I am not comfortable with this association between Enterprise Social Software (ESS) and Knowledge Management systems (KM). This comes back pretty often in the discussions, in particular around the big question : will Enterprise Social Software also fail to be adopted in organisation ? The following tweet during Social Business Forum in Milano is a good example :
This is our third modern wave of social (groupware & KM) and we are near the same spot others died out.
I guess one of the reason is that there are many KM Professionals who switched to Social Business during the last five years or so. There is quite an interesting conversation with Rick Ladd in #sbf12 report on that very topic. IMHO there are major differences between the two approaches and there are more meaningful relationships that could be established …
Structured data Vs Unstructured data
Disclosure : I’m a huge fan of Social Software and I never thought KM systems was relevant. I think KM made a terrible assumption thinking it is possible to capture tacit knowledge into structured data. A typical rational analysis flaw where, again, we focus on data rather than focussing on information, a failure in tackling one of 21st century management challenge according to Peter Drucker.
Social Software is great at capturing knowledge because it is unstructured data and it is, well, social i.e related to people. Tacit knowledge is continuous flow of people thoughts, i.e social information. Breaking it into pieces of structured data dissociated from the people breaks the continuity and lose the social bit : it breaks tacit knowledge. As Ross Mayfield said Knowledge Management is a by-product of Social Software : we find content through people and people through content.
This is the reason why I think KM as a goal is broken. I have had the misfortune during my late 90s career to use Lotus Notes solutions and it surely has discouraged any attempt to capture my knowledge. Making technologies complicated and not flowing has never helped in getting them adopted nor in fostering user engagement.
And strangely enough, I have never heard one of my accointances wishing there was some public application to impose them the constraint of structured data to save their information but that probably is because I don’t have enough CIOs in my circles.
Social Software ubiquity
Another huge difference between Social Software and KM is that the former was born out of passionate developpers communities on the wild internet, a subject I’ve elaborated upon during my session at #SBF12. I now I soundsplain romantic and stupid to serious business people while saying this.
Still, we have to keep in mind that the usage of these simple tools have proved to be flexible enough to adapt to many different usages (hint : there is a huge correlation between simple and adaptive). A typical bottom-up initiative solving real problems and helping at getting things done.
As opposed to KM, Social Software is not the compromise-cluttered offspring of an arranged marriage between the COO and the CTO, an offspring which has been inflicted to the teams in a top-down fashion. Okay, I’m kind of exaggerating here but you see the point.
Indeed, Social Software is everywhere. If it was not that massively adopted, I agree it would be doomed for organisation. Which brings us to the following point : if there is a problem between social software and organisation, one could argue that the problem may not only reside on the tools side.
What I’ve noticed during these few years of studying enterprise social software is this : many of the organisations that implement it successfully do it on the grounds of a virtuous organisation culture (no hard data related – sorry) .
Kanban rather than KM
While studying Lean in general and Kanban in particular (and making the same bias as the KM evangelists, i.e establishing relationships that may not be relevant between two disciplines I’m passionate about) I’ve noticed this common trait with Social Software.
By making the flow of work visible through actionable information, these simple tools lower the level of water and allow to surface deeply hidden organisation problems. One of the most common reason Kanban projects are aborted is because while they surface these problems, people think Kanban is broken and cannot work in their organisation.
While making information flowing through simple and not prescriptive systems, Social Software is pretty similar to Kanban in that respect. So rather than asking how can we tweak Social Software to adapt it to our organisation, maybe we should ask how can we use these tools as reagents to surface organisations hidden problems. Put in another way : ask “how can we use it to discover unknown problems” rather than “what problem does it fix”.
This adoption question also brings us to the more general issue of the growing contrast between the pace at which new technologies emerge and the pace at which organisations adopt them, but this will be the subject of another post.