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10/16/2008
08:59 PM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
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Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: The Reactions

My article last week, Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War got some sharp and interestingly polarized reactions in the blogosphere. I thought I'd do a quick roundup and offer some more commentary.First, here are the links (the ones I could find; there may be others more than 1 degree away. A couple of them are repeated, since the authors seem to have posted the same reaction on more than one blog, but I am posting the repeats here in case they've developed different comment threads).

The GistMost of the reactions are at least mildly positive, with a "Hmm,,,food for thought" tone to the reaction. On the positive side, the CMS report reference says, "Wow, Venkatesh Rao writes the article of the year." On the Nay! side, while crediting me with a couple of good thoughts, the "Oh Good Grief" piece accuses me of setting up a strawman, and asserts that there needs to be stewardship of an attempt to define KM away from technology. Similarly, while acknowledging the merit in my KM-is-waterfall-SM-is-agile point, the On Strategies blog overall accuses me of rabid generational stereotyping and concludes, "The idea that the debate between knowledge management and social media is a generational divide is hogwash."I know my own writing well enough to recognize that my piece was not even my own best piece of the year (for a list of what I consider my best pieces so far, try here), let alone the best piece within such a broad discourse, but it is interesting that the message resonated so strongly with some. It suggests that I merely said what a lot of people have been thinking privately, not that I said it particularly well.Rather curiously, the article seems to have done the rounds in some religious circles. I had no clue organizations like churches were wrangling with generational divide issues.Let the Expert Weigh InSince a lot of my opinions on this topic are based on analysis of my own experiences using ideas from Rob Salkowitz' book, Generation Blend, I asked him to weigh in. He did, over email, and since the response was so interesting, I asked if he'd mind posting it on his blog, so he posted a thorough build on my post, largely agreeing with me, but pointing out a bunch of interesting issues that I hadn't taken into account, such as the generic tendency of the in-power cohort, whatever their cultural leanings, to protect their position. Here's an excerpt.

Venkat, I emphatically agree with your analysis. I think you accurately locate the enthusiasms and skepticisms of each generation toward the different approaches. I also think there are other issues that may seem obvious, about how social media displaces authority and hierarchy, and is therefore inherently more threatening to the senior cohort in the workplace, regardless of their generational orientation. People who got to the top by hoarding info don't want to share; they want to manage access. People at the bottom looking to move up quickly want immediate opportunities to contribute and be recognized, rather than working through approved channels. I suspect Millennials will be much less enthusiastic about whatever succeeds SM in the enterprise if it is suddenly their knowledge and authority at stake. Read the rest (and definitely buy the darn book if the subject interests you).

My ResponseOf the points made in all the reactions, positive and negative, one I think is worth responding to: the idea that I am reducing behavior to generational stereotypes. My answer: yes I am, and yes it is legitimate to do so, and calling out the fact is besides the point. Here's why.One of the biases we humans have is that we fail to recognize when we are part of large-scale, very reductive aggregate behavioral patterns. What is often said of historians -- that their views are more a reflection of the times they live in than the times they write about -- is true, mutatis mutandis, of any activity. We are more influenced by culture than we like to think. This does not mean human behavior is simple. It is just that most of the diverse complexities of our motivations and behaviors often cancel out in the aggregate, leaving only signature cartoon effects.Here is a conjecture, for instance. Ask a wide range of people of different ages the question, "do you consider yourself idealistic or pragmatic?" I am willing to bet about $50 that you'll see a clear, statistically significant generational divide. Now this does not mean that two Boomers answering "idealistic" are the same cartoon character. One might be a deep-thinking, sophisticated person who has spent decades developing self-awareness and building up a self-sustaining organic farm. The other might be a homeless stoner with a throw-away opinion. The point is, it is a sort of watershed question, and these two characters both fall on one side.And of course the usual remarks about the means and standard deviations of distributions apply. Of course you'll have the aging-Boomer Facebook widget writer and the born-again 21 year old hippie at Burning Man. And the bubblegum vision Gen X'er who didn't notice the eighties. And the cynical, Fight-Club loving boomer.The point is not to deny the outliers, or the complexity of the within-3-sigma people. The point is, taken in aggregate, certain simple things appear -- like a clear generational divide when it comes to opinions about SM and KM.Let the debates continue!Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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