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Social Software: Knowledge Management Redux?

Social software (and the media hype that surrounds it), resurrects memories of knowledge management (KM) projects that erupted within many organizations during the nineties. Efforts at that time placed tremendous emphasis on conducting document inventories and aggregating information into centralized repositories where technology (e.g., content management, search, and expertise location) was applied under the guise of surfacing “knowledge”.  The vast majority of such efforts imploded due to unrealistic expectations and an over-reliance on technology (tainting the term to this day). Around 2001, enterprise portals became synonymous with KM efforts. The ability of portals to compose user interfaces that were contextual based on user preferences and role was indeed valuable. However, when organizations looked beyond the technology they would typically find that business value resulted from the organizational and process transformation that occurred. In essence, when done properly, KM is additive to strategic business initiatives (e.g., CRM) and is rarely the lead reason to undertake such efforts. KM generally fails when it is pursued as a holy grail, in and of itself, and especially when it over-prioritizes technology.

One area where KM has garnered success has been in the area of community-building (e.g., communities of practice). KM teams involved with these efforts understood that while the content was an important piece of the puzzle, equal importance had to be placed on the people and relationship aspects of how groups share insight. This introduced communication and collaboration strategies into set of methods and practices applied by KM teams. The focus on interaction, trust, reciprocity, conversation and storytelling is also the point where social software reframes some of the challenges faced by KM teams, offering a different set of tactics complimentary to historical KM best practices.

A consistent theme behind social software is to take advantage of informal interaction and make it purposeful by facilitating group connections based on common attributes (e.g., interests, activities, location and information) that are explicit or inferred. Reasons for users collectively interacting can vary greatly. At one extreme it can be very self-serving. Users might participate in socially-oriented applications only to lurk on the edges, absorbing information from the community that is relevant to their own research, personal need or work-related tasks. The other extreme would be users that are highly active in the network. The intensity of their participation might be represented by their level of contributions (e.g., providing opinion, insight, recommendations or other types of information or by aggressively tagging and sharing bookmarks), their ability to persuade others to join, or their level of influence in brokering linkages between members in the community or network.

In any case, the unforeseen discovery of peers doing similar things that result in purposeful action as a derivative outcome of informal interaction across small groups, larger communities and loosely-coupled networks makes social software quite consistent with KM goals. The tactics espoused by social software (e.g., tags, social bookmarks, and social networks) can promote changes in behaviors where users rely on community or network members as credible information filters. Within enterprises, where such systems would likely to be integrated with identity management platforms, this could lead to eventual face-to-face interaction between groups as a sense of online and offline community builds around similar interests. This transformation of informal interaction into purposeful activity that could benefit business activities is something for enterprise strategists to examine more closely.

Mike Gotta is Principal Analyst at Burton Group.

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