Collaboration is shaking up the once-staid field of Knowledge Management (KM) as enterprise social media and interaction play an increasing role. The premise of KM is that an organization’s intellectual capital or “intangible” assets comprise its greatest value and that therefore the organization must manage these assets. Through the 1990’s, KM gained traction with the growth of data networks, the evolution of database technology and the increasing premium placed on information.
KM has traditionally supported command-and-control organizational cultures and structures in which the organization seeks to gather, retain, unlock and control its resources. And often believing that data drives knowledge, organizations have pushed to populate data repositories. Enterprise blogs and wikis have added an unstructured element to creating and capturing knowledge. As social media takes hold in organizations, KM practitioners are rethinking their craft, integrating social media and collaborative tools into their frameworks, and recasting KM as embodying collaboration. The goal is to broaden KM’s appeal and, in particular, engage younger team members.
“I define knowledge management as information management and collaboration,” insists Katrina B. Pugh, author of Sharing Hidden Know-How (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Kate, a KM consultant and former vice president of knowledge management at Fidelity Investments, believes gathering data should take a back seat to sharing information. “It’s much more about improving those interactions than populating those repositories,” she explained during a compelling conversation recently.
People often use the terms social media and collaboration interchangeably. Social media describes a category of tools that can be used to collaborate. In The Culture of Collaboration book, I define collaboration as “working together to create value while sharing virtual or physical space.” It’s quite possible to create no value while using social media. It’s also possible to create substantial value. And considering the current excitement over these tools, I asked Kate whether there’s a downside to social media when it comes to KM. “It’s losing the person-to-person interaction,” she quickly responded. By person-to-person, Kate means voice, video and face-to-face encounters. I suggested these real-time encounters have a more “three-dimensional” quality. Kate agreed. “The best social media interactions are the ones that follow a conversation,” she noted.
Conversation, in fact, is at the heart of Kate’s approach to KM outlined in her book. She calls the approach "Knowledge Jam." The idea is to transfer knowledge from “knowledge originators” to “knowledge brokers” through facilitation, conversation and translation. A facilitator, either an outside consultant or internal team member, jump starts the Knowledge Jam during a series of structured 90-minute sessions.
I raised two issues with Kate:
- Many knowledge originators are “go-to” people who hoard information
- Is a facilitator necessary?
Absolutely, Kate agrees, knowledge originators may hoard. That’s why “there must be something in it for them [to share knowledge],” Kate explains. And that something is that “in a shifting environment, they need to learn the new playing field.” In other words, to remain relevant and keep their jobs, Kate believes knowledge originators will trade their knowledge for new context and skills. What about the need for a facilitator? Yes, Kate says, getting the conversation going between knowledge originators and knowledge brokers requires a facilitator.
I get that a facilitator can jump start Knowledge Jam, but ultimately organizations must share knowledge and collaborate naturally. The problem with consultants as facilitators (full disclosure: I’m a consultant) is that when they step aside, the organization can easily revert to previous behaviors. The problem with internal facilitators is their perceived and, at times, actual lack of neutrality. For collaborative organizations, sharing must become part of DNA. And KM is part of that equation.
As KM evolves to fit with more collaborative organizational cultures and structures, the term knowledge management also needs updating. Management suggests hierarchy and command-and-control. How about knowledge collaboration (KC)?