PKM: the basic unit of social business

True collaborative networks do not rely so much on teams than on individuals, as B. Nardi, S. Whittaker and H. Schwartz have shown. The main benefits for networked organizations do not lie in the outcome from teams, but in individual knowledge acquisition, in the ability to connect with the right people and to access the right information at the right time. Instead of focusing on teams and communities, we must concentrate our efforts in providing workers with the right resources and knowledge to build their own connections. The basic unit of social business technology is personal knowledge management [PKM], not collaborative workspaces. – Thierry de Baillon, The Tainted Narrative of the Workplace

Teams are for sports, not knowledge work

Teamwork is over-rated. For instance, it can be a cover for office bullies to coerce fellow workers. The economic stick often hangs over the team; “be a team player or lose your job”. Empowered individuals working in networks, not teams, will give organizations the flexibility they need to be creative and deal with complexity.

Teams seldom take into consideration the uniqueness of individuals. Usually individuals have to fit into the existing team like cogs in a machine. Team members can be replaced. The team, like the gang, rules.

People are more complex and multi-faceted than the simplistic view of Homo Economicus. Our lives have psycho-social aspects. We are more than our jobs and we are more than our teams. Teams promote unity of purpose, not diversity, creativity, and passion. The team, as a unit of work, is outdated in the network era.

As much as organizations advertise for “team players”, what would be better are workers who can truly collaborate and cooperate, inside and outside the organizational walls. There are other ways of organizing work than in teams. Orchestras are not teams; neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a social network. Teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences as the prime motivator. In a complex world, unity is counter-productive.

Small pieces, loosely joined

The mainstream application of knowledge and learning management over the past few decades has had it all wrong. We have over-managed information because it’s easy and we remain enamoured with information technology. The ubiquity of information outside the organization is showing the weakness of centralized enterprise systems. As enterprises begin to understand the Web, the principle of “small pieces loosely joined” is permeating thick industrial walls. More and more workers have their own sources of information and knowledge, often on a mobile device. But they often lack the means or internal support to connect their knowledge with others to get actually get work done.

Personal knowledge mastery [PKM] frameworks can help knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge. Organizations should support the individual sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using PKM methods & tools. Simple standards, like RSS, can facilitate this sharing. Knowledge bases and traditional KM systems should focus on essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers. Experienced workers should not be constrained by work structures like teams but rather be given the flexibility to contribute how and where they think they can best help the organization.

We know that formal instruction accounts for less than 10% of workplace learning. The same rule of thumb should apply to knowledge management. Capture and codify the 10% that is essential, especially for new employees. Now use the same principle to get work done. Structure the essential 10% and leave the rest unstructured, but networked, so that workers can group as needed to get work done. Teams are too slow and hierarchical to be useful for the network era. Organizations structured around Loose Hierarchies & Strong Networks, as described in the image below by Verna Allee, are much better for increasingly complex work.

cynefin networks verna allee

Social businesses should leave teams for the sports field, and managing knowledge for each worker

4 Responses to “PKM: the basic unit of social business”

  1. Govindan ("Govind") Nair

    A thoughtful, interesting piece – this is an area worthy of more research and analysis. In an increasingly dense, networked, knowledge-driven business and economic landscape, It is imperative now that we have a better “science” of collaboration beyond the classic platitudes of teamwork that have littered the popular management literature. I look forward to seeing more on this topic.

  2. Luis Alberola

    Very unsightful and in line with what I havé been reading here. Still, I would say that, beyond teams, it is useful for corporations to master different collaborative structures (team, community, project, hierarchy, …) that willl actually help individuals in learning basic coopération skills

    • Harold Jarche

      I would say that most organizations have mastered teams, projects & hierarchies; all requiring collaboration. However, few understand or support cooperation.

  3. Donald Pinto

    PKM definitely address the core business which is progress…. Ergonomically moving an individual from being a team member to individual contributors…. Empower an individual is a great idea kudos!!!!


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