Now, this categorization is a relatively innocuous way to manage the projects. However, I always balk at it a little, because -- although it is clear that these are the three key aspects to KM -- you need all three to work together for any one project to succeed. Separating projects into people projects, process projects, and technology projects is artificial and may reinforce false assumptions about the balance of emphasis. However, the three categories are ultimately a handy way to divvy up responsibility. Besides, since the team I am in is small and works well together, it all comes out in the wash.
I only mention this because it led me to an interesting discovery.
While pondering what to say about our current efforts with Web 2.0 technologies, it occurred to me why this topic creates so many problems for business today. Web 2.0 is all about people (the wisdom of crowds, etc.). It is also about technology (the "stuff" that makes web 2.0 so interesting). But there is no process in web 2.0.
By that I mean that the technology itself makes no assumption about how or why the technology would be used. What is the usage model for Twitter? Who should blog? What should you use a wiki for? The answer -- if you bother to ask -- is usually "whatever you want!"
There are plenty of people out there willing to give their opinions (including myself, it appears). But at their core, most of the interesting web 2.0 technologies provide capabilities, whose potential increases as the number of users increase, but few if any limitations or even guidance on their use.
For example, a wiki is simply a web site anyone can edit. Why? Oh, there are many potential uses. But there are no restrictions. The result is that many wikis (most, I suspect) become trash cans of unrelated, out-dated, and inappropriate content.
A wiki becomes interesting once it has a purpose. By that I mean, someone decides what the wiki should be used for, defines a structure, and decides on a process to achieve that structure. Wikipedia, the classic example of a successful wiki is also a prime example of the amount of work needed to make that wiki a success: A clear statement of purpose, a well-defined process for contributing, and mechanisms for handling exceptions. None of this is inherent in the wiki itself. It must be defined and agreed upon by the owners and maintainers of the wiki, which is no small feat. The consequence is that many wikis are created hastily without the necessary process, resulting in failure or abandonment.
Compare this to earlier technologies. Email, for instance. Process is designed into the very core of most of these older technologies. You have an email client. You choose who to send email to. They can read it, reply to it, forward it, save it, and delete it. That's all. The technology embodies the processes previously defined for physical mail.
Even more recent technologies have process built into their design and nomenclature:
- In instant messaging, you send "messages" to individuals who can choose who to receive messages from or not. Once a message arrives, a conversation starts and you can reply or close the dialog. Period.
- IRC is divided into "channels" that users can open and participate in. Each channel implies a separate topic.
- Even the web site -- the very essence of web 1.0 -- that on the surface would not seem to dictate a usage model, is laden with implicit assumptions about usage and structure. The URL itself defines a host, a directory (that is hierarchically structured), and a page. Ownership is implied by whoever owns or manages the hosting server. A logical structure is ascribed to the information by the hierarchy of directories. And finally the content itself is chunked into "pages".
But a wiki has no implicit structure, no directories (beyond the automated "recent changes" and alphabetical list of titles), and no owner (if you follow the original concept of anyone can edit). And wikis are not alone in this laissez-faire approach. Blogs place no structure on their contents except chronology. The use of tags allows the user to apply structure if they wish but tags are optional, and under the individual user's control. (No common vocabulary.) And collectively, blogs do nothing to help the readers sort through the massive collection of information qualitatively. Which are the blogs that deserve attention? It is totally up to the reader to decide.
This is the complete antithesis of today's corporate intranet, where "quality" and "consistency" rule and millions of dollars are spent each year to make sure only the right information is posted in the appropriate location by the right people using the right procedures. An entire industry -- CMS -- has developed to make this possible.
So if web 2.0 is so completely lacking any structure or process, why is corporate America so interested in it? The answer is because it has proven to succeed exactly where corporate intranets have failed.
Within the corporation, getting people to communicate with each other and share ideas (outside of the set patterns of regular meetings and organizational structure) is like pulling teeth. They don't have the time, don't know how, etc. But set them loose on the internet and they will willingly comment on anything from favorite sports to the detailed pros and cons of a specific model and brand of VCR, free of charge. Similarly, getting anything posted onto a corporate web site can take days or weeks as it passes through the approval and formatting processes. Updating a wiki entry is a matter of minutes.
Nobody complains about the ease of use of Wikipedia (except those who claim it is too easy to add false information). The same can not be said for any corporate application I can think of.
So web 2.0 appears to resolve two of the key problems of corporate applications: acceptance and adoption. But volume of use and acceptability of the software are not measures of business value. Although they are antidotes to the most common complaints about corporate IT, they don't in and of themselves solve the problem of effectively managing corporate knowledge.
So, IT is interested, but they are afraid.
They are afraid of what will happen when you set loose an undisciplined technology inside the firewall. How do they support it (when in many cases it isn't commercial code)? How do they control it (when they don't know what it should or should not be used for)?
They are afraid and well they should be because history has taught them that technology for technology's sake can become a monster. And as much as everyone would like to think business applications could take on the viral characteristics of web 2.0, it is not likely to happen. It won't happen because the audience (the corporate employee base) is too small, the audience is (in general) don't have the time to experiment or want to, and even if a valid business case develops, 3 out of 4 times there will be an existing application that the web 2.0 technology will compete with. Corporations do not like competing technical solutions because they cause confusion, cost money, and complicate what the company wants to maintain as simple step-by-step procedures.
That doesn't mean web 2.0 doesn't have a place within the corporate firewall. It just means it doesn't have a predefined place within the business world and it will take some intelligence and deep thinking to map it to the appropriate processes.