When Did Everyone Get So Nice?
Social Networks Deliver on the KM Promise

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Enterprise Social Networking & Collaboration [July/August 2009]
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"I love you ... You love me ... We’re best friends like friends should be..."

The Barney theme song haunted me for years. My kids—like most kids—were Barney robots, and parked in front of the tube every morning to see the purple dinosaur frolic meaningfully in his carefully diverse neighborhood. And every morning, at the 28:30 minute mark, my two kids would coming running into the kitchen screaming, "Mommy! Daddy! The song! The song!" And we would dutifully drop whatever we were doing and come to the TV to sing along with them: "I love you ... You love me ... We’re best friends like friends should be ..."

They’ve since moved on to vastly more cynical entertainment. South Park. Family Guy. American Idol. I thought that the era of warm and fuzzy "everybody contributes in the happiest of worlds" was behind me. Then social networking came along. And—while I wasn’t watching—everybody got all nice to each other and stuff.

It seemed to happen overnight, but I’m sure it didn’t.

The appearance of public-style social networking in a business context has flummoxed many of the world’s best companies, but it is also freeing many of them to achieve something they hadn’t quite reached: a state of pure knowledge management.

The Rise of the Social
"The rise of social networks in business allows us to redefine what we really MEAN by the term information worker." That’s a big statement. But it resonates with me, mainly because it comes from Cheryl McKinnon, director of Enterprise 2.0 at Open Text. I have known Cheryl for a few years, and I know her to be thoughtful, articulate and correct all the time. So I paid attention when we talked about this crazy "social networking" thing.

"There’s a struggle over what the word ‘social’ really means," she started. "To a conservative management, the word ‘social’ sounds like fun and games ... playing Scrabble on Facebook ... stuff like that," she said.

"But social just means people. Think of how we learned the terminology—‘society,’ ‘social institutions,’ ‘social studies.’ Social networking in business simply means a people-centric approach to the way we interact with content and technology. It’s not about games and leisure; it’s about bringing the human perspective back into our work world."

I told Cheryl that I was one of those skeptics, too. At first. Anyone who has read one of these KMWorld White Papers will remember that I originally thought that all those Facey-spacys and Tweety-twitters were WAY too much fun to ever be useful as business tools. Then, slowly (I’m slow), I began to realize that any channel that fosters communication between individuals and among groups is a good thing, and represents one of the hallmarks of knowledge management. Every good KM conversation starts with "Let me tell you what I know about ..." (In fact, there is an urban legend that "wiki" is an acronym for "What I Know Is ..." Great story; unfortunately it’s untrue.)

"There HAS been a resurgence of the principles and buzzwords surrounding knowledge management," agreed Cheryl. "But this time, it’s a grassroots, bottom-up approach." This is opposed, she explained later, to the heavier corporate initiatives of the late ‘90s that made knowledge management a top-down management effort, imposing taxonomies and forcing structure onto content. "Now, it’s more about people struggling to achieve their own productivity gains by reaching out to the right people, bookmarking the right content and allowing it to bubble up throughout the organization," said Cheryl.

So I wanted to circle back and start this thing from a place I could understand. "How much does it cost?" I asked. Unlike former content and document management deployments that required investment in software and professional services, it seemed to me that social networking can be done relatively on the cheap. Right? 

"Before you can determine what the investment will be to deploy social networking—or whatever term you want to use—you need to determine what your ultimate goal is," Cheryl began. "Is it better engagement with customers? With partners? Or is it to create better connection among your own information workers, inside the firewall, for business purposes?"

She continued: "If you are trying to link geographically dispersed offices throughout many time zones, and some of the employees are mobile, and some of them work out of home offices, I would recommend making an investment in some type of infrastructure. The goal is to make sure you have quick, lightweight Web or mobile tools to allow your people to communicate and collaborate."

Sounds reasonable. So you go out and buy a huge global networking product, and teach all of your people how to log on and set their security levels and create collaboration whiteboards, and ...

"No! no, no," she laughed. "This is actually exactly where the thinking has changed recently. You don’t need to have every single person in the organization connected to a heavy-duty document and records management system. A front-line customer service agent, an airline pilot ... they do NOT need the full-blown system attached to them at all times. But they DO need to participate, and contribute information.

"The rise of social networks in business allows us to redefine what we mean by information worker." (I know I’m repeating her statement, but it’s deliberate. This is important.) "We are now able to use lighter-weight Web and mobile tools to reach a broader audience inside the employee ecosystem. What’s coming into the market now are tools that allow more cost-effective ways to get more people to participate in the information sharing and collaboration process." (And she’s Canadian, so she pronounces it "PRO-cess." Which I love.)

Having the tools to share information is one thing, I suggested. Getting people to share is quite another. "You’re right," she said. "Ten years ago, if there was information in my head, people had to come to me to get it. That was my power. But that was just information. Now, information is easy to find. But true analysis, mentorship, the synthesis of knowledge instead of information is more and more difficult to find. The paradigm has gone on its head. You are more valuable as an information worker because people know what your expertise is, and because you share it actively."

Cheryl calls it, with a laugh, Knowledge in the Age of Narcissism. "Every blogger I know is obsessed with their hit-rate. This is the typical blogger mentality: How many people read my blog today? How did they find it? Who’s linking to me? The more hits they get on their content, the more justified they feel in their opinion." Narcissism indeed. Been there, done that.

"Now apply that blogger mentality to traditional content management systems. Why don’t people take that same kind of pride and put their skin in the game to create their work content? Even with traditional content management, there are audit trails that follow who authored what, when they posted it, when they updated it, etc. If I could go to those metrics and see that 100 people downloaded the PowerPoint I created on topic A, I am extremely incented to do more on that topic. And if only two people downloaded the PowerPoint I did on topic B, I won’t feel as motivated to focus on that subject. As an information worker, it helps me decide how to better use my time and my limited resources. If I can raise my profile in the eyes of 100 colleagues, versus two, doesn’t that raise my value as a contributor?" She asked that rhetorically. The obvious answer is yes. But somehow it works better in the blogosphere than the docu-sphere. I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe in the next white paper.

Governance in the Blog Age
The other thing you need to know about Cheryl McKinnon is that she is very plugged into the records management world. So I role-played with her to uncover some of the risk factors she has identified regarding social networks. I expected a "New Rules" session that would describe an entirely new species of dos and don’ts that are invading the business atmosphere.

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