ESN as knowledge bridges

An effective suite of enterprise social tools can help organizations share knowledge, collaborate, and cooperate – connecting the work being done with the identification of new opportunities and ideas. In an age when everything is getting connected, it only makes sense to have platforms in place that enable faster feedback loops inside the organization in order to deal with connected customers, suppliers, partners, and competitors. It takes a networked organization, staffed by people with networked mindsets, to thrive in a networked economy.

Enterprise social networks (ESN) are growing in usage in most large organizations. More employees are sharing knowledge through activity streams on platforms by IBM, SAP, Jive, Yammer, and Socialcast, to name a few.  But ESN can constrain what they are supposed to enhance. Due to the very personal and intimate nature of implicit knowledge, people will only freely share it if they feel they are in control. A single enterprise network does not provide much individual control.

In addition, getting value from thousands of ongoing conversations becomes a requirement which is only evident several months or years after ESN adoption. Like the intranets that ESN are supposed to replace, will they collapse under their own weight? How difficult is it already to find information from 6 months ago and then try to connect the dots to today?  The use of an ESN highlights the need for a simple but effective knowledge management (KM) strategy that can be supported by everyone. The best way to build useful organizational knowledge is by connecting it to individual knowledge-sharing.

The challenge is to enable individual knowledge-sharing with minimal external control, to seek, make-sense of, and share knowledge. Each person must find a process that works on an individual basis and this in turn can support the organization in leveraging collective knowledge. The reverse, starting from the organizational perspective, is much more difficult.

ESN may provide security and control, but workers may not post as much to them because they know they will lose their knowledge artifacts when they leave the organization. But it is not necessary to build a single central knowledge silo if all the little ones can share. The responsibility for knowledge-sharing must remain with the individual, but the organization can collect, collate and redistribute what is shared.

KM does not have to be a major enterprise effort, but the lack of an overall KM strategy can be a drag on innovation or hamper decision-making in a knowledge intensive organization. While not perfect, a simpler approach to KM may be better than none at all, and preferable to a complicated and expensive approach.

A simple approach to KM in the organization is to look at it as three interdependent levels. First, personal knowledge mastery (PKM) should be practiced by all workers. It should focus on implicit knowledge, like anecdotes and observations. The format should be very loose so it stays personal. The key is to allow and support the practice of PKM so that more knowledge will be shared. Forcing PKM does not work. While PKM can be facilitated by an ESN, it forces a one-size fits all approach if it is the only knowledge-sharing tool available. This goes against the principles of PKM:

  • Personal – according to one’s abilities, interests, and motivation – not directed by external forces.
  • Knowledge – understanding information and experience in order to take action – know what, know who, know how.
  • Mastery – the journey from apprentice to disciplined sense-maker and sharer of knowledge – masters do not need to be managed.

The next level is Team KM, which focuses on teams and projects narrating their work to ensure as much common understanding as possible. One critical component of work narration is the capture of how exceptions are handled in order to get this information to anyone who may need it in the future. This does require some type of social sharing platform, and this is where an ESN can be quite useful. It is the group’s responsibility to curate exceptions in a format that is accessible to all. Some exceptions can become rules, leading to the next level of KM.

The simplest level is Organizational KM, which ensures that important decisions are recorded, codified, and easily available for retrieval. This is mostly explicit knowledge that ensures the organizational memory remains clear on what key decisions were taken and why others were not. Over time, this becomes more valuable. Focusing mainly on decision memories ensures that Org KM does not require significant resources but does yield useful results. The ESN can be the source of the flow that later becomes the stock of Org KM.

Enterprise social networks can help bridge personal and enterprise knowledge, connecting knowledge flows to knowledge stocks, but there has to be something on each side of that bridge.

Note: This post is a combination of several previous ones.

8 Responses to “ESN as knowledge bridges”

  1. James Tyer

    I really like your train of thought here Harold and such a schematic helps limit the explosion of information that organizations try to “control” when adopting internal social technology. I was in a meeting of Vancouver’s CIOs last week and it was interesting to hear their take. Generally, the discussion talked of no place for personal knowledge tools because they exist outside of organizational command. Hopefully, the few more enlightened CIOs will become the norm – they talked of trusting employees and dealing with single exceptions, rather than protecting against all possible exceptions.

  2. Hugh Aitken

    I enjoy the central themes to your blog’s, but at times struggle to identify how to implement these concepts within my environment of a military educational/training college. The challenges relate to power sharing and whilst we talk about the strategic corporal the transition to providing individuals with the knowledge and tools to act is hampered by the lack of an environment that is built on trust.

    • Harold

      I understand, having served over 20 years in the military. But even in the military, there is a lot of flexibility when things get hot. For instance, there is no saluting in the field, and on many aircraft ranks are not used. On patrols, everyone is briefed together, with minimal chain of command. The military understands this, but then clamps down with command and control (and silly parades & inspections) when not on operations.

      Much of what I learned on operations has helped me in business. Little of the spit & polish was of any use. The military has to learn that in the era of network-centric warfare (their term), they have to adopt network-centric behaviours. Part of that is sharing power.


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