Oh good grief…

I think I am grateful to Mary Abraham for pointing me in the direction of Venkatesh Rao’s densely argued article opposing knowledge management and social media. In fact, it made me as despondent as Charlie Brown faced with yet another opportunity to kick Lucy’s football. This is not a generational war: it is a battle of the straw men. Mary has already dealt deftly with the supposed distinction between KM and Web2.0. What about the straw men?

Defining knowledge management

Venkat characterises KM as a “venerable IT-based social engineering discipline.” IT-based? Dave Snowden was right: we have lost the battle to define KM in other than technology terms. That said, many of us who take seriously the duty to define KM properly do so primarily by reference to people, rather than technology.

Venkat goes on to present a range of crude stereotypes of KM activities:

  • “KM is about ideology”
  • Expertise location is about a yearning for a “priestly elite”
  • “KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture”

Some of the detail of Venkat’s argument is good, although he appears to have met some pretty scary knowledge managers. My response to some of his examples (and experiences) was to wonder how much was driven by particular corporate cultures. But Venkat attributes almost all of this stereotypical KM to the ultimate straw man: it’s generational.

Boomers, X and Y

For someone who is critical (albeit not ultimately so) of “systematic ontological engineering,” Venkat draws an unusually firm distinction between people of different ages. Apparently, as a result of being born in 1962, I am a Boomer. My wife and my sister, born within three days of each other in 1964, have the good fortune to be in Generation X. (Clearly 1963 was an annus mirabilis for reasons other than the one identified by Philip Larkin.) My children (all born in the 1990s) are of Generation Y. We are all products of our cultural history (which we have in common with others born at a similar time and brought up in similar cultures), but also our families (which are ours alone). Segregation into generational cohorts ignores this basic fact.

Date of birth does not determine a generation. Where you fit in the generations will depend on a range of personal factors — personal responsibilities (are you a carer or a parent, or are you fancy-free), political focus (do you tend to respect authority, or do you seek your own gurus), and age (not when you were born, but how old are you). Generation Y may well be less than enthusiastic about authority now, but are they rioting in the streets like their French counterparts 40 years ago? Danny the Red, one of the leading soixante-huitards is now part of the Establishment (albeit in a less mainstream party). The difference between then and now is more a question of age than generation.

All people, whether born after 1980 or not, can and do use social media. Inevitably, because they have more time and they were born and schooled in a world where IT prevailed (in the first world and parts of the second world, at least), the younger ones are in a position to make more of it. Of course, those of us who have had to fit into working life for over 20 years will find it harder to adapt to new things. Some of us will find it easier than others, just as some of Generation Y find technology harder.

Ironically, the one of my children who had the earliest acquaintance with the web (within hours of his birth in 1995), has a very different relationship with e-mail, SMS and MSN than his sisters (1993 and 1997). If I were minded to do so, I might draw conclusions about this about the way boys do social media. But I won’t because this single data point is irrelevant. I do not think that the stereotype peddled by adherents of Generation Y thinking is particularly helpful. Social media and related technologies do have the potential to change businesses. That change is not the personal prerogative of those born after 1980. I, and others in the Boomer and X generations, have our part to play. Don’t lump us together in these meaningless groups.

8 thoughts on “Oh good grief…”

  1. Fabulous post, Mark! While I couldn’t agree more, it does make me wonder if we’ve lost the battle for the soul of KM to the technophiles. If that’s the case, should we move on? Or should we just keep trying kick that football, Charlie?

    – Mary

  2. Thanks Mark and Mary for showing us an alternative to the seductively simple logic of a generational schism.

    I found Venkat’s anecdotes to be useful even if his thesis may not be a one size fits all proposition.

  3. […]  The entire piece is worth your time. In any case, Venkat’s observations drew a bunch of excellent commentary around the KM blogosphere, both supportive and skeptical. Here are some of the links: http://aboveandbeyondkm.blogspot.com/2008/10/war-between-social-media-and-km.htmlhttp://www.reyes-chow.com/2008/10/its-not-just-us.htmlhttp://churchasart.com/blog/2008/10/09/gen-x-culture-wars-and-the-hyphenated-movements/http://www.whatralphknows.com/2008/10/social-media-vs-knowledge-management.htmlhttp://www.onstrategies.com/blog/?p=343http://amanwithaphd.wordpress.com/2008/09/30/a-generational-war/http://www.spreadingscience.com/2008/09/30/a-generational-war/http://cmsreport.com/blog/social-media-vs-knowledge-managementhttps://blog.tarn.org/2008/10/10/oh-good-grief/He asked me to weigh in, which I did via private email. Here is the text of my response, for what it’s worth: 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.However, I think it’s necessary to back up a bit and look at the strategic objectives of the KM/SM initiative in the first place. The goal is to share knowledge to improve some aspect of performance, innovation, service, etc. Sharing knowledge has three components – capturing knowledge, locating knowledge, and consuming knowledge. Any knowledge transfer solution, from classroom training to wikis, has strengths and weaknesses in each of those respects. I use the following slide in my presentations to talk about this issue:  Basically, knowledge transfer can be oriented on an grid whose axes are Structured vs. Unstructured (X axis) and Personal vs. Impersonal. Printed documentation is the quintessential structured, impersonal (and static) type of knowledge repository. Search is unstructured/dynamic, but impersonal. Real-time communication is unstructured and personal, etc. If you have a multi-generational workplace and the goal is to get the knowledge-bearers to share, and the knowledge-needers to consume, you need to cover as much of the spectrum as possible to accommodate the whole range of learning and capturing styles, bearing in mind that it will be very difficult to get Millennials to appreciate or accept the highly-structured and linear modes of communication (but it will be just as essential to have these options available for “Boomerang Boomers” who join the organization in lower-level roles). In the long run, the triumph of social/unstructured knowledge transfer is inevitable, but the “long run” is going to be longer than is convenient for many of us. Boomers won’t be past the tipping point of organizational influence for 10-15 years. In the meantime, organizations will need to keep a parallel, legacy knowledge infrastructure in place to support the Boomerang Boomers and laggard X-ers who require static, authoritative references, as well as more dynamic social media for the Digital Natives. One of the goals of reciprocal mentoring, which Dan and I talk a lot about, is to engage younger workers to help capture the knowledge of their older peers in social media repositories and channels, with the hope that some of the domain expertise of the elder will rub off on the mentee, while the facility with social media tools and practices will adhere to the mentor. Once the Boomers internalize and “own” the social media channels, the top-down pressure for a managed, KM-oriented strategy will probably start to die a natural death. […]

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