2. They are simply tech savvy and have no interest beyond experimenting with the new tool

3.They are engaged employees who are always looking at better ways of doing things. The tend to be change catalysts in organizations spreading the word about these tools. Their numbers could be small. But my gut feel is that engaged employees have a stronger network within and outside the organization.

Engaged employees would jump onto social software that makes life easier. From a sustainability perspective we need to focus on HR/OD interventions to improve employee engagement at work. (I believe that KM should NOT be incentivized. By doing so we send out an implicit message that this is ANOTHER thing that you NEED to do). If you have a demotivated and disengaged workforce NO matter you give them the moon or the mars you will endup with empty portals,wikis and blogs.

This is important because once you have lowered the barriers for people to connect and share using social software- we need to figure out if the peers would enagage in problem solving actively.

With social software we would see an increase in participation definitely because of the ease of use. However, this does not necessarliy mean we have nailed KM woes. Focus on employee engagement – this together with the simplicity of social software would catalyze knowledge sharing in organizations. Otherwise, we still stand the risk of social software failing to meet expectations.

Social Software is necessary but NOT sufficient to solve KM problems.

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3 thoughts on “Is Social Software Necessary & Sufficient For KM?

  1. lol i spent 30mins typing loads of things here and the network went down! nice post dinesh i’m doing research in similar areas it would be nice if we can keep in touch 🙂

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