Human Centricity, Social Media and the Knowledge Enterprise

As a young discipline, KM has many definitions and interpretations. Most efforts to date have misinterpreted knowledge management and equated it with content or information management. The term “management” brings about an illusion of exercising control and creating defined processes which automatically extracts the knowledge from people and puts it into searchable repositories within a defined taxonomy.

It is believed there is a right way to classify information so that it can be centrally controlled. Most efforts that strategized in this manner did not succeed. The belief was once the intranet repository was built, content management processes and workflow deployed, people would naturally come and use it because it all made sense.

The submitters of content and seekers of content were considered independently and publishing of content happened in discrete steps due to the nature of process-enabled content management. But this approach didn’t succeed so easily, in most cases resulting in failure or lukewarm success and the CXO’s running the show lost clout in the process. Their knowledge strategy was not designed for success.

One basic element that was missed was a focus on the human being. Why would someone be willing to take the time and effort to pen their thoughts? Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge is fond of saying “… knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted.” And the typical human being doesn’t have an easy time writing polished white papers using a defined template for an unknown audience. Snowden also points out that we know more than we can tell, and we can tell more than we can write down.

Inherently then, people are more comfortable having conversations and dialog as a way of exchanging knowledge. And even if we did get the repositories populated using a well defined prescriptive process, the centralized taxonomy and navigation in the repository could seem unnatural for many seekers of that information—different seekers have different ways of classifying and navigating through information. The basic problem with this model was that the human was treated as an mechanical device, and knowledge management was largely a process-driven and prescriptive approach.

Web 2.0 & Social Media

Enter Web 2.0 and social media. While the basic technology underlying Web 2.0 has been around for quite some time (since the dawn of the Internet), its rise in popularity in recent years has brought it to the attention of business leaders. Social networking and collaboration tools on the Web are increasingly used to tap into an explosion of voluntary knowledge sharing. This feeds the comfort zone that people have with conversations and discussions through online activity.

The unstructured manner in which knowledge is exchanged has quickly built into mammoth repositories such as Wikipedia. There is such a large amount of user driven content out on the Web today, that many startups have been launched to create technology to navigate this voluminous content more productively.

What’s made the difference is the human is at the epicenter of these systems. In addition to conversing, humans have a need to express themselves, to make friends and build relationships, and learn from others. People express themselves through social networks, mould their own identity, build a sense of belonging, and emote in this virtual space. Social media feels like a liberating tool as opposed to a prescriptive tool. As a side effect, plenty of knowledge gets generated and exchanged through emotionally-driven participation.

Beyond such enabling technology, cultural shifts in attitude have also

fueled this phenomenon towards socialization. Gen Y’ers are different from Gen X’er’s and they are both quite different from Boomers. The ease with which Gen Y’ers are flocking to social media reflects a shift in social attitudes. The work style of both Gen X and Y is much more fluid and collaborative, and they don’t mind multi-tasking and generating outcomes through self managed teams.

Their ability to multi-task coupled with openness to collaboration means that they are comfortable with things being done piece meal, a bit at a time, through a collective effort. This is true both in their personal and professional lives. Gen Y’ers certainly don’t rely as much on the boss for detailed direction and task allocation as previous generations did. Many times the boss has to get out of the way and let the team get the job done; perhaps with a bit of coaching. Decision-making, to Gen Y’ers, is largely the responsibility of the team as a whole, and they fear and even have a disdain for micro-management.