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Social media versus knowledge management

by Mark P. McDonald  |  May 9, 2013  |  13 Comments

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.

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Category: social-media  social-organization  technology  web-20  

Tags: social-media  social-organization  web-20  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Social media versus knowledge management

  1. Thanks for the blog post Mark.

    Excellent sum up of what I believe to be a non-issue. As light can be seen as waves and particles, so can information and communication. The answer lies between and beyond both concepts.

    I’ve shared your article with our Sphere community, based on our next-generation social km solution called Knowledge Plaza. Feel free to join the party!

  2. Huzefa Lokhandwala says:

    Nice post, but someone should have eliminated the typos :-).

    KM and Social Media can work hand in hand. In my company we use communities to increase knowledge and resurrect lost knowledge in a collaborative way. However, we have introduced some amount of structure and hierarchy within the community to ensure that things are moving forward and in the right direction. We have created communities by identifying the areas in which we feel knowledge needs to be enhanced and identified starting group of people to take these forward. After that we nurture an open and democratic culture within the communities. As long as people understand the reason for the community to exist then this structured collaboration really does work.

  3. […] can read this quote in context in the Gartner blog by Mark P. McDonald at Social Media Versus Knowledge Management. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like […]

  4. Mark Brewer says:

    Spot on right Mark. Structure vs the crowd is a good way to think about it. We need to reduce friction on information sharing to enable fast sharing, fast learning, etc.

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. Ewald Horn says:

    I fully agree with you Mark, it is very important for organizations to recognize the difference between KM and social collaboration, especially with the newer generation that is so socially connected.
    Tomorrow’s social organizations are the ones that can recognize the difference and invest in the right technologies and policies to allow both social collaboration and knowledge management to thrive.

    I especially love how you highlight the fact that UNSTRUCTURED communities are exactly the ones companies should be paying attention to, it’s a fantastic way to tap into the wisdom of the crowd.

    Thank you for an informative article.

  6. Meir Ezer says:

    Hello Mark, thank you for the very interesting post.

    I completely agree with your analysis for the difference between the two domains.

    However, an updated technology has decreased the difference.
    Search engines of the leading knowledge management platforms searches in the social media repositories and return results with the correct relevance within the search results list.

    This converts the social media sharing from Mass collaboration into a more formalized knowledge management item.

    have a nice weekend!

  7. Thomas Hsu says:

    Your view of Knowledge Management is very narrow. Knowledge management is about ensuring people have the insights and experiences they need to do their jobs. Social media is one of many strategies for achieving this.

  8. Jason says:

    Knowledge management doesn’t have to just be a hierarchy. Certain programs like Solvepath made by Senexx ( are used as a platform to structure knowledge. It is a question and answer platform that allows employees to ask question and receive answers. These answer can come from experts in the company, whether they be managers, service, sales, or any other department.

  9. […] You are going to hear a lot about community, collaboration, culture and change. Also context, champions, conversation and communication. Your challenge over the next two days is to work out when and how to harness the array of social tools and use them in context/ tandem with other initiatives. Here’s a really interesting and recent extract from a Gartner blog post: […]

  10. 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.

  11. Kimmy says:

    There is no such thing as KM VERSUS social media. They are not opposites, they are complementary. Rarely do I see a bigger nonsense than “Knowledge management is what the company tells me I need to know based on what they think is important.”

    Knowledge management is not about managing knowledge in the sense of controlling it. Knowledge management is about harnessing the potential and using the most valuable commodity (knowledge) that the companies have today.

    Social media is an essential tool of today’s KM. KM is no longer about installing “a system” – it is about creating a culture – which is the biggest hurdle companies face. Social media is only a tool.

  12. […] while back, I wrote a post about the difference between Knowledge Management and Social Media separating the two based on their views of information.  Knowledge management looks at […]

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