Knowledge Management, like a zombie, is returning from the dead due to the rise of Enterprise Social Networks. In the mid-90s through the early 2000s, all of the rage was Knowledge Management. The dream of pulling together the individual knowledge of workers across an enterprise ruled the day, ruled the pundits, ruled the discussion, rules the purchasing departments. It ended, however, as mostly a lost cause, primarily because of the available tools in the 90s and early 2000s.
Despite the efforts of many to keep the dream of Knowledge Management alive, the concept had tarnished with age. What seemed like the promise of an enterprise embrace was met with a yawn for results of most of the KM efforts of the day. The dream of Knowledge Management was just that, a dream... until now.
With the rise of Enterprise Social Networks like Yammer, Jive, Chatter, etc., Knowledge Management has "snuck" back into the enterprise software discussion. Through the serendipitous sharing of information as "knowledge workers" discuss projects, ideas, and initiatives on ESNs, the knowledge of the individual is becoming the knowledge of the enterprise.
Despite finally having the mechanisms to finally capture enterprise-wide knowledge, companies are just now coming to the realization that all of this serendipitous knowledge has real value. This has presented several problems to companies attempting to re-embrace Knowledge Management.
In the world of ESNs, Knowledge is captured serendipitously. One of the greatest benefits of ESNs are their ability to 'morph' around the organization. The problem with this is that knowledge that is captured in ESNs is often untamed and feral. "Feral Knowledge" (the term coined here) has diminished value compared to its cousin Classified Knowledge. Classified Knowledge can be migrated and discovered, brought to the fore in other systems through its metadata and categorization and can emerge when needed. Feral Knowledge has difficulty in its ability to become Emergent Knowledge (Emergence is a key part of Dion Hinchcliffe's early enterprise social FLATNESSES model).
ESN Current Structure:
Many ESNs have taken steps to move their content towards Classified Knowledge. Through the use of tagging, a folksonomy develops in which the collective user base's tags create an adhoc taxonomy. This can be combined with the hierarchy of "Groups" to form a classification scheme (admittedly a mediocre one by enterprise standards, but much better than the non-existent classification schemes of today).
The problem is that most group hierarchies in ESNs only go one level deep (as shown in the picture "ESN Current Structure"). In this model we have the primary ESN and then groups reside and are created in a single tier under the primary ESN. This will need to change so that a true hierarchy can help in classification (as shown in the picture "ESN Future Structure"). In the proposed future structure, the ESN has enterprise defined groups at however many levels are necessary to align with the enterprise structure. User created (or non-enterprise) groups are provisioned (yes, provisioned through a process determining whether the group should exist or not) in an area under the enterprise groupings so that consistency and alignment with enterprise policies and structures can be passed hierarchically to these new "children" sites. When ESNs can move towards a more traditional model for groups with a true enterprise hierarchy with extension of the enterprise hierarchy with user-driven groups, Knowledge Management can benefit through the passing of ESN knowledge in alignment with other enterprise systems.
One major problem that ESNs have is not the capture of knowledge, but the transfer of knowledge from the individual to the collective. Yes, ESNs are searchable, but they often live in a disconnected space, separate from primary systems for managing information. To move from Capturing Knowledge to Transferring Knowledge throughout an organization, ESNs need to continue their march from fringe outlier systems (see this 2012 article in Information Week about Yammer's freemium trap strategy for context) to connected enterprise systems.
Since ESNs are disconnected from other enterprise systems, there is no means for transferring knowledge from the ESN to the primary systems of the "knowledge workers". Since there is no Knowledge Transfer, there cannot be emergent knowledge within those systems being fed through the ESN knowledge that is being captured.
Continued enterprise connectedness will be necessary to derive the true value of ESNs for Knowledge Management.
The last issue that I'll discuss in this piece is that of Knowledge Analysis. Metrics and reporting are abysmal in most Enterprise Social Networks and that will need to change (or be augmented by a partner like ViewDo). Knowledge value needs to be measurable to ensure usefulness prior to Knowledge Transfer. In a free-for-all environment like an ESN (a critique and a benefit), establishing what knowledge has value will become necessary.
The first round of analysis and metrics tools for ESNs can provide Yammer Analytics, Jive Analytics, or Chatter Analytics, etc.. This is necessary in the move from ESNs as rogue applications to becoming established enterprise systems, measurability continually proving the validity, value, and usefulness of the platforms.
As ESNs continue to mature, content analysis will integrate and establish knowledge value through Knowledge Analysis. It will then be possible to validate individual knowledge value and align with an enterprise strategy for Knowledge Transfer.
Knowledge Management, Welcome Back
ESNs have brought Knowledge Management back from the dead. By leveraging the knowledge that is created within ESNs organizations are able to achieve the early promises of Knowledge Management of increased productivity, reduced costs, improved organizational efficiency, and better decision making. It is through early investments in the ESNs themselves and ESN analytics tools like Viewpoint Enterprise, that companies will gain competitive advantage. CIOs, CTOs, and other enterprise decision makers that are forward looking now, stand to move their corporate cultures forward faster and ready themselves for the return of Knowledge Management.
A special thank you to Naomi Moneypenny for suggesting I write out my thoughts on this topic.