The Impact of Social Media on Traditional Knowledge Management

Jonathan Reichental, CIO, City of Palo Alto
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Jonathan Reichental, CIO, City of Palo Alto

The days of the single, authoritative voice may be coming to an end.

Successfully implementing knowledge management, which is broadly defined as the identification, retention, effective use, and retirement of institutional insight, has been an elusive goal for most organizations. Some of the smartest people I have worked with have been frustrated by their efforts, not through lack of trying or ability but by the inherent challenges it presents. Now the emergence and impact of social media and the way it democratizes the creation and use of knowledge in the enterprise is forcing us to rethink our assumptions.

To understand and discuss the challenges of the traditional approaches to knowledge management, I’ve categorized them into two simple buckets: behavioral and technical.

1. Behavioral
In order for a Knowledge Management System (KMS) to have value, employees must enter new insight on a regular basis and they must keep it current. Out-of-date information has limited use beyond being of historic value. Seldom are either of these behaviors adequately incentivized. In fact, by being asked to share their tacit knowledge, many employees believe they are reducing their own value to the organization. In addition, updating the information requires real effort, which is rarely a priority against the core responsibilities of the employee. Even organizations that have dedicated resources for managing knowledge struggle to keep it current and to enforce adherence to their single source of truth.

2. Technical
If you want to find out something about your organization, say, the revenue of the business, it’s often easier to use a popular search engine than to use your own internal knowledge system. Try this yourself.

It’s remarkably difficult to organize information in the right manner, make it searchable, and then present it so the most relevant responses are at the top of the search results. Organizational information is hardly the example of pristine structure. While public search engines use algorithms such as counting the number of web pages that link to other web pages (a good measure of popularity) to function, internal systems have no such equivalent. Unstructured content is the king of the public web, whereas it is the bane of the enterprise.

The situation is compounded when employees are disillusioned by the effectiveness and effort to use the KMS and resort to old habits, like asking colleagues, improvising, or relying on nonofficial sources. The system often fails to be widely adopted— at best it is used by a small proportion of the organization— and no amount of effort is enough to see success scale.

Enter Social Media: The Changemaker
It may be time for you to rethink knowledge management in your organization. Social media, a recent and disruptive phenomenon particularly in the enterprise, has the potential to completely disrupt traditional knowledge management systems.

In the old world order, knowledge was typically created and stored as a point in time. In the future, organizational policy or insight is less likely to be formed by an individual creating a document that goes through an approval process and is ultimately published. No, it will more likely begin with an online conversation and it will be forever evolving as more people contribute and circumstances change.

"In order for a Knowledge Management System (KMS) to have value, employees must enter new insight on a regular basis and they must keep it current"

Social media takes knowledge and makes it highly iterative. It creates content as a social object. That is, content is no longer a point in time, but something that is part of a social interaction, such as a discussion. We’ve all seen how content in a microblogging service can shift meaning as a discussion unfolds.

The shift to the adoption of enterprise social computing, greatly influenced by consumerization, points to an important emergent observation: the future of knowledge management is about managing unstructured content.

Let’s consider the magnitude of this for a moment. Years of effort, best practices, and technologies for supporting organizational content in the form of curated, structured insight may be over. The redo is an enormous challenge, but it may in fact be the best thing that has ever happened to knowledge management.

A Silver Lining
In the long run, social media in the enterprise will likely be a boon for knowledge management. It should mean that many of the benefits we experience in the consumer web space— effective searching, grouping of associated unstructured data sources, and ranking of relevance—will become basic features of enterprise solutions.

It’s also likely we’ll see the increasing overlap between public and private data to enhance the value of the private data. For example: want to know more about a staff member? Internal corporate information will include role, start date, department etc., but we’ll now get additional information pulled in from social networks, such as hobbies, photos or previous employment. Pull up client data and you’ll get the information keyed in by other employees, but you might also get the history and values of the company, competitors, and a list of executives, gleaned from the broader repository of the public web. I’ll leave the conversation about privacy for another day.

It’s likely that social media-driven knowledge management will require much less of the “management” component. Historically we’ve spent far too much time cleaning up the data, validating, and categorizing it. In the future, more of our time and our systems will be used to analyze all the new knowledge that is being created through our social interactions. The crowd will decide what is current and useful.

Of course, formality will not entirely fade away. There will still be a role for rigor. Laws, regulations, policies, and other highly formal content will require it. But it will live alongside and be highly influenced by social computing.

No doubt knowledge management is an enormously complex space and the impact of social media magnifies the challenges. However, the time is right to evaluate your knowledge management strategy. It may be time to begin anew.

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