Social = people = personal first

I have been thinking recently about the power of social software at work — prompted in part by my post earlier in the week, but also by news that Cogenz, an enterprise social bookmarking tool, is now available as an on-premises version at a strikingly reasonable cost. (This may not be new news, but I only heard of it this week.) I have also been pondering the 800lb gorilla in this room: Sharepoint. After this cogitation, I have come to the view that successful enterprise social software has to put the enterprise last. This is a reversal of the traditional paradigm of business computing.

Since the birth of LEO nearly 58 years ago, computers have been part of business. By and large, their role has been to automate, speed up, replicate, organise, make more efficient, or otherwise affect work activities. That is, their primary impact has been on things that people would not do unless there was a business reason for them to be done. As a by-product in later years, people started to use business-related software to manage domestic or private activities (writing letters, making party invitations or balancing household accounts, for example), but these tended to be peripheral. During this time, if they had a home computer at all, people would expect technology at work to be ahead of what they had at home.

Over the past 5-10 years the balance between personal and business technology has changed completely. Driven by (a) the spread of internet connectivity (especially wi-fi) into the home, (b) the need to support other digital technologies (cameras, music players, gaming devices, for example), and (c) increased functionality and connectivity in small-format devices (mainly mobile phones), it is now frequently the case that people’s domestic technology outstrips that provided to them at work. Alongside this change in the hardware balance of power (and for similar reasons), software has also become much more focused on enhancing the things that people might want to do for themselves, rather than for a salary.

These changes are part and parcel of Web 2.0, social software, social networking — call it what you will. Those tools work because they serve an individual need before they do anything else. A couple of examples by way of illustration.

  • Delicious works in the first instance because it helps people store pointers to web pages that they find useful. Because that storage takes place independently of the computer the user sits at, it is ideal for people who access the internet from a variety of locations (home, work, a public library, and so on). Better than that, delicious allows people to start to classify these pointers, or at least tag them with useful aides-memoire. Both of those things — location-independent storage and tagging — mean that delicious is already more useful than the alternative (browser-based bookmarks). The final piece in the jigsaw — sharing of bookmarks — is just the icing on the cake. The social aspect only comes into play once personal needs are satisfied.
  • Flickr has a similar dynamic. As digital camera use spreads, people start to need different ways of showing pictures to their friends and families. It is rare that people will print all of their holiday snaps so that they can take them to work and make their colleagues jealous. Instead, they can upload them to the website and share the link. After a while, having uploaded hundreds or thousands of pictures, finding the right ones becomes difficult. But flickr offers the possibility of tagging individual pictures or grouping them in sets. That organisation makes it much easier to show them with the right people. But it also means that other people’s pictures can be discovered because they have used the same tags. Like delicious, the social aspect — sharing, commenting on, and collecting other people’s pictures — comes after the personal.

Unlike the telephone, or e-mail, which depend for their efficacy on network effects, these social tools have value at a non-networked, private, personal level. Unsurprisingly, the early adopters of those first communications technologies were large organisations. If nothing else, they were able to create small network effects internally or between each other. For example, universities were early users of e-mail because it sat well with traditional inter-institution academic collaboration. By contrast, businesses and other organisations have typically lagged behind individuals in the adoption of Web 2.0 tools. (To be clear, individuals at work may well be early users of these tools, but their employers tend to see the light much later.)

As a general rule of thumb then, technologies supporting new types of social interaction tend to be proved by use in a non-commercial context and by providing real personal value ahead of any network effect. Sometimes this doesn’t quite work out. Twitter, for example, provides little personal value without the network effect. However, I think the fact that there is such a low barrier to entry to the twitter network explains that. It also came late to the social party, and so it could piggyback on existing networks. Sometimes the social element doesn’t have a particularly great impact. Many people on flickr do not use the full range of tools (commenting, tagging, etc). I use Librarything primarily as a catalogue of my books, to make sure that I don’t duplicate them. There is a social side to the service, but I haven’t really engaged with it. That does not diminish the utility of the site for me or for anyone else using it.

This week’s McKinsey Quarterly report on “Six ways to make Web 2.0 work” includes a similar point:

2. The best uses come from users—but they require help to scale. In earlier IT campaigns, identifying and prioritizing the applications that would generate the greatest business value was relatively easy. These applications focused primarily on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of known business processes within functional silos (for example, supply-chain-management software to improve coordination across the network). By contrast, our research shows the applications that drive the most value through participatory technologies often aren’t those that management expects.

Efforts go awry when organizations try to dictate their preferred uses of the technologies—a strategy that fits applications designed specifically to improve the performance of known processes—rather than observing what works and then scaling it up. When management chooses the wrong uses, organizations often don’t regroup by switching to applications that might be successful.

In practice, I suspect this means that corporate information is less likely to lead to social interactions (even inside the firewall) than personal content is (such as collections of links, and views expressed in blogs). People are more likely to appreciate the value of other people’s personal content than anonymous material, no matter how relevant the latter is supposed to be to their work. More importantly, when someone appreciates the value of being able to create their own content by using a tool or system provided by their employer, they are more likely to support and promote the use of that tool or system amongst their colleagues. That way success lies.

But what of existing corporate systems? Can they have social elements successfully grafted onto them? This question is most commonly asked of Sharepoint because, as Andrew Gent has put it “Is SharePoint the Lotus Notes of the 21st Century?“. He starts with praise.

The result is a very powerful collaboration, simple document management, and web space management system. It didn’t hurt that V2 of the team collaboration portion of the product (known at the time as Windows SharePoint Services) was “free” for most enterprise Office customers. SharePoint essentially invented a market segment which until that point had been occupied by “integrated” combinations of large and/or complex product sets. Just as Lotus Notes did 20 years ago.

Another similarity is the limitations of the basic architectural design of the product. All products have what could be called a “design center” — a focal point — an ideal business problem that the product tries to solve. The design center defines the core architectural goals of the product. SharePoint’s design center is flexible collaborative functionality centered around light-weight document management and customizable portals.

And the fact is SharePoint’s design center hit a bull’s eye. The need for easy-to-use collaboration spaces and web sites that don’t require web programming — that work well with Microsoft Office and the Microsoft security model — has been a big hit inside corporations. As a salesman for a competing product once told me, his job is not so much selling their own product, but explaining why customers shouldn’t use SharePoint.

But then things get ugly:

SharePoint is designed with flexibility at the space or site level. It allows individuals to take responsibility for managing their own sites and collections of sites. But if — from a corporate or even a divisional level — you want to manage the larger collection, SharePoint becomes resistant — almost belligerent — to control.

The inability to create even simple relationships between lists in different spaces (beyond simple filtered aggregation) without programming is the first sign of strain in SharePoint’s design. Then there are site columns. Site columns let you — ostensibly — define common metadata for multiple lists or libraries. However, you cannot enforce the use of site columns and site columns only work within a single site collection. There is no metadata control across multiple site collections. In other words, simplified control within the sites leads to lack of control at the macro level.

These are all just symptoms of a larger systemic issue: SharePoint is designed around the site. In Version 3 (also know as MOSS 2007) site collections have been introduced to provide some limited amount of cross-site control. But the underlying design principles of SharePoint (ie. user control and customization) work against control at the higher level.

So there is a fundamental reason why Sharepoint will not be able to move from the merely collaborative to the genuinely social. It is driven by the need to support existing business structures and pre-defined designs. Sharepoint uses cannot be emergent, a key feature of Enterprise 2.0 tools (as explained by Andrew McAfee and Rob Salkowitz), because they need to be planned from the outset. In David Weinberger’s terms, the filtering takes place on the way in, not on the way out. As JP Rangaswami suggests, filtering on the way out provides opportunities for more interesting knowledge management.

1. In order to filter on the way in, we need to have filters, filters which can act as anchors and frames and thereby corrupt the flow of information. We’ve learnt a lot about anchors and frames and their effect on predilections and prejudices and decision-making. With David’s first principle, we reduce the risk of this bias entering our classification processes too early.

2. I think it was economist Mihaly Polanyi  who talked about things that we know we know, things that we know we don’t know and things that we don’t know we don’t know. Again, filtering on the way in prevents us gathering the things that we don’t know we don’t know.

3. The act of filtering is itself considered necessary to solve a scale problem. We can’t process infinite volumes of things. But maybe now it’s okay to be a digital squirrel, given the trends in the costs of storage. [Sometimes I wonder why we ever delete things, since we can now store snapshots every time something changes. We need never throw away information]. Filtering on the way out becomes something that happens in a natural-selection way, based on people using some element of information, tagging it, collaboratively filtering it.

Thanks to Euan Semple, we do at least know that Microsoft’s heart is in the right place:

…the highlight so far for me of FASTForward ’09 has been getting to know Christian Finn, director for SharePoint product management at Microsoft. Christian is a really nice guy who has been going out of his way to spend time with the bloggers from the FASTForward blog and myself getting his head around the social computing world we all get so excited about.

I am interested to see how this engagement works out for Microsoft and for us. Especially because I think one of the underpinnings of the Microsoft/Apple dichotomy is the two companies’ different approaches to the corporate and the personal. Apple has always been more focused on the personal, while Microsoft concentrated on enterprise needs. This nearly killed Apple in the years when “personal computers” were really more likely to be desktop enterprise systems. Apple has made a comeback on the back of increased personalisation of technology. Can Microsoft work out how that is done?

Personal KM

Confession time: I think there is a link between improvements in personal productivity or effectiveness and increased organisational performance. (Where the organisation may be as small as a team or as large as a firm.) However, I am happy to admit that I know of no real evidence for this assertion: it is a bold statement to make without qualification. I am sure there are many examples where personal endeavours have not led to improvements in the business — because other factors have intervened, or because the individuals’ activities were poorly focused.

That said, I would be surprised if Doug Cornelius doesn’t turn out to be a real asset to Beacon Capital Partners because of his personal knowledge management practices. As Doug explains in his old blog, he has been using a blog as a learning platform in his new role as Chief Compliance Officer, and he has just opened it up to wider viewing.

It was an interesting experience using a blog as a learning tool. The blog was a very convenient way to link to relevant articles, cases, statutes and regulations that play a role in my job.

If I were in law school now, I would use a blog to keep my notes. The blog platform is just a great way to keep information organized and retrievable. The blog posts are arranged in chronological order, making them easy to find based on date. I use the categories to keep the posts organized by topic. I use the tags to organize the posts around sub-topic, author and publication. Pages provide an overview, with easy editing.

I currently have no interest in compliance and business ethics, but if I did Doug’s notes would be an incredible resource. In the period since late September, when he took on the new role, Doug has posted over 360 items to the blog.

If anyone needs an example to demonstrate how effective blogging can be for knowledge and learning, I think Doug’s new blog is perfect.

Challenging the orthodoxy

Given the focus of this blog I suppose I should welcome Michael Idinopulos’s almost heretical conclusion that law firms are misguided in using wikis to support know-how activities (at least as an initial use case).

From an adoption standpoint, however, general know-how is usually a bad place to start. Lawyers are incredibly busy, and general know-how lies squarely above-the-flow of their daily work. Because lawyers lack incentives to contribute their knowledge to the rest of the firm, invitations to participate in social software implementations are often greeted with a polite “Thanks but no thanks.”

I am not sure how I feel about this, so bear with me while I try to work it out.

My initial thoughts were that firms might be using wikis to drive know-how into the flow, rather than leaving it above the flow. This could have only a limited impact initially, but I don’t know whether this is because know-how will always be above the flow, as Michael argues.

Michael starts his critique by recognising that the reason for the concentration on know-how is one of jurisdictional engagement.

The first decision-makers in a firm to “get religion” on social software are usually in firm-wide knowledge roles: CKOs, directors of know-how. They pursue general legal know-how because that’s their organizational jurisdiction. It’s the aspect of the firm’s activity for which they are responsible.

Obviously, I can only plead guilty on that point. Which is probably why the critique stings.

On one hand, I wonder whether Michael’s view is informed by his own expectations of how wikis might work. In this connection, I was very taken with Andrew McAfee’s simple approach to evaluating Enterprise 2.0 products:

I usually dodge questions about specific vendors and their offerings, and instead answer how I’d look at any particular deployment of collaboration software to see if it met my definition of Enterprise 2.0.

I find this pretty easy to do. I check to see if the environment meets three criteria: Is it freeform? How frictionless is contribution? And is it emergent?

In this context, the key criterion for me is emergence. As McAfee explains, “My best-effort definition of the phenomenon is the appearance over time within a system of higher-level patterns or structure arising from large numbers of unplanned and undirected low-level interactions.” If we set out to define a wiki as the place where know-how is stored, I am sure that success is by no means guaranteed. However, if it is just one place where know-activities can take place (not just storage, but capture of conversations and creation of know-how), I think we might have a really useful additional tool in our set. Not everyone has to be engaged, but if some are, then that is really valuable.

On the other hand, I do think Michael’s point about client engagement is a good one. I didn’t work in a law firm before e-mail, so I don’t know how the adoption process worked then. My guess, however, is that there was some resistance until it became clear that it made access to and by clients easier. I see no reason why wikis (and other novel technologies) should follow a different pattern. Michael gives excellent examples of wiki use across the firewall that show how successful this approach can be.

Except… For me, one of the things that wikis might do (admittedly to a lesser extent than blogs) is to expose people’s personal know-how processes. These are absolutely within the flow. Everyone has their own way of gathering the things that are important to them. For lawyers this is almost invariably paper-based. They have files and folders full of old agreements, articles, case reports and so on. Each of these can trigger a stored memory when necessary (and vice versa). I have a vision in which people can identify their own know-how by tagging it where it is (which is how I use and exposing their thought processes through a blog or collectively in a wiki. If wikis are in the flow for some, but not others, surely we should lead by example.

Coincidentally, Jack Vinson covered similar ground yesterday in asking “Do Web 2.0 tools help personal effectiveness?” The summary answer is “No.” In more detail, Jack is keen to underscore the distinction between the tool and the way in which it is used.

[T]he tools don’t make me more effective. It is the process in which I am using the tools. I can have a sheet of paper and a pen and be very effective, or very ineffective. The question is my process (and my mental state), not the tools I have at hand.

Those of us in a role where we can champion social software inside the firewall need to be aware of this. Our leadership must concentrate on processes and mental states. For some people this will clearly lead to a client focus such as the ones that Michael describes. For others, personal motivation may be enough to drive personal KM activities or even group know-how development.

The lesson I take from Michael’s ultimately justified corrective is that we should stop pushing when people are clearly resisting our fine words. There will be other opportunities elsewhere in the business. We should focus our efforts on the battles that we can win most easily. Once we are done with those, our successes will breed success elsewhere. (Crucially, this is a lesson for all types of tools, not just the ones that a particularly shiny and new at the moment.)

The millennial organisation

I can’t remember how I found it, but there is a snappy presentation by Sacha Chua on Slideshare entitled “The Gen Y Guide to Web 2.0 at Work.” I think it is misnamed — it is actually a valuable guide to Web 2.0 for people of any generation. See what you think:

Slide 5 is the best:

Here’s how to wow with Web 2.0:

  1. Read
  2. Write
  3. Reach out
  4. Rock
  5. Repeat from #1

So true. Almost everything I try and do (and encourage others to try and do) comes down to one or more of these things.

However, there is something else buried in the presentation which I found just as interesting. I thought this was an internal presentation for people at IBM (where Sacha works), and so when I saw a link to their blogging guidelines I assumed they might be behind the IBM firewall. In fact they are on public view, and are well worth reading. Apart from the content, which is balanced and intelligent, this statement caught my eye:

In the spring of 2005, IBMers used a wiki to create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog. These guidelines aimed to provide helpful, practical advice—and also to protect both IBM bloggers and IBM itself, as the company sought to embrace the blogosphere. Since then, many new forms of social media have emerged. So we turned to IBMers again to re-examine our guidelines and determine what needed to be modified. The effort has broadened the scope of the existing guidelines to include all forms of social computing.

So that is why the guidelines are balanced and intelligent — the people they affect have collaborated to create something that serves IBM well, in addition to taking account of the reality of engagement with social media.

IBM is clearly a company that understands the positive impact of social media on its business. I don’t think this is solely because part of the business is actually to develop products for collaboration.

Compare this approach with a comment in an article in the Financial Times last week: ” Law firms are at the cutting edge of internet tools.” We’ll ignore the verity or otherwise of the headline — maybe that’s a topic for another day. No — something curious was buried in the middle of the article:

Enterprises often let the beast out of the cage by introducing Web 2.0 and are faced with the ramifications of clogging the enterprise with unapproved, chaotic information.

Who said this? A fuddy-duddy technophobic managing partner? A stereotypically controlling CIO? No. It is a direct quote from Dr Michael Lynch, OBE, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Autonomy Corporation plc. I find this really odd. Here is Autonomy’s vision:

Autonomy was founded upon a vision to dramatically change the way in which we interact with information and computers, ensuring that computers map to our world, rather than the other way round.

Human-friendly or unstructured information is not naturally found in the rows and columns of a database, but in documents, presentations, videos, phone conversations, emails and IMs. We are facing an increasing deluge of unstructured information, with 80% now falling into this category and, according to Gartner, the volume of this data doubling every month. As the amount of unstructured information multiplies, the challenge for the modern enterprise is trying to understand and extract the value that lies within this vast sea of data.

I suspect that Lynch’s full comment has been cut short by the FT. Surely he meant to go on to say that his company could undo this chaos? As reported, however, the statement is more likely to be used by more risk-averse firms to avoid adoption of social software inside the firewall. In doing so, they will miss one of the key points of this kind of technology.

As Andrew McAfee puts it (building on a 1973 article, “The Strength of Weak Ties” by Mark Granovetter), the use of social software inside the firewall creates opportunities for innovation and value-creation. (Strong ties are found between colleagues who work closely together, while weak ties are found in a wider, more casual, network.)

A tidy summary of SWT’s conclusion is that strong ties are unlikely to be bridges between networks, while weak ties are good bridges. Bridges help solve problems, gather information, and import unfamiliar ideas. They help get work done quicker and better. The ideal network for a knowledge worker probably consists of a core of strong ties and a large periphery of weak ones. Because weak ties by definition don’t require a lot of effort to maintain, there’s no reason not to form a lot of them (as long as they don’t come at the expense of strong ties).

Information in the network of weak ties can surface by a variety of means — especially tagging and search. Information only exists in that network if people adopt an approach like Sacha Chua’s — read, write, reach out. If a business fails to provide opportunities for its people to build and contribute to networks of weak ties, they make a serious mistake.

Tom Davenport has asked “Can Millennials Really Change the Workplace?” Maybe we should looking not at Millennial individuals, but at whether our businesses are themselves behaving millennially, and facilitating Generation Y approaches for all our people. Frederic Baud is sceptical :

Enterprise 2.0 represents a real paradigm shift for process oriented organizations.

I hate to use the term “paradigm shift”, because it has been used so many times, and for quite common situations. But in this case, I’m starting to wonder if there is not indeed a very distinctive approach between the two modes that would require organization to adopt very different ways to think about their internal dynamics.

This may be true, but now is surely an obvious time to think about those internal dynamics. Competition between enterprises in all markets is becoming increasingly close. Businesses worrying about coping with “unapproved chaotic information” may well find that their unsinkable ship has the tidiest set of deck-chairs at the bottom of the ocean. Those who start thinking creatively about the power of these disruptive technologies will probably find that they are first in line for the life-rafts.

If your organisation is thinking of getting serious about becoming Millennial, you will find few better summaries of the practical issues than Lee Bryant’s “Getting started with enterprise social networking.” (And if the sinking ship metaphor is too brutal for you, try Jack Vinson’s porch.)

Do you know where you’re going to?

Via James Mullan, here are “35 tips for getting started with social media.” The list is positioned thus:

If you are going to start using social media, you should at least have an understanding of what it’s about. Social media is not about the tools, the tools are only a facilitator.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Actually, this is an interesting list, but it is not particularly coherent. Anyone facing the world of social media needs to answer a simple question for themselves: “why am I doing this?” There are many possible answers:

  • To find out more about the world of Web 2.0
  • To connect with people I already know
  • To connect with people I don’t yet know who have a common interest
  • To position myself or my business in this new market
  • To make money
  • To contribute information and knowledge

…and so on.

Some of these aims are honourable, some less so. That’s fine — the whole gamut of relationships can be facilitated by these tools. But you need to know what you want from them. Before working through this list of 35 tips, you need to be able to judge whether any one of them will help you serve your vision of what you want from social media. You also need to be aware that the authors of lists like these may have a different vision from yours.

The same is true for shorter lists. Kevin O’Keefe has named his top three social media tools for law firms. They are blogs, Twitter and LinkedIn. That may be true for those firms (and their clients and potential clients) that are comfortable with those tools. If they are just a me-too choice, that will be glaringly obvious to others. That is because the main goal of these tools is connection. If you or your firm feels more comfortable connecting in a different way (whether that is Web 2.0 or not), do that instead. Those you connect with will respect you for it.

And if you do follow Kevin’s advice, connect properly. Clients find it irritating enough when law firms stop producing traditional briefings. Imagine their discontent when you are no longer connecting with them via a blog that they have come to know and respect.

So what do you want from your social media? What will success look like? Can you sustain your interest in it for the long term? Once you have answered those questions, you are ready to think about the tools you need and a strategy for deploying them.

Yes — you do need a strategy. Think about e-mail. That is just a tool. It facilitates connections. But it has become a monster for many people because we didn’t think properly about how we intended to use it and the limits we should put on it. All the social media tools that look today like fluffy kittens also have the potential to become monsters as scary as e-mail. If we bear that in mind when giving them house-room, we might be able to cope better when they start to grow.

(Hat tips to Mary Abraham and Doug Cornelius for the link to Kevin’s post.)

Standing on the shoulders of giants

A recent exchange of views on the actKM mailing list inspired me to think about writing about my own Web2.0 experience, and what it means for me. Then the now-famous Wired article was published (no link — it has had enough — but here is a good early critique). I commented on the article’s point of view over at LawyerKM, but I think there is more to add.

My comment at LawyerKM:

Blogging is just writing. Did people stop keeping diaries because Samuel Pepys came along? Did the New York Times render The Journal News obsolete? We don’t all blog for a mass audience (I think the best bloggers actually blog for themselves).

When we write, the medium we choose is often selected because it fits the subject matter or the context particularly well. Sometimes I write in a Moleskine. Sometimes I write in Word. Sometimes a blog is best. People can’t comment on my Moleskine, and people outside the firm cannot see my Word document. If I am lucky they may have something interesting to say about the blog, or it may spur them to write something of their own elsewhere. Either of those reactions is fine by me — they spread knowledge.

To be honest, when I started doing this I did not expect to be part of the spread (and growth) of knowledge. I think this platform, along with many other Web2.0 tools, is first of all a mechanism for developing personal knowledge. Flickr,, Librarything, these are all excellent ways of storing information that we already have or that we create. The fact that they are online is a bonus — their contents are thereby always ready for use. (Up to a point.) When you layer on top of that the capability to tag your information, it becomes even more useful. I can see how many of my books have an Irish connection, for example (or I would if I had finished tagging them all), which would be difficult without the technology. Then, more significantly, these systems are open by design so that all the information I create can be shared with others.

This tagging and sharing gets better and better. One can create networks of like-minded people and easily dip into the pool of information that interests them. But this is just information. It has no context beyond the association of the raw data and some tags which make sense only to the person using them.

It is the next step where things get really interesting. One of the reasons why I started blogging outside the firewall (I have been doing it at work for some time) is that I needed to add more context to some of the material that I found online and stored in I could only do that by writing about it. How should I do that? As mentioned in my original comment, I am fond of my Moleskine notebooks, but it is difficult to link lots of different web pages together using paper and ink. They have their place, but this is not it. In order to make more sense of this ocean of information, one has to start swimming. And so this blog. Its first purpose is to give me a place where I can start to make more sense of things.

And then unexpectedly people start to join in. They pick up on things that one writes, and they leave comments or write on their own blogs. A cycle starts. Before you know where you are, there are new ideas driving new blogposts. I can honestly say that my understanding of a whole range of things has increased directly as a result of these interactions. And these are interactions that I could never have had if I had remained a silent user of Across my chequered career, I have collaborated with people in a variety of different ways — writing articles with colleagues, speaking at conferences with people I had just met, participating in Usenet and on mailing lists — but this experience has been as good as the most fruitful of all of those others.

That is why blogging will not go away. It enhances the human capacity to communicate and it does so in a fair and just way. It gives everyone access to giants on whose shoulders they can stand in order to see further. We all get better by that collaborative effort: the lone genius is mythical.

Interestingly, bearing in mind that the Wired piece promoted Twitter as the new great thing, I have come to this conclusion in part because of my short experience in using that service. That has shown me more of the people I know only virtually: fellow bloggers, commenters, journalists and cultural icons. Twitter gives more context to the blogs, comments, articles and podcasts that these people produce. With that additional context, they have commensurately greater value. 

Altogether awesome.

Coming back to earth, and to the queries raised by the actKM conversation, how does all this translate into the working environment? There are two issues.

  1. (How) can the enterprise leverage the activities of its people using Web2.0?
  2. Can we replicate the success of Web2.0 inside the firewall?

On one view, we should be concerned that people’s use of these external services creates valuable knowledge that is effectively lost to the business because it cannot be searched, stored or managed as a discrete set. My own experience makes me sanguine about this risk. If people use these tools to develop themselves and their knowledge in ways that would not be possible inside the enterprise, then the business can only be richer as a result. If they do not develop, then there is no useful additional knowledge created and the enterprise should only be concerned at the waste of time (which may well be the employee’s own, which cannot be a concern).

The second point is a more challenging one. One of the real points of value in external collaboration is the sheer diversity of potential collaborators. That diversity is most unlikely to be reflected in any but the largest businesses. This is why we need to manage internal collaboration. On that point, I finally got a chance today to review James Robertson’s presentation “Ten tips for succeeding at collaboration” recorded at the Open Publish 2008 conference in Sydney, July 2008.

James presents a really simple, but effective, model for successful collaboration. One of the most powerful elements for me was the distinction between publishing and collaboration, and especially the need to bridge the gap between the two in clearly defined ways. With the benefit of this insight from the other side of the world, I think I will be able to do some of the things I need to do much better than I would otherwise. Thank you James.

    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.

    Social software in law firms

    About ten days ago, I attended a law firm breakfast meeting hosted by Headshift, the social software consultancy. Penny Edwards has blogged about the event and posted the presentation on Slideshare. It was a really interesting meeting and discussion, and well worth the very early start I had to make to get there from Manchester.

    The presentation focuses on the value that social software can bring to law firms in the area of current awareness, which is a really interesting use-case. I think there is a lot that lawyers can do with social software, but it will take a while to wean them off Word and Outlook. (That isn’t to say that those tools do not have their place, but we know they are used sub-optimally.) On the other hand, information professionals in law firms are crying out for better ways of managing client and legal updates and research. Once they are up and running with new tools such as the ones demonstrated by Headshift, I think the lawyers will quickly come to understand the ways in which they can work better than Word or Outlook.

    Following the presentation, Penny demonstrated some work that Headshift have done for Dewey & LaBoeuf. This integrates a wiki (Confluence, I think, although Headshift also work with Socialtext) with an enterprise RSS service (Newsgator). The main virtue of this work, as far as I could see, was the simplicity with which the elements were fitted together. Obviously we couldn’t see how they integrated with Dewey’s existing intranet, but I could see how they could slot in quite seamlessly.

    As with most of these events, though, the really interesting part was the discussion. Fired by the presentation and demonstration, there were many questions round the table. These carried on even after the formal part of the meeting was over. One of the comments that really stuck in my mind was something that Lars Plougmann said. He reckoned (without having been able to test it) that the participation dynamic is different when social software comes inside the firewall.

    The now-traditional assertion about wikis is that usage breaks down in three ways: 90% of people read but do not contribute; 9% contribute from time to time; and 1% participate heavily — accounting for most of the material. As far as I can find out, there is nothing to suggest conclusively that Lars’s view is accurate. (His hope is reflected by others, though.) But what are the consquences if the 90-9-1 rule does hold true for enterprise wikis?

    If we construe it strictly, this usage profile should mean that no wiki can succeed if it serves less than 100 people (since a fraction of a person would be required otherwise). Some enterprise wikis might cover a much smaller group than this (such as a client-focused knowledge-sharing wiki where the client team is only 50 lawyers or so). However, if a single person were to support more than one wiki, their efforts could sustain 99 people overall. This leads me to the (I think inexorable) conclusion that we should focus our wiki efforts on areas where there are keen contributors rather than those where we could see a significant RoI, but no obvious wiki leaders. This appears a little counter-intuitive, and would need some nifty footwork to convince Ricky Revenue.

    In all, then, a thought provoking morning and a welcome distraction. Many thanks to Penny and Lars!

    Getting a clue

    A little while ago, Doug Cornelius posted a review of Groundswell. At the time, I looked at the book and the authors’ blog;* I wasn’t tempted to buy it, but something looked familiar. When a colleague recommended the book to me today, I took another look and realised where the resonance was: the Cluetrain Manifesto.

    I remember when the Cluetrain Manifesto was all the rage. Nine years ago, I was working in a University, and was part of the group trying to plan for or avoid Y2K meltdown. For both those reasons, the significance of the Cluetrain passed me by at the time. Looking back at it recently, it made much more sense, and chimed with some of the things I think we should be doing (as part of KM or otherwise).

    I wondered whether the Groundswell editors referred to Cluetrain. I still don’t know if they do so in the book itself, but Josh Bernoff has written a number of related posts in their blog. One of them (“Corporate social technology strategy, Purists, and Corporatists — why companies CAN participate“) is particularly insightful.

    On the one side are the folks who say, “The social world is an emergent phenomenon generated by people connecting.” The original Cluetrain Manifesto rails against many aspects of the corporate world and basically posits that the right way for companies to get involved is for people inside those companies to connect to their customers. … For shorthand, let’s call these folks the Purists.

    On the other side are companies who are looking at the social Internet and saying “how can we exploit this to do what we already do — PR and advertising, for example?” PR and advertising are mostly one-way, broadcast type communications, and these folks continue to try to adapt those one-way modes of thinking in the two-way, read-write world of social computing. I’ll caricature these folks as the Corporatists.

    I’m here to stand up and proudly say, Purists and Corporatists, you’re both wrong.

    Josh then goes on to provide reasons why they are both right. Then he gets to the heart of the matter:

    As a corporate staffer, you have no business in the groundswell unless you know what you are trying to do there. You could be trying to increase awareness, generate word of mouth, surface leads, save on support costs, on tap into innovation. But regardless, no corporate activity should go forward without a measurable goal, and this is no different.

    Looking back at the Cluetrain Manifesto, and at the list of case studies in Groundswell, I wonder what the typical law firm view would be. There is a clear bias in both publications towards examination of relationships between businesses and individual consumers. That is not to say that B2B relationships do not involve individuals, but those relationships are already conducted on a different level (in professional services firms, at least).

    The first of the Cluetrain Manifesto’s 95 theses is:

    Markets are conversations.

    As far as I can tell, professional services cannot be provided effectively without conversations. However, this is often only true at the point of delivery. Looking at law firm newsletters, for example, we might reasonably conclude that firms have no interest in conversing with their clients. Adding that attitude to lawyers’ professional risk aversion, it is not surprising that very few firms have ventured into public engagement with their markets in the way that the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto or Groundswell might suggest.


    * Coincidentally, it is Charlene Li’s last day at Forrester today. I don’t know whether the blog will survive her departure.

    How we see it

    Charles Arthur comments on the journalism vs new media debate, and in doing so explains his one rule for writing a blog post.

    The rule is this: when I write the post, I know more about that particular topic than the average person who’s going to read it. But I don’t know more about the particular topic than some of the people reading it – so if I can get them to contribute then everyone (me and the other readers) will have benefited. (And of course if I don’t know more, or suspect I don’t know more, than the average reader, I should go away and find out some more until I do.)

    Journalists are not especially different in this respect from lawyers. Sometimes we may have clients who know more about the law in question than their advisors. Only a handful of people (out of a population of thousands) get to be the undisputed experts in their fields. The rest of us have to hope that we know enough to be helpful to the client and to allow the possibility that the client might help us. Charles has a view on this too.

    The trick is in writing it in a way that will get those people who do know more to contribute it. That’s tricky. Takes practise. Maybe that’s what the new journalism is about: writing in a way that raises the amount of knowledge in the average reader’s head, while encouraging the reader further up the bell curve of knowledge to pitch in too.

    Those of us who are interested in opening up knowledge sharing within law fims (or anywhere, I suspect) can learn from this. The best examples of knowledge sharing arise when people who know a little feel empowered enough to communicate what they know and confident enough to accept correction or clarification from those who know — and all this can occur in an open environment so that those on the sidelines also learn. That is why carefully managed Web2.0 technologies inside the firewall can offer real KM benefits — they show how knowledge flows around the business.