Dueling philosophies: social media vs. knowledge management

Venkat Rao of Xerox recently introduced an important argument about the underlying differences between social media and knowledge management approaches inside the Enterprise. Here’s the way I described them at delicious. Both are worth a look, a read, and some thought.

Ray Sims is collecting definitions of knowledge management

Combine two slippery but important words and it’s little wonder that you can find such a proliferation of definitions. For some reason, this reminds me of Danny Kaye’s Choreography number from White Christmas.

43 knowledge management definitions – and counting

Before I really get going on my day, here is an entertaining (or sobering) list of 43 knowledge management definitions – and counting from Ray Sims, who is heading back into the world of being an official KM’er as I head out to do product management.  It might have been funnier had he stopped at 37.

For many years I’ve been saying that I didn’t like the term “knowledge management” as (a) it was fundamentally an oxymoron, (b) there was no consensus within the industry as to what the term meant, and (c) in many companies the term carries negative connotations due to a perceived lack of value from earlier so-called knowledge management efforts and/or belief that knowledge management was a fad that we have moved on past or has been absorbed into other disciplines.

I like a number of these and have used variations of them in the past.  As someone on the Act-KM mailing list noted, there are easily as many definitions of knowledge.  Ray or another enterprising individual might want to stack these definitions into buckets about how “knowledge” is perceived by the people using the definition.  Process-centric definitions would look at knowledge-as-verb.  Storage-centric definitions might think of knowledge as a thing to be controlled.  People-connection definitions might think of knowledge as appearing via interaction. etc.  Ray has already created a couple tag clouds of the definitions.

The problem of emergence

Andrew McAfee’s Sloan Management article defining Enterprise 2.0 is available for download, so I took the opportunity to reread it, after a recent chat over coffee with Jordan Frank of Traction Software.

Enterprise 2.0 is Now Free

The article, at least.  MIT Sloan Management Review, with support from IBM, is making a set of ‘classic’ (thanks!) articles freely available to all comers. So the full text of my original SMR article “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration” can be downloaded here.

I don’t know if this is a temporary or permanent arrangement, so I’d suggest acting quickly.

One of McAfee’s central arguments is on the importance of emergence in successful Enterprise 2.0 initiatives. Here’s the way he puts it:

Second, the technologists of Enterprise 2.0 are trying hard not to impose on users any preconceived notions about how work should proceed or how output should be categorized or structured. Instead, they’re building tools that let these aspects of knowledge work emerge.

This is a profound shift. Most current platforms, such as knowledge management systems, information portals, intranets and workflow applications, are highly structured from the start, and users have little opportunity to influence this structure. Wiki inventor Cunningham highlights an important shortcoming of this approach: “For questions like ‘What’s going on in the project?’ we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what’s not important about what’s going on in the project. What’s important about the project is the stuff you don’t anticipate.” [p.25]

In an accounting or ERP system, the system’s designers specify all aspects of workflow, database design, and information structure in advance. Users are expected to select from among pre-defined choices and enter only such data as the designers have provided for. In designing a system for emergence, the designers leave a number of these decisions open; waiting for users to fill in the blanks. So, for example, instead of locking down a taxonomy for categorizing documents, the designers might provide a tagging system to allow a folksonomy to emerge from the idiosyncratic choices of each user.

The attraction of emergence is twofold. One is the realization that conventionally structured approaches have generally failed when tackling knowledge intensive problems. Knowledge work and knowledge workers don’t mesh well with the structuring techniques appropriate to industrial work.

The second is the perceived success of emergent approaches behind current Web 2.0 success stories on the Internet. It’s easy to see the power of emergence in such examples as flickr, facebook, and technorati.

Transplanting those experiences inside the boundaries of the organization is no simple task. What works at the scale of the public internet may not generate sufficient momentum within the confines of a single organization. Moreover, Internet success stories ignore or gloss over the failures and also-rans. Failure in the market is tolerated in ways that don’t translate well inside organizations. 

You want the energy and creative outcomes that can come from a successful emergent approach, but you can’t simply rely on unaided market forces to fuel the process. “Unaided” is the key notion. Emergent successes in the market benefit from scale and viral strategies, but they don’t happen by accident. For starters, there is a marketing strategy and plan that exists in parallel with a technology implementation plan.

Enterprise 2.0 efforts within organizations also need a marketing plan to accompany their implementation plans. Like any marketing plan, this plan must identify and characterize its target market of potential users. In particular, the plan needs to identify those potential users who are most likely to benefit from the new capabilities and whose successful use of the technology will be interpreted as an endorsement to be emulated.

Is a marketing plan, by itself, sufficient to allow the other aspects of an Enterprise 2.0 implementation to emerge from use? Appropriate scaffolding and careful seeding of content will prove more useful. A complete taxonomy, for example, may overwhelm a small set of potential early adopters. On the other hand, an empty tagging system will prove too much of a blank slate for users more accustomed to the structures of conventional systems. Providing a sample of suggested tags or categories coupled with some live content can point users in the right direction.

Supporters and early adopters will also benefit from coaching and mentoring on how to use selected technologies to accomplish their goals. This coaching would focus on working out strategies for how to use the technology to accomplish specific business and organizational goals. This requires a different kind of engagement between the implementation team and the target user group. In particular, it entails introducing the user population to key design questions and issues that would typically have been dealt with by the implementation team.

In some respects, “emergence” is a fancy organizational development word for “messy.” The more our systems must deal with the complexities of the real world, the messier they must be to accommodate that messiness. Large scale organizations in general, and IT organizations in particular are not generally comfortable with messiness. Calling it emergence helps. But the fundamental need is to acknowledge that it is more useful to learn as we go and build our systems accordingly, than it is to force fit these systems into structures that cannot contain them.



Pushing for simpler knowledge management

Dave Snowden’s blog Cognitive Edge has rapidly become one of my top sources for insight into the subtleties of managing knowledge in the organization. Earlier this summer, he packaged up some of his insights and advice on the connections between learning and knowledge that reflect his bias that “narrative material, anecdotes, pictures, fragments of stories is more valuable than structured documents and closer to the way we naturally share and create knowledge and learning.” [Learning lessons or lessons learnt? ]

For example, here is one of his action recommendations:

Learning lessons or lessons learnt?

  • Make capture continuous and a part of the job, not a post job after action review. The more capturing stories is part of the way we do things around here, the better it is. The other advantage is that you can then see trends emerging in the way that people index the story material which allows early intervention. This sort of switch is key to moving from a retrospective and codified set of documents, to a dynamic narrative based learning ecology.

We need to be learning lessons continuously, not documenting lessons learnt.

If many earlier approaches to knowledge management were technologically over-engineered, Snowden is essentially arguing for the power of simplicity.

More on knowledge management as learning support

Greg Lloyd at Traction Software also picks up on the same JP Rangaswami post that I did yesterday. He offers several additional examples of the value of making knowledge work visible as a simple tool for supporting on the job learning. Here’s one of his many useful insights. Go read the rest.

Learn by watching – Then do

Learn by watching – Then do
Blog446:  August 14, 2007 7:22:00 PM EST, Posted by Greg Lloyd

Each project’s serial file was nothing fancy. Usually it was a few file drawers with incoming and outgoing correspondence, briefing slides, q&a memos, contract actions and meeting notes, all top bound in chronological order – full contracts, formal specs and other deliverables were filed separately. In pre-email days, the project serial file was a pretty accurate snapshot of our interactions with the outside world interleaved with internal notes and memos. We all kept our own date stamped lab notebooks for private jottings.
A day or so of close reading and the chance to ask a few pointed questions to the original project engineer (“You said WHAT to Captain K??”) usually got us up to speed on the pulse of each project – not just the formal status and deliverables. We learned to use the project file to refresh our memory on details before and important meeting or decision – or just to reflect and review the bidding. We learned to use each other’s project files to keep track of dependencies and learn how to handle problems. …
I know that an electronic form of serial file can replace the old paper trail, since that’s what I use every day. The TeamPage blog + wiki tool lets everyone look over my shoulder – and vice versa – as we tear off in different directions and do our work as individuals or teams.
I rarely need to read any one project in real time, but I know that I can come up to speed quickly, search across all projects, and dive in if I need to. If someone asks for help or sees an opportunity, they can post it if it’s not urgent; add a tag to anything that needs quick action; or IM a permalink if they need me to look at something now. What I can do, all of Traction’s employees can do – only the “Board of Directors” project is private. Board pages or posts – including monthly financials – are cross-tagged to make them visible to all hands when the dust settles.
There are days when I wonder whether one of the fundamental impediments to the take up of blogging and wikis within organizations is, in fact, their utter simplicity.

Knowledge management = creating environments for learning

One of the recent additions to my feed subscriptions is Confused of Calcutta by JP Rangaswami. Recently, he’s been thinking about Facebook and its potential role in Enterprise settings. Today’s installment has an interesting riff on the nature of knowledge management. It dovetails nicely with some of the things I’ve had to say about visibility and knowledge work.

Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 5: Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is not really about the content, it is about creating an environment where learning takes place. Maybe we spend too much time trying to create an environment where teaching takes place, rather than focus on the learning.

Since people want to learn by watching others, what we need to do is to improve the toolsets and the environment that allows people to watch others. It could be as simple as: What does my boss do? Whom does she talk to? What are her surfing habits like? Whom does she treat as high priority in terms of communications received? What applications does she use? Which ones does she not use? When she has a particular Ghost to deal with, which particular Ghostbuster does she call?

Knowledge management: the newest battle between the neats and the scruffies

“There are two groups of people, those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t.” –Robert Benchley

Years ago, when I was doing work in the field of AI, I came across one of those binary splits that continues to be useful for my thinking; the split between “neats” and “scruffies.” In the field of AI, the split differentiated between those favoring highly structured, logically precise approaches and those preferred something more along the lines of “whatever works.” Wikipedia offers a nice summary of the debate from that field.

Back in my school days, I think I was a neat (philosophically, not in terms of my room or study skills). When I first delve into new areas I am drawn to those who argue the neat case. As I get older and, I hope, more experienced, however, I find myself increasingly scruffy.

Much of the recent debate in the narrow field of knowledge management can be interpreted as one more recapitulation of the neats vs. scruffies argument. The technologies of blogs, wikis, and social media that collectively comprise the emerging notion of Enterprise 2.0 celebrate scruffiness as the essence of success in knowledge-intensive enterprises. The claim, backed by appropriately messy and sketchy anecdotal evidence, is that a loose set of simple technologies made available to the knowledge workers of an organization can provide an environment in which the organization and its knowledge workers can make more effective use of their collective and individual knowledge capital. Grass roots efforts will yield value where large-scale, centralized, knowledge management initiatives have failed.

Several implications flow from adopting a scruffy point of view. For one, “management” becomes a suspect term. If you can manage at all, you must do so at another level of abstraction. You aren’t managing knowledge; instead you are trying to manage the conditions under which knowledge work takes place and within which valuable knowledge might be created or put to use. At that point, it becomes more productive to think in terms of leadership rather than management; particularly if you subscribe to Colin Powell’s characterization of a leader as someone you’ll follow to discover where they’re going.

Second, you will need to deal with the problems that the neats have created in previous runs at knowledge management without alienating them at the same time. In most large organizations, knowledge management has been characterized as a technology problem or as a analog to financial management; placing it squarely within the purview of the organization’s neatest neats. This is a recipe for disappointment, if not outright failure.

It might possibly be an open question whether knowledge management can be eventually reduced to something as structured as accounting or library science. But it is a lousy place to start. Most organizations aren’t yet mature or sophisticated enough about knowledge work issues and questions to be obsessing about taxonomies or measurement and reward systems for knowledge work. But those are activities that are neat and specifiable and only superficially relevant. They lead to complex efforts to get to the right answer when we would be better served by simpler efforts to make things better.


Andrew Hinton on Architectures for Conversation

Courtesy of David Weinberger, here is an excellent presentation on information architecture. It is also a good lesson in effective communication/presentation techniques.

What is information architecture? The slide show.

The always enjoyable Andrew Hinton has an insightful, witty, surprising set of slides ‘n’ text that tries to explain not only what Information Architecture is, but why it’s been so hard to explain. Along the way he has things to say about communities vs. communities of practice, how to attract flies, and why Wikipedia is more like an AK-47 than like an M-16. Great stuff, entertainingly and elegantly communicated. [Tags: ]

Eric Mack webinar on using MindManager as a Knowledge Management Tool

I won’t be able to attend this since I wll be on Spring Break with the family, but I intend to watch it after the fact. Eric’s weblog is also well worth your time if you’re interested in knowledge work and personal productivity.

Sign up for my “How I use MindManager” webinar

MindJet has asked me to present a webinar on how I use MindManager to get things done. I agreed, and on Wednesday, March 28, 2007 at 10:00 AM (PST) I will present a free webinar, entitled MindManager as a Knowledge Management Tool: How I use MindManager and Lotus Notes to get things done. That’s the fancy title. My working title is “Mind Mapping in the Digital Sandbox.” (See description below)   

I’ve provided a link to sign up for the webinar at the end of this post.

MindManager as a Knowledge Management Tool:
How I use MindManager and Lotus Notes to get things done.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007
10:00 am Pacific Daylight Time

Description: Consultant and eProductivity Specialist, Eric Mack, will give us a tour of his world and how he works and how he uses Mind Manager as a visual thinking and planning tool. He will discuss how he uses Mind Manager as a visual dashboard and planning tool for project and action management. He will also share how he uses Mind Manager on a daily basis as a support tool for getting things done with the GTD methodology and how he uses Mind Manager as a research support tool for Knowledge Management. Finally, he will show us how he uses MindManager to brainstorm and track projects and actions stored in Lotus Notes databases. In addition to using Mind Maps at work, Eric uses them when home-schooling his children and when coaching robotics teams. We’ve asked him to share a little bit about how he teaches the kids to use Mind Maps to organize their thinking and strategy when planning for a paper or a competition. At the conclusion of the webinar, Eric will be available to answer your questions.

Click to Enroll

Originally posted on Eric Mack Online

Can Enterprise 2.0 evolve from Enterprise1.0?

(cross posted at FastForward)

Dave Snowden, formerly of IBM, now on his own at Cognitive Edge has been thinking about the relationship between organizations, knowledge, and technology for a long time. In one of several recent posts, “If the world is flat, seek out the bumpy bits ,” he reflects on the challenges of meshing the bottoms up processes that characterize successful social technologies with the command and control realities of most organizations. As he puts it better than I can:

Now I am reasonably confident that anyone who knows anything about knowledge management or for that matter anyone who has lived through the failed experiments of the last decade, will reject the AIMS analysis and conclusion. However, much as I agree with Euan, I think we need to understand that a lot of people actually think the management and monitoring is the way to create a system that will get people working together. I know this is a depressing thought, but I think the AIMS managers quoted are genuine in believing that their survey shows both a causal linkage and a solution. Evil is often done for the best of all possible intent! It’s an example of the sort of blindness to the obvious that characterises an old model of the world, seeking to accommodate new realities. They just don’t understand bottom up systems, or the anarchic and messy connections that are achieved through social computing.

Now this comes back to the issue of what information we need to act, or to make decisions. The classic approach is to use phrases like :the right information in the right place at the right time which contains the flawed assumption that one can know what is the right information or the right time other than with the benefits of hindsight.  [If the world is flat, seek out the bumpy bits ]

The AIMS analysis Snowden refers to is a recent Accenture study making the rounds about the difficulties managers claim in finding information within their organizations. Accenture is ready and willing to help organizations solve this problem and, from within their worldview, they quite seriously believe that there is a straightforward (and likely expensive) technological solution. Like Snowden, I’m more skeptical.

The notions of Enterprise 2.0 are seductive. The question is can you get to Enterprise 2.0 from Enterprise 1.0?