Lowering the sharing threshold

A common meme in knowledge management is that “people don’t share knowledge.” Here are a few examples:

The non-sharing statement is usually coupled with a set of purported justifications, and may also include a solution. However, I am not sure that the basic proposition is correct. In my experience, people are naturally willing to share what they know, except that some other factors might intervene. Some of those factors have their roots in professional habits, others in workplace politics. One of the core tasks of knowledge management is to investigate them and to demonstrate their falsity. If this is correct, non-sharing is a symptom, rather than the disease itself.

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In a speech entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus” at the Web 2.0 Expo (video | transcript), Clay Shirky identifies another obstacle to sharing: mother’s ruin. That is, the modern equivalent: television. In case this seems facile, consider Shirky’s argument. Referring to the argument of an unnamed historian, he proposes that just as excessive gin consumption was the way that British society coped with the societal and cultural rupture caused by the Industrial Revolution, with an eventual outpouring of civic energy when we sobered up, so we have dealt with the post-war lifestyle revolution by excessive consumption of television.

If I had to pick the critical technology for the 20th century, the bit of social lubricant without which the wheels would’ve come off the whole enterprise, I’d say it was the sitcom. Starting with the Second World War a whole series of things happened–rising GDP per capita, rising educational attainment, rising life expectancy and, critically, a rising number of people who were working five-day work weeks. For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV.

We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. We watch Malcolm in the Middle. We watch Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

In this analysis, people are beginning to realise that instead of sinking time into television-watching, they could be doing other things — editing Wikipedia, making videos for Youtube, writing and commenting on blogs, and so on. 

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is…

There is another part to the jigsaw. It is not enough to realise that there is another way of spending this time — the activation energy to engage in this alternative has to be sufficiently low. That is the power of these social technologies — they lower the threshold of participation, and they draw people in:

I’m willing to raise that to a general principle. It’s better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, “If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.” And that’s [sic] message–I can do that, too–is a big change.

Not surprisingly, not everyone understands this.

This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

[My emphasis.]

In my mind, this raises a challenge for people involved in knowledge management. Putting aside other excuses for not sharing knowledge (which we can deal with separately), it is inevitable that a range of displacement activities have grown up in businesses to create the illusion of busyness and thereby make it possible for people to argue that they have no time to share their knowledge. Here are three off the top of my head:

  • Meetings
  • E-mails
  • Self-justifying reports

Each of these can serve a useful purpose (just as gin and television have their place). Often, however, the production and consumption of meetings, e-mails and reports generates vanishingly small amounts of value for the enterprise. (Probably on a par with watching repeats of Friends.) At work, in blogs and on mailing lists, more and more people are declaring themselves to be fed up with these value-minimal activities. If we make it easier to share, collaborate, and engage meaningfully with our colleagues, then I think it will only take a small push to tip people into these new forms of interaction.

3 thoughts on “Lowering the sharing threshold”

  1. Mark –

    Email is not our friend. I am old enough to remember when email was not acceptable communication. Obviously it has become the dominant form of communication.

    Before email as the communication method there was federal express, facsimiles and telecopiers. There should be no reason to think that email is the apex of communications and there is no better way to communicate.

    I see a lot of the sharing happening in email. Unfortunately that is a bunkered down silo that is hard to reuse and leverage.

    I think it is a big change, because we are asking people to change behavior.

    The other factor is Metcalfe’s law. (The first person with a fax was boered.) It will take a critical mass of people using the new tools for them to become effective. Once we hit that critical mass, then they will take off.

  2. Doug,

    I am not sure that Metcalfe’s Law applies to Web2.0. The difference between the current generation of social software and the original telephones and faxes is that when the first person started blogging or using a wiki, they already had millions of people who could potentially read their words — they did not have to wait for other people to join in. Admittedly, the more people who do contribute, the better the conversation might be. (Until we get to the breaking point that we are reaching with e-mail.)

    The real problem with use of e-mail is not that it is better than the telephone or the pony express; it is that we didn’t learn how to cope with its demands in time. When I first started using e-mail (more years ago than I would to admit), it was a novelty. Few other people had it, and it was easy to ignore the fact that it is actually a great tool for asynchronous communication. Before long, it became imperative to reply to or action an e-mail message as soon as it arrived. We now live in a world where communication is governed by hard service levels, but we rarely stop to think whether they are necessary.

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