We originally posted this on the Harvard Business Review blog site on Wednesday October 26, 2011. It has generated an interesting discussion so I encourage you to join it if you wish to engage.
On the surface, social media and knowledge management (KM) seem very similar. Both involve people using technology to access information. Both require individuals to create information intended for sharing. Both profess to support collaboration.
But there’s a big difference.
- Knowledge management is what company management tells me I need to know, based on what they think is important.
- Social media is how my peers show me what they think is important, based on their experience and in a way that I can judge for myself.
These definitions may sound harsh, and biased in favor of social media, and to some extent they are. Knowledge should be like water — free-flowing and permeating down and across your organization filling the cracks, floating good ideas to the top and lifting all boats.
But, really, is that anyone’s KM reality?
KM, in practice, reflects a hierarchical view of knowledge to match the hierarchical view of the organization. Yes, knowledge may originate anywhere in the organization, but it is channeled and gathered into a knowledge base (cistern) where it is distributed through a predefined set of channels, processes and protocols.
Social media looks downright chaotic by comparison. There is no predefined index, no prequalified knowledge creators, no knowledge managers and ostensibly little to no structure. Where an organization has a roof, gutters and cistern to capture knowledge, a social media organization has no roof, allowing the “rain” to fall directly into the house, collecting in puddles wherever they happen to form. That can be quite messy. And organizations abhor a mess.
It is no wonder, then, that executives, knowledge managers and software companies seek to offer tools, processes and approaches to tame social media. After all (they believe), “We cannot have employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else creating their own information, forming their own opinions and expressing that without our say. Think of the impact on our brand, our people, our customers. We need to manage this. We need knowledge management.”
This is exactly the wrong attitude for one simple reason: It does not stop people from talking about you. Your workforce, customers, suppliers, competitors, etc., will talk about you whenever, wherever and however they want. Even pre-World Wide Web, these conversations were happening.
We’re long past the time to seek control; it’s time to engage people.
Business leaders recognize that engagement is the best way to glean value from the knowledge exchanged in social media — and not by seeking to control social media with traditional KM techniques. That only leads to a “provide and pray” approach, and we have seen more than our share of “social media as next-generation KM” efforts fail to yield results.
So how do organizations gain value from social media, particularly in situations where they have not been successful with KM? The answer lies in a new view of collaboration: mass collaboration.
Mass collaboration consists of three things: social media technology, a compelling purpose and a focus on forming communities.
- Social media technology provides the conduit and means for people to share their knowledge, insight and experience on their terms. It also provides a way for the individual to see and evaluate that knowledge based on the judgment of others.
- Purpose is the reason people participate and contribute their ideas, experience and knowledge. They participate personally in social media because they value and identify with the purpose. They do so because they want to, rather than being told to as part of their job.
- Communities are self-forming in social media. KM communities imply a hierarchical view of knowledge and are often assigned by job classification or encouraged based on work duties. Participation becomes prescribed, creating the type of “mandatory fun” that is the butt of many a Dilbert cartoon and TV sitcom. Social media allows communities to emerge as a property of the purpose and the participation in using the tools. This lack of structure creates the space for active and innovative communities.
Creating mass collaboration involves more than building technology and telling people to participate. It necessitates a vision, a strategy and management actions we will discuss in subsequent posts.
The point here is that while they may seem similar, social media and KM are not the same. Recognizing the differences is a crucial step toward getting value out of both and avoiding a struggle of one over the other.
It is also a step toward becoming a social organization.
I co-authored a book “The Social Organization” on Amazon.com . Check it out!
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