Systems and humanity …

I was being shown a really impressive KM site yesterday on our intranet that one of our professional communities has set up with a view to rolling it out as a template for other professional communities across the business. They’d really given it a huge amount of thought and put a lot of effort into it. The problem is no one was using it and they wanted advice on how to increase adoption. I just had this niggling feeling which I couldn’t articulate very well at first around the fact that the site seemed to lack ‘humanity’.

My inability to articulate exactly what I meant by ‘humanity’ made me feel a bit stupid as the professional community director, who was showing me the site, is a really switched-on, business-focused, value-driven, hat-full-of-MBAs, high-flier kind of guy who, no doubt, I’ll end up working for one day! However, I persisted.

The problem is, you can tell people they are part of a business community (based on skills, experience, projects etc.) and provide excellent tools to support them in their community activities, but unless they feel they belong in some way, they won’t participate. For me, community is fundamentally about a sense of belonging. That sense can be very strong in close-nit communities (families; neighbourhoods etc.) or more subtle (Facebook groups; Yahoo groups etc.) but it has to be there as the invisible force that holds it together.

I eventually managed to explain what I felt was missing in a way that made some sense. While you can’t create ‘belonging’ via a system alone, you can ‘humanise’ your systems to help that feeling grow. Use photos rather than just names (photos that the users have chosen themselves); embed snippets of user-generated content onto otherwise ‘dry’ pages (such as Tweets and status updates); recognise most prolific or valued contributors in each area … but, the main thing for me, is to ensure that the people who create stuff, or contribute stuff, are linked to what they create and are properly recognised by their peers for their contributions. And, that every community member can see the entirety of both there own contributions and those of others (a kind of Friendfeed) … in other words, there own personal brand.

Social media and knowledge management

A tweet from Steve Ellwood pointing out an article about IBM and the relationship between social media and KM on KnowledgeBoard reminded me of a paper I wrote on the subject in March last year. I re-read it and have included some extracts below …

It is possible to divide knowledge management practice into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ activities. Formal activities are often the tangible deliverables associated with an articulated knowledge management strategy, and might include such things as evaluation of business processes to ensure that knowledge is injected into those processes at the decision points along it.

Informal activities are associated with the more intangible enablers of knowledge sharing, typically associated with culture and behaviour and, being hard to define and deliver, often appear as ‘platitudes’ in a knowledge management strategy with no clear actions and no obvious deliverables. A further complication associated with these more informal activities is that they are not obviously ‘owned’ within the business and, being enterprise wide, are normally beyond the scope of an individual area of strategic focus.

Social media tools have the capacity to address these intangible enablers without the need for formal organisational ‘ownership’ by allowing ‘community’ ownership of information, networks and channels.

Participation by users in a social media-rich environment both engender, and rely upon, environmental factors such as:

  • communication through conversation rather than monologue
  • participation at an individual level, not an organisational level
  • a flow of information which is predominantly ‘pull’ not ‘push’
  • distributed rather than central ownership and control
  • correct balance between managerial trust and personal responsibility.

The converse of these environmental factors has traditionally been a significant barrier to the facilitation of effective knowledge management. The fact that social media tools can break them down is key to their contribution to the knowledge management challenge.

A key barrier to the successful implementation of enterprise knowledge sharing and management has been a mix of ‘intangible’ factors which could be categorised under the headings of culture and behaviours. The enormity of the perceived task in transforming these factors favourably and the lack of enterprise-wide ownership of that task has paralysed knowledge management practitioners for many years.

The advent of social media tools and their ability to facilitate a seismic cultural shift in the relationship between individuals within an organisation, and with the organisation itself, is a huge opportunity to dismantle those barriers and move a significant step towards enterprise knowledge sharing and management.

The paper also included the diagram I published in this post.

I agree entirely with Luis Suarez that the focus of KM has been far too much on tools and process, but don’t think social media is the ‘death’ of KM … rather, it is the missing link that can address some of the tricky ‘intangibles’ to which KM has traditionally paid lip-service while busily delivering new KM tools and re-engineering processes.

BTpedia … enterprise-wide wiki

BTpedia is our enterprise-wide corporate wiki tool into which anyone can publish information or edit information published by others. The idea is that, by simplifying and democratising the publication process, we will unlock a wealth of informal information that is currently excluded from the highly structured and more formal content hosted in our web content management system. Each article also has a discussion tab associated with it which flushes out like-minded people and facilitates connections between them and ultimately communities. You can’t post anonymously into it and so far there has been no sign of any kind of misuse or abuse …

BTpedia homepage Oct 07