~ Deja Vu: Social Media and Knowledge

I’ve lived through 18 years of boom and bust for knowledge management adoption. For most of that time I’ve been making the case that success or failure at KM depends far more on the organization’s ability to come to grips with the people/cultural, process and content issues than on factors specific to an adopted software tool. In fact, I started making that argument while I was employed by a tool vendor, in articles and in front of conference audiences.

But it’s just a fact of life: People understand and get jazzed about the business of buying enterprise software. They know how this works in their organizations; they know what authority they have, and who has the power to approve funds for software purchases, and what hoops they have to jump through to get a deal done. And let’s face it – we’re gearheads, we consultants and our corporate clients. We like tools. Software adoption is concrete and fun and motivating. It’s also, frequently, really expensive, but there’s a certain egotistical thrill in throwing those kinds of funds around.

Adopting process and all these other essential intangibles…that feels abstract and subjective, undocumented and risky. How do you know you’ve got it right? What does right look like?

My life as a process guy is easier thanks to the existence of globally accepted Best Practices like ITIL and Knowledge-Centered Support. But my biggest challenge, year after year, tends to be getting the client to put the horse where it belongs, in front of the cart. I.e., don’t start an initiative like KM adoption by firing off an RFP to tool vendors. Define your strategy and your objectives, figure out what your KM effort is supposed to actually do for you, see what resources you have available to help, inventory your knowledge and determine how to source what you don’t have, decide how you’re going to measure success…and then go looking for software that will help you accomplish all of the foregoing. On your terms, not the vendor’s.

I lose this argument about as often as I win it. Often I find myself engaged in remedial projects fixing problems caused by a mismatch between KM expectations and the capabilities of tools adopted because they were there on the client’s shelf before the project even started.

Projects that have prospective champions and even budgets never got off the ground because the client surveyed the market and found two-dozen vendors whose tools were, to their eyes, functionally indistinguishable. I wound up writing a book in 2005, laying out the real issues in KM adoption and profiling 13 different tools, just to clear away the confusion in the hopes that clients would feel comfortable enough to get moving and confront the real issues.

That’s how it’s been for knowledge based problem resolution systems – transactional knowledge base platforms designed to allow agents or customers to pose specific questions or problems and retrieve specific answers or diagnoses/solutions. And history is repeating itself for the Social Media category.

Problem resolution, or Service Resolution Management, as a few of the vendors were styling it a couple of years back, is just so…a couple of years back. Now it’s all about socializing knowledge, networking for insight and context and for the sheer fun of networking. Organizations will still need knowledge bases as long as end users go on asking questions and lodging complaints. But the buzz is all focused on forums, wikis, blogs and what, for lack of a term that seems satisfyingly descriptive, I call TTLLFs (Things That Look Like Facebook). For those of you who have been at this long enough to remember “Communities of Practice”…that’s where CoPs went, down the social networking rabbit hole.

Social media scare a lot of managers, who see their staffers’ productivity vanishing into the vortex of networking, instant messaging and, well, socializing. When, they ask, is the work supposed to get done? It’s going to take time for it to be universally understood that in businesses where the exchange of knowledge is a core, critical process, social media are the channels by which the work actually does get done.

But perhaps more immediate is the richness of choice issue. In about one third the time it took to happen to the problem resolution market, the field has become swamped with hard-to-distinguish social media players – Open Source wiki platforms at the free-to-cheap end of the spectrum; comprehensive, enterprise, multimedia-enabled social media packages like Awareness at the other; with all of the usual suspects in the portal and enterprise content management spaces in the middle, adding social media functionality. And then there’s Microsoft riding the increasingly insistent buzz for MS Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), which is getting to be a social media platform in its own right.

Once again, the point of analysis paralysis has gone from, “What do we need any of this new gear for?” to “Which flavor is the right one for us?”

Frustrating for adopters. A gravy train for Gartner, Forrester and IDC. Simultaneously a speedbump for new projects and, perhaps, an opportunity for people like me. * sigh * Is this going to require another book?


2 thoughts on “~ Deja Vu: Social Media and Knowledge

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. Peter,
    You most certainly do need to write another book! I am quite certain we can findplenty of cannon fodder and solutions needing to be clarified!

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