Investing in knowledge sharing – starting on the weblog learning curve

Very helpful discussions lately on weblogs in knowledge management contexts. Matt Mowers starts by taking me to task with the observation that:

I don’t think that weblogs do anything and I’m increasingly of the opinion that the benefits that we are seeing at the moment are simply those of tapping into a particular type of personality, i.e. the enthusiastic early adopters who will do something with anything you throw at them.

So far I’m not seeing the kind of evidence that weblogging (in whatever form you name it) offers a particularly unique solution to the KM problem generally. Those solutions are going to have to come from us, in how we apply what is, after all, just another technology. Otherwise I predict in 12-18 months time, articles about “how weblogging has failed us.”

In my opinion, we do have an opportunity to use the current wave of popularity for weblogging to get people to experiment with this new medium, try to change some working assumptions and the practices that go with them and move things on a little. [Curiouser and curiouser]

Stephen Downes, whose initial post started this round of discussion, continues by observing that:

I’ve been weblogging for the last five years. I’ve long since solved the input problem, the one Jim McGee talks about. But using this information is still a pain, despite a fair bit of thought and work around the problem of information retrieval from weblogs (what do you think my [Research] button is? Most weblog software hasn’t even addressed the problem, much less solved it). [OL Daily]

So Downes has already discovered what I’ve only started to suspect after a little over 18 months of weblogging. We’re still in the early, early stages of understanding how to help knowledge workers be more effective at doing knowledge work.

This is the essential perspective that I believe has been largely missing before the advent of the current round of tools, despite their limitations.

I’ve had a continuing conflicted opinion about the role of technology in making knowledge work more effective. I’m not as anti-technology as my friend and former colleague and co-author, Larry Prusak. There are times when he can sound like a total luddite and he’s certainly a proponent of the social dimensions of knowledge management.

Many of the challenges of knowledge management are either created or aggravated by the information and technology that comprise so much of our organizational context. As technologies like email let us operate organizations of much greater scale and scope, they also create a demand for knowledge sharing across timezones and oceans that we haven’t had to address before. And, as I’ve argued before, these technologies have also complicated our information and knowledge lives by making our work less visible. To the extent that technology has helped create our knowledge management problems, it also needs to be enlisted in solving those problems.

Weblogs by themselves don’t do anything more than any other tool. Someone has to pick up the tool and put it to use. What is it about this particular category of tool that has persuaded someone like Stephen Downes to maintain and evolve a weblog over the past five years? All innovations have early adopters. Successful innovations build on the lessons learned from those early adopters and evolve the innovation in ways to make it more suited to the needs of those who follow on the adoption curve.

I heard a story the other day about a computer science class that assumed that mainframe computer systems were developed by scaling up from the “first” computers, which were the PCs developed in the late 70s and early 80s. I’m old enough to know that it worked the other way and to remember the rhetoric around PCs as the “great equalizer” that was going to shift power from faceless corporate data centers into the hands of the individual. Apple’s marketing is still built around that myth.

Organizations took that general purpose, universal tool and shaped it toward their own specific needs. It’s my contention that those needs were rooted in industrial models of organization and information processing and largely ignored those aspects that make knowledge work different.

Weblogs are one technology component of an important shift in perspective from the organization to the individual knowledge worker. For production work and for much routine information work this shift is irrelevant. It is the increasing percentage of of knowledge work relative to the total work of the organization that is changing the discussion.

Paolo Valdemarin has an excellent post today on the potential contribution of weblogs to building social capital inside (and across) organizations.

…Besides using “social capital” to measure countries’ economic power, I believe that the same concept can be applied to any community. Applied to the weblogs community, this concept help explain the huge power that has been unleashed by blogging.

Reading other people’s weblogs creates trust and efficiency, and it’s an excellent base to build businesses and relationships.

This is interesting also for k-logging (or “business journalling”): if a country with a better community is richer, then also a company with a better developed trust and efficiency amoung its workers is going to be better off than others.

So, no, we are not wasting time writing on our weblogs, we’re investing. [Paolo’s Weblog]

Right now, a relative handful of early adopters are playing with and experimenting with this new tool of weblogs. It’s a tool whose strengths are well matched to a changing shift in emphasis toward a greater role for knowledge workers in organizations.

There are always new tools and innovations promising to solve problems. I’ve been disapppointed by many and helped by a few. My intuitions and my experience tell me that weblogs fall in this second category. Those early adopters and leaders such as Stephen are already figuring out how to solve the next round of problems. But those are good problems to have. They are the problems that surface after you’ve decided to take personal responsibility for managing your own knowledge and learning. That may be an unnatural act for many inside organizations who would prefer that the world not change. I’m convinced it is changing and that most of us will have to start learning what Stephen has. It’s not something that you can wait until everything is already figured out. You’ll be better off the sooner you can get started.