Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War

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Venkatesh Rao, Contributor

September 29, 2008

16 Min Read

You'd think Knowledge Management (KM), that venerable IT-based social engineering discipline which came up with evocative phrases like "community of practice," "expertise locater," and "knowledge capture," would be in the vanguard of the 2.0 revolution. You'd be wrong. Inside organizations and at industry fora today, every other conversation around social media (SM) and Enterprise 2.0 seems to turn into a thinly-veiled skirmish within an industry-wide KM-SM shadow war. I suppose I must be a little dense, because it took not one, not two, but three separate incidents before I realized there was a war on. Here's what's going on: KM and SM look very similar on the surface, but are actually radically different at multiple levels, both cultural and technical, and are locked in an undeclared cultural war for the soul of Enterprise 2.0. And the most hilarious part is that most of the combatants don't even realize they are in a war. They think they are loosely-aligned and working towards the same ends, with some minor differences of emphasis. So let me tell you about this war and how it is shaping up. Hint: I have credible neutral "war correspondent" status because I was born in 1974.Anatomy of a Hidden Corporate WarThe three incidents which got me clued in, suitably anonymized, are the following. I end each anecdote with my in-the-moment reaction. Ask yourself, as you read these, what caused the dissonance at the heart of each incident.The Reassuring ConsultantEarly (and by that I mean less than two years ago of course) in my social media cheer-leading efforts at work, I was a participant in a workshop organized by our IT organization, led by a self-styled middle-aged social media consultant who'd been brought in to help us think about 2.0 strategy. He was a great guy and engaging speaker, and made several sophisticated and thought-provoking points. But throughout, he kept returning to the reassuring theme that there wasn't much new going on. He reassured us that these things come and go in cycles, and that 2.0/SM were really just the latest labels for what used to be called KM. And then he told us all about his recommended KM-informed strategy to respond to the social media trend.Throughout the talk, I had a distinct sense of unease, of being on the deck of the Titanic listening to a fiddler playing a soothing melody designed to distract from the consequential elements of the situation. But I couldn't figure out the source of my unease.The Skirmish at the ConferenceA few months later, I was one of four panelists at an industry symposium, where our theme was social media. An older panelist from another company, architect of a major, moderately successful, stable and decade-old KM effort -- call him B -- went first. He completely ignored new elements in the technology and forcefully presented the design pattern for his success as the design pattern for success (his was an approach I'd call waterfall social engineering, involving elaborate up-front charters, courting of subject-matter experts (SMEs) and "stakeholders" and formal launch events).I admit I sometimes like to set the cat among the pigeons just out of sheer bloodymindedness, so when my turn came, I changed my prepared script on the fly, and turned my talk into a deliberate antithesis of B's talk. Partly I did it to wake up the somnolent audience, but partly because I truly did disagree with almost everything B said. Where he advocated planning, I advocated ad-hoc experimentation. Where he advocated charters to declare expected value, I advocated a you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it approach to discovering value. Where he talked about convincing SMEs, I argued that you should just watch for opinion leaders to emerge. Now, a year later, I know what subconscious itch made me play contrarian. At the time though, it was just me having a bit of fun (and the audience enjoyed it -- several people came up to me later and said they really appreciated me saying the things I did).Still, I left the event feeling rather bad about having caused some polarization instead of driving towards a synthesis. Though he had a rather annoyingly pedantic manner, B really did know his stuff, and there was value in what he said.The Insistent ExpertThe third example came via a meeting where I was supposed to informally provide some consulting input to a manager from another internal organization at my company. The manager in question had been chartered by a senior manager to look into creating an online community for a certain purpose, and had probably been asked to "reach out" to me. This sort of thing happens fairly often to me (once you get labeled as a social media go-to guy, you get sucked into all sorts of "reach-out" conversations). In this particular case though, I recall the conversation being particularly difficult and going nowhere. At least three times in the conversation, the manager repeated, rather insistently, "I am a certified Knowledge Manager; I know how to do this stuff; I've done this before." Finally, I gave up and closed the conversation politely. We were talking at cross-purposes, and he clearly had no intention of listening, being influenced, or acknowledging that changes in technology ought to motivate a re-examination of existing best practices.Again, I did not doubt the good faith or competence of the person on the other end of the conference call, but I was left wondering why this conversation had been so frustrating when other, similar conversations, had been vastly more productive.I have a whole bunch of other examples filed away, but these should be enough to give you an idea of what's going on inside and in-between enterprises today.The 5 Social Dimensions of the WarI believe these incidents are symptoms of a hidden KM-SM war. You'll either dismiss this inference as a figment of my imagination, or enthusiastically resonate. I am not attempting to persuade the doubters as to the existence of a war, but to educate the resonators about some of the details. So I won't attempt a detailed argument, but just move ahead with the assumption that there really is an ongoing cultural war. If you aren't in the choir, well, move on. Nothing to see here.The uber-cause of this war is that Knowledge Management was conceived as a top-down Boomer (born 1946 - 62) management effort, created by this generation just as it was moving into leadership positions. Social Media, on the other hand, is a Millenial/Gen Y (born 1980 -) movement. This overall generational cultural divide has shaped the ongoing corporate cultural war. This leads to vast, and I mean truly VAST, differences in how the two movements approach enterprise social engineering (for background, try Generation Blend by Rob Salkowitz, which I reviewed and summarized on my blog). The salient points:

  1. Gen X is Currently Neutral: Crucially -- and this is why I am a neutral -- neither movement reflects or overtly conflicts with, the values of Gen X (born: 1963 - 1980). I was born in 1974, which should explain why I claim neutral status. This neutrality of Gen X is crucial: they were the foot-soldiers of the top-down KM movement, and are today the leaders and mentors of the bottom-up SM movement, as they move into middle and senior management. Neither set of ideas is due to X'ers in any significant degree. Due to its small size (in the US, there are 78 million Boomers, about 51 million Gen X'ers and about 80 million Millenials) and its fundamentally pragmatic, as opposed to visionary/world-changing mindset, Gen X is the crucial swing vote in this culture war -- we don't have either the personalities or the numbers to dictate how the world should be run, but we are smart enough and numerous enough to make a difference by picking a side. So far, we've been neutral. Which way we eventually swing will be the most important element of this war.

  2. KM is about ideology, SM is about the fun of building: Salkowitz notes that the Millenials are the first generation since the "Greatest" (WW II veterans, born 1901 - 25) generation that likes to build (social institutions that is). Building for the sheer pleasure of building, and because the possibilities exist. Nothing describes the motivation behind the creation of Facebook better than "because it was possible." KM on the other hand, arose from a generation that cut its teeth on disestablishmentarianism (I've always wanted to use that in a sentence!). The Boomers objected to the world built by the "Greatests" and their kids the "Silents," (b. 1925 - 45) on moral grounds, and tried (and failed, outside, say, Ojai, California) to reinvent the world. So they reluctantly "sold out," went all establishment, and when they finally got those Vice-President titles and a chance to set the agenda, they revived the ideology of their counter-cultural youth and made it corporate policy. KM came from that ethos, and is still more idea than reality. SM, on the other hand, is mostly cool stuff without any grand ideological design behind it (which explains in part why it is so hard to define).

  3. The Boomers don't really get or like engineering and organizational complexity: This is a provocative statement, to be sure, but I stand by it. Yes, some of the most brilliant conceptual advances in information technology came from Boomers. They built the early prototypes behind most of the computing infrastructure of the world (the PARC personal computing pioneers were Boomers for instance). But it was Gen X that actually scaled-up and built-out the complex production-standard IT infrastructure of the world (and thereby learned about complexity by creating it). The Millenials learned to understand complexity even better than us X'ers, by being born into it. By contrast, not only do Boomers not get complexity, they are suspicious of it, thanks to their early cultural training which deifies simplicity. The result of this difference is that Boomer management models rely too much on simplistic ideological-vision-driven ideas. Consider, for instance, the classic Boomer idea of creating "communities of practice" with defined "Charters" and devoted to identifying "Best Practices." No Gen X'er or Millenial would dare to reduce the complexity of real-world social engineering to a fixed "charter" or presume to nominate any work process as "best." At best, X'ers and Millenials might create the first iteration target of a Scrum-style sprint and let the charter just evolve. I suspect, as Gen X'ers and Millenials take over, that the idea of vision and mission statements will be quietly retired in favor of more dynamic corporate navigation constructs.

  4. The Millenials don't really try to understand the world: If us X'ers share with the Millenials an appreciation for complexity that the Boomers lack, we share with the Boomers a taste for big-picture synthesis that simply doesn't seem to attract the Millenials (perhaps they are just too young at the moment). This is a subtle point, so let me try to explain it. The Boomers liked the idea of world views, and tried to frame both what they were for, as well as what they were against (think Star Wars) in monolithic ways. Mental models of the world that a single person could get. James Michener's The Drifters represents one articulation of such a world view. Here's the thing: Millenials fundamentally cannot think this way because of the deeply collaborative nature of their cultural DNA. They seem happy understanding and working with their piece of the puzzle, trusting that the larger body politic will be manifesting and working according to a reasonable understanding of the world. Gen X, in this sense, manages a curious compromise. We like world-views, but as anti-visionaries, we don't like to just make them up arbitrarily (and definitely not in the form of a novel or the lyrics to a song). Our world view is a pragmatic one that accommodates complexity by trying to make it a very rich, data-driven one. Wikipedia (founded by Gen X'ers, Jimmy Wales, b. 1966, and Larry Sanger, b. 1968) is a classic Gen X-led attempt to understand the world. It has none of the incomprehensible complexity of Facebook-as-implicit-model-of-the-world, but neither does it have the doctrinaire vacuity of typical Boomer manifestos that try to dictate how the world should be, with no real attempt to figure out how it is.

  5. Boomers speak with words, X'ers with numbers, Millenials with actions: If you are wondering how a significant corporate cultural war can be in progress without making headlines, it is because the three generations involved process the world with different primary cognitive stances. The Boomers attempt to understand the world with words, and the best they can do is talk to themselves. The Gen X'ers try to avoid conflict by seeking solace in data and a relentless focus on reality. The Millenials are blissfully unaware of larger dynamics and just go ahead and create.

So that's the war for you, from a social perspective. These five major dissonance themes are at the heart of many an inconclusive and unproductive business meeting around social media. But it isn't all a social story. Technology matters.The 5 Technological Dimensions of the WarOne of the statements I've heard repeated endlessly and moronically, is that the technology does not matter. That it is all about the people. This is simply not true for all sorts of reasons (the most important being the medium is the message, per Marshall McLuhan, b. 1911, Greatest Generation).One of the clearest pieces of evidence that technology matters, is in the subtle differences in emphasis for comparable technologies from the KM and SM eras that are helping frame the ongoing war.

  1. Expertise locators are not social networks: Many companies today want internal "Facebook" (Millenial) or LinkedIn (Gen X) type systems. In management conversations, you'll often hear the overall requirement being described as an "Expertise Locater" systems. While technically, all three may be similar, the idea of an expert really comes from the Boomer yearning for community opinion leaders with the moral authority to form a priestly elite. Gen X'ers just want to see social graph data, Millenials just want to connect indiscriminately. For the X'er and Millenial, an "expert" is a situational role based on whoever owns the eyeballs for whom a bug is shallow. X'er and Millenial designed Q&A forums tend to be egalitarian. Boomer KMers though, love the idea of a "subject matter expert" or SME and design this preference into technology. Systems designed around "ask an expert" design principles -- the signature of a Boomer at the helm -- are subtly different from epistemologically-egalitarian ones.

  2. Online Communities are not USENET V3.0: Three generations of online community technology, reflecting distinct cultural values, exist today. The distinctly counter-cultural USENET is a Boomer technology (culturally). Though USENET was organized by content, its overarching architecture is driven by a community-consensus ontological process with its own dark side (the alt.* groups versus the ones created through RFC-RFP democratic processes). Gen X'ers, responsible for the anarchic proliferation of organized-by-content Web bulletin boards and the anti-communitarian construct of the individual blog, true to their data-driven pragmatism, made content (data) king. Finally, the Millenials created their generation of ideology-indifferent online communities around social networks where groups are not Good or Evil, but just are, and where people again are the focal point, over content. I am uncomfortable even applying the "container" metaphor of "community" to the Millenial architectures -- they have a leakiness and porosity that only works with the label "network." Curiously, Facebook groups typically allow anyone to join via a network affiliation. LinkedIn groups tend to have a lot of gatekeeping.

  3. RSS and Mash-ups are Gen-X ideas: Like Wikipedia, RSS and Mash-ups are culturally Gen X ideas, since they are motivated by the pragmatic intent to reuse code and content to conquer overwhelming complexity.

  4. SemWeb Isn't Next-Gen, it is Last-Gen: If the Gen X'ers adopted the idea of a folksonomy-driven world-view (Wikipedia) for pragmatic purposes, and if the Millenials are merrily tagging everything in sight with no larger end in view, the Boomers didn't go away quietly. Curiously, what is billed as a modern, next-generation, "3.0" idea -- the Semantic Web -- is actually a Last-Gen idea in some ways (Tim Berners-Lee, evangelist-in-chief, is a Boomer, born 1955). SemWeb was born of the same culture as KM (and separated by birth from it by the firewall). Characteristically, both KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture. The idea that Web 2.0 distracts from SemWeb isn't a technical opinion: it is the Boomers expressing disappointment in their children for not caring about World Peace. Now this isn't to say that the idea of systematic ontological engineering is a bad one. At a purely technical level, chances are that some mix of folksonomic and more deliberate approaches will prevail (and here you hear my pragmatic Gen X voice, so this isn't as "technical" an opinion as I'd have liked it to be). The interesting thing to note is that the technical argument tends to be largely a rationalization of a psychological one.

  5. SOA and SaaS are Gen X; Clouds are Millenial: It seems likely that Service-Oriented Architecture and Software as a Service will play a big part in the creation of Enterprise 2.0. The lack of right-brained creativity in the acronyms alone should tell you that they represent Gen X attempts to conquer complexity in a pragmatic and potentially ugly way. But the notion of "Cloud" is a curious one. It is in the same family of technology ideas as SOA and SaaS, but unlike them, is metaphoric. But it is curiously devoid of ideological overtones. That signals that it is culturally a Millenial idea (I'd bet a small sum that whoever came up with the term was born after 1975 -- a late X'er or a Millenial).

How the War Will EndIt takes no great genius to predict how the war will end. The Boomers will retire and the Millenials will win by default, in a bloodless end with no great drama. KM will quietly die, and SM will win the soul of Enterprise 2.0, with the Gen X leadership quietly slipping the best of the KM ideas into SM as they guide the bottom-up revolution.And it won't be just a victory of fashion. It will be a fundamental victory of the better idea. SM is an organic, protean, creative and energetic force. KM is a brittle, mechanical, anxiety and fear-ridden structure. It is telling that the biggest KM concern is the potential loss of Boomer knowledge, a backward-looking preservation/archival concern, while the biggest current SM concern is probably the heart-stopping excitement around the possibilities of mobile devices and the potential Web-top-enabling Google Chrome.Let me end with a personal note that hints at how I was won over by the Millenial creation of Social Media. Back in 2002 or so, in a fit of enthusiasm, I created a virtual community for an organization I was part of, using the rather KM-style early SaaS offering, CommunityZero. When a young, Millenial colleague first enthusiastically told me about wikis, I actually resisted briefly, in a sort of passive-aggressive way, because I didn't believe such a disorganized approach could work. I was wrong (obviously), and converted.The tragedy of Gen X is that we will not be remembered as a big-idea generation. We will likely be remembered, via a footnote (much like the Silents), as the generation which made the fateful decision to trust the creativity of the generation following it over the values of the generation that came before.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at, 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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