What’s the difference between the two?
On the surface they sound very similar, particularly for someone who had had experience with knowledge management. Both involve people using technology to access information. Both require individuals to create information that is intended for sharing. Both technologies profess support for collaboration. But as Monty Python might say:
If it walks like a duck, quacks like one and weighs as much as a duck …
… then it floats and therefore …
… it is made out of wood.
Social media and knowledge management may seem to be the same thing based on their basic characteristics, but in reality they are different. I am not going to argue that one is better than the other, playing that type of zero-sum game is a waste of time. Rather than a ‘these’ vs. ‘those’ argument, it is time to recognize the differences and move on to figure out how best to apply each.
Equating social media to knowledge management makes sense if there is only one way to create, serve, and consume knowledge. Thankfully there are many ways and that makes social media different from knowledge management.
Knowledge management is what the company 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 in a way that I can judge for myself
The descriptions may sound harsh and biased in favor of social media and to some extent that is true. Knowledge should be like water — free flowing and permeating down and across your organization filling the cracks, floating good ideas to the top, lifting everyone in the organization.
Knowledge management, in practice, reflects a hierarchical view of knowledge to match the hierarchical view of the organization. Knowledge may originate anywhere in the organization, but under knowledge management it is channeled and gathered together in a knowledge base (cistern) where it is distributed based on a predefined set of channels, processes and protocols.
Social media looks chaotic in comparison. There is no predefined index, now pre qualified knowledge creators, no knowledge managers, 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 that executives, knowledge managers and software companies seek of offer tools, processes and approaches to ‘tame’ the social media. After all we cannot have employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else creating their own information, forming their own opinion 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 people, customers, suppliers, competitors etc. will talk about you whenever, wherever and however they want. Sure in the past these conversations were not readily available across the World Wide Web, but they were happening. But now is not the time to seek control as much as its time to engage everyone.
Leaders recognize that engagement is the best way to glean value from the knowledge exchanged in social media. The do this, not by seeking to control social media with traditional knowledge management techniques. That only leads to what Anthony Bradley calls a ‘provide and pray’ approach.
Translating your Lotus Notes Databases or Corporate Intranet is not the answer. It only swaps out technology without recognizing the innate difference between social media and knowledge management. If your KM capabilities were poor, adding social media will lead to the same old result only on new and different technology.
If social media is not knowledge management, then you need a different approach to create value out of social media — you need to become a social organization. Anthony Bradley and myself have been looking at this, as we have seen more than our share of social media as next generation knowledge management fail to yield results.
Answering the question of, how do organizations gain value from social media, particularly in situations here they have not been successful with knowledge management rests in a new view of collaboration — mass collaboration.
Mass collaboration consists of three things: social media, 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 me to see and evaluate that knowledge based on the judgment of others. That is important but it is only a part.
- Purpose is the reason why people participate their ideas, experience and knowledge. They participate personally in social media because the 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. Communities in knowledge management 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 Dilbert cartoons and TV sit coms. Knowledge management assigns communities because it sees knowledge as a hierarchy. Social media allows them to emerge as a property of the purpose and the participation using the tools. This lack of structure creates the space for active and innovative communities.
Making these factors work and create mass collaboration involves more than building technology and telling people to participate. It involves a range of vision, strategy and management actions that we will discuss in subsequent blog posts.
The point here is that while they may seem similar, knowledge management and social media are not the same. Recognizing the differences is a crucial step to getting value out of both and avoiding a struggle of one over the other.
It is a step to becoming a social organization.
Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald are the co-authors of Fall 2011 book, The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.