Human Centricity, Social Media and the Knowledge Enterprise

By Raj Datta

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As a young discipline, KM has many definitions and interpretations. Most efforts to date have misinterpreted knowledge management and equated it with content or information management. The term "management" brings about an illusion of exercising control and creating defined processes which automatically extracts the knowledge from people and puts it into searchable repositories within a defined taxonomy.


It is believed there is a right way to classify information so that it can be centrally controlled. Most efforts that strategized in this manner did not succeed. The belief was once the intranet repository was built, content management processes and workflow deployed, people would naturally come and use it because it all made sense.


The submitters of content and seekers of content were considered independently and publishing of content happened in discrete steps due to the nature of process-enabled content management. But this approach didn't succeed so easily, in most cases resulting in failure or lukewarm success and the CXO's running the show lost clout in the process. Their knowledge strategy was not designed for success.


One basic element that was missed was a focus on the human being. Why would someone be willing to take the time and effort to pen their thoughts? Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge is fond of saying "… knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted." And the typical human being doesn't have an easy time writing polished white papers using a defined template for an unknown audience. Snowden also points out that we know more than we can tell, and we can tell more than we can write down.


Inherently then, people are more comfortable having conversations and dialog as a way of exchanging knowledge. And even if we did get the repositories populated using a well defined prescriptive process, the centralized taxonomy and navigation in the repository could seem unnatural for many seekers of that information—different seekers have different ways of classifying and navigating through information. The basic problem with this model was that the human was treated as an mechanical device, and knowledge management was largely a process-driven and prescriptive approach.


Web 2.0 & Social Media


Enter Web 2.0 and social media. While the basic technology underlying Web 2.0 has been around for quite some time (since the dawn of the Internet), its rise in popularity in recent years has brought it to the attention of business leaders. Social networking and collaboration tools on the Web are increasingly used to tap into an explosion of voluntary knowledge sharing. This feeds the comfort zone that people have with conversations and discussions through online activity.


The unstructured manner in which knowledge is exchanged has quickly built into mammoth repositories such as Wikipedia. There is such a large amount of user driven content out on the Web today, that many startups have been launched to create technology to navigate this voluminous content more productively.


What's made the difference is the human is at the epicenter of these systems. In addition to conversing, humans have a need to express themselves, to make friends and build relationships, and learn from others. People express themselves through social networks, mould their own identity, build a sense of belonging, and emote in this virtual space. Social media feels like a liberating tool as opposed to a prescriptive tool. As a side effect, plenty of knowledge gets generated and exchanged through emotionally-driven participation.


Beyond such enabling technology, cultural shifts in attitude have also

fueled this phenomenon towards socialization. Gen Y'ers are different from Gen X'er's and they are both quite different from Boomers. The ease with which Gen Y'ers are flocking to social media reflects a shift in social attitudes. The work style of both Gen X and Y is much more fluid and collaborative, and they don't mind multi-tasking and generating outcomes through self managed teams.


Their ability to multi-task coupled with openness to collaboration means that they are comfortable with things being done piece meal, a bit at a time, through a collective effort. This is true both in their personal and professional lives. Gen Y'ers certainly don't rely as much on the boss for detailed direction and task allocation as previous generations did. Many times the boss has to get out of the way and let the team get the job done; perhaps with a bit of coaching. Decision-making, to Gen Y'ers, is largely the responsibility of the team as a whole, and they fear and even have a disdain for micro-management.

Gen Y'ers are also much more at ease with diversity, across economic, ethnic, gender, and cognitive-style strata. They are hence easily connecting with other people in other parts of the planet and anyone with a common interest or goal becomes a friend in the online world. They also like exploring and learning new things with an open mind, and are even cultivating their value systems through online interaction. From a content perspective, such a shift in behavior is creating more comfort with unstructured or loosely structured content generation, and a receptiveness to collaboration.


The ‘Prosumer’


In this brave new world the separate roles of producers and consumers of knowledge are merging and the age of the “prosumer” is at hand where people collectively generate and consume knowledge and everyone eats their own dog food. Collaborative technologies are allowing people to not only discuss issues and fuel the decision making process through collective gathering of views and opinions, but also create an explicit form of social memory. Social memory can be defined as what is known and understood in a social network.


For example, people who are socially involved in the deliberations

for making a decision often have the deep insight into the reasons for

making that decision. They have an understanding of each others' viewpoints and feelings, as well. However, others not directly involved in the decision making process often only get communication of the outcome of the decision and don't have an understanding of what went into the decision making process. There is no evidence available to them of what transpired and why. And in today's empowered world, people spring into action only when they truly understand the reasoning underlying decisions more thoroughly. By creating an explicit form of social memory online, people can understand the “why” of certain decisions, and even get more involved in the decision making process itself. This applies to not only tactical issues at

a project team level, but strategic issues at an organizational level as well.


This significantly improves the quality of information available to people, and clarifies the context within which people are expected to act, which enhances buy-in, and creates a common alignment in purpose and direction. Social media then not only allows for conversations, but creates more inclusion overall. This is part of the reason that the open source movement has become so widespread and powerful.


Innovation also is fueled by social networking. There is a growing

opinion that innovation is fueled by an open and collaborative process which taps into the collective know-how of a community to not only come up with ideas, but to collectively transform those ideas into inventions and innovations. The success of the open source movement is a good example of this. Different people pitch in at different times in the process of creating open source software, balancing diverse collective thinking with collective action. And studies have shown that by creating a community of lead users and allowing them to interact, new demand itself is generated tapping into potential blue oceans.


Customer communities are allowing companies to simply listen and observe and sense trends ahead of time. Innovation, is a largely a social phenomena, and the flattening of the world is accelerating the pace through an increased capacity for connecting people.


Harnessing Knowledge


So what does this all mean to the enterprise whose ability to harness

knowledge and build capability is a core strategic issue? They must

reconsider and redraft their knowledge strategy for this "2.0" world. From a nuts and bolts perspective, the traditional deployment of centralized content management systems will have to be merged with this newer phenomena of community-driven content generation. The process-driven approach has to be merged with a people-driven approach and strategically backed by technology to make it a widespread reality.

A defined path for content management is still needed, but the raw material feeding it becomes assembled using collective approaches a bit at a time. White papers would still get generated based on defined templates, but what would feed it is an increased understanding and availability of thoughts assembled by people in the organization, which is done through a continuous organic movement.


Centrally created taxonomies will be driven by facets and roles of people, and classification through individually generated tags will supplement the organizational view. Providing alternative means for navigation will be necessary. Personalization and customization will become strategically important in this human-centric approach, and any assessment of technology deployment will necessarily require give higher weight to these features. Teaming and collaborative software will have to be deployed allowing people to connect with respect to their project, their job, and their passion.


Beyond this, to get maximum impact from knowledge management, the leadership of a knowledge enterprise will need to shift its mental model and start thinking from a sociological and anthropological viewpoint. They will need to observe and perhaps even conduct ethnographic studies to understand the emergent ways of working that humans in self-organized teams have realized. This is especially needed if there are generation gaps between the leadership and the rest of the workforce.


To enable higher levels of innovation, organizational-level knowledge processes will need to be deployed to pickup ideas and opportunity identification arising out of community activity. The knowledge harvesting process will go beyond lessons learned and get focused on sensing trends to become a forward-looking enterprise. Over time, as communities mature, decision-making also will increasingly be delegated to them, and pertinent issues will get funneled to them spontaneously for handling. This will result in more agility in sense-making, decision-making and responsive action.


The enterprise will need to be thought of as a set of social networks both formal and informal, both intentional and emergent, which interact with each other to create organizational capability. These networks will also interact with the outside world over time and create innovation capacity. This is a powerful picture of the future and all that is needed to get started is to think of the human being.


Raj Datta is VP and chief knowledge officer at MindTree with global responsibilities for all aspects of innovation, knowledge sharing, collaboration, and reuse. Raj has established KM as a key global strength for MindTree, and is credited with creating one of the most holistic approaches to KM. He has built MindTree’s knowledge ecosystem with many socio-technical platforms, which has been awarded the NASSCOM Innovation Award 2007 and the MAKE Award multiple times.


Raj has an M.S. in computer science from Lehigh University, an M.Eng. in operations research from Cornell University, a B.S. with double majors in electrical engineering and operations research from Cornell University, and a B.A. with double majors in computer science and mathematics from Cornell University.