Monday, March 3, 2008

Is Corporate KM Obsolete? (The Threat of Social Software, Part 4)

(continued from Part 3)

Knowledge Management does not occur inside the firewall alone. It happens inside the firewall, outside the firewall, and throughout the expanding universe of the company's employees and their communities -- which regularly ignore corporate boundaries.

Some might say that what happens outside the firewall is more chaos than management, but there is a significant amount of self-regulating process and order applied to the knowledge shared in the public domain. Distribution lists, Yahoo groups, forums, societies, and professional organizations all apply varying degrees of structure to their conversations and content.

Even blogs -- the random diary entries of millions of users -- develop an organic structure through the network of topic tags , blogrolls, cross-references and trackbacks.

So if, as I argued, the knowledge environment outside the firewall is far larger, more active, and in most cases more effective than that inside the firewall, what is the point of having corporate KM? Are we fighting a losing battle trying to keep knowledge inside the intranet?

Well, those are two separate questions with two separate answers. To the first question -- is corporate KM obsolete in the age of web 2.0 -- the answer is not quite. KM (and IT) as currently practiced in many companies around the world, is running against the tide and going to come under increasing criticism as more and more of the MySpace generation enter the workforce.

The answer to the second question -- are we fighting a losing battle to keep knowledge inside the firewall -- is a resounding yes. Corporate KM is not obsolete. But KM as currently practiced in many companies is certainly headed in that direction. The issue is being able to distinguish between what is most effectively (or securely) managed within the castle walls and finding the appropriate synergy with the knowledge flourishing outside.

Breaking Down the Walls

Corporate KM has traditionally been practiced as a self-contained system. Much of this has to do with preserving the privacy and secrecy of corporate activities. Clearly, you do not want employees discussing unannounced products out in the open. Also, many of the processes within a corporation could be considered intellectual property that needs protecting.

Another reason for the insularity is that organizations want a very high level of performance from their internal communities. In the past it has been hard to find a critical mass of similarly trained and like-minded professionals. Professional organizations, such as ACM, and annual conferences on various topics provide some amount of interaction between professionals from different companies. But the connections are limited and take time to establish and maintain.

With the introduction of web 1.0 and web 2.0, anyone can quickly find both information (search) and people (blogs, forums, and social networking) in similar fields and with similar interests and technical ability. Because of the seemingly limitless scope of detailed technical and business information available on the web, you do not even have to know the individual to learn from their experience.

More importantly, there is no "entrance fee". A new virtual community is created each time you perform a search or scan feeds from selected blogs. The low (no) cost of entry, plus the unparalleled volume of content, plus ready access essentially makes any professional a self-contained "consultant" in their own field of expertise. Employees are no longer dependent on their employer or their employment for their technical expertise and their career development.

Resistance to Change

As beneficial as this newfound independence within the workforce is to the company (in terms of self-directed career development and finding answers to problems which might never have been uncovered within the company itself), it is also a threat. Independent employees are threatening to the corporation for two reasons: loss of control and fear of poaching.

Corporations have traditionally taken responsibility for "developing" their employees both in terms of teaching work processes and encouraging specific job skills. They also tend to claim ownership over all the information the employee garners during their employment -- and they are very possessive of that knowledge. Some have new employees sign agreements not to work for competitors for a set period of time after they leave. Others sue when they fear confidential information will be given to a new employer, as in the case of Google and Microsoft fighting over Dr. Kai-Fu Lee.

More recently, there are companies that have gone so far as to attempt to ban employees from blogging or commenting on blogs because they are a "conflict of interest" or endangering the company's reputation or intellectual property.

These all-or-nothing approaches to IP protection are in conflict with reality and -- more importantly -- in conflict with the employees' perception of knowledge ownership. They blur the distinction between what is the intellectual property of the company and what is the professional experience and expertise of the employee.

Intellectual Capital vs. Intellectual Property

As an example, I personally know a fair amount about Microsoft SharePoint. We were a field test site back when it was known as Tahoe. I was involved in the original structural design of the SharePoint infrastructure for my company, and I continue to support SharePoint as a content architect. Having lived through three versions of the product, I have a fairly broad working knowledge of the technology and its uses.

That knowledge was garnered as a direct consequence of my employment as a knowledge architect. Some of that knowledge is intimately linked to my knowledge of the company itself: the specifics of how the sites are structured to support the internal organization, what applications use what data, even the names of the specific servers and services within the corporate firewall. That information could fairly be considered the intellectual property of the corporation since it is specific to the company and revealing it outside could potentially damage its business prospects (by exposing internal plans or structures).

However, knowledge about how SharePoint works and how it can be applied to different business situations is not specific to my current company. It is part of my professional expertise. This can be considered part of the company's intellectual capital -- the resources it has available to it to produce products or offer services.

One way of thinking* of the distinction between intellectual property and intellectual capital is to look at the consequence of an employee's leaving. If I were to quit my company, their SharePoint infrastructure would not change; the structure, server names, applications etc would stay the same. They retain their intellectual property. However, my professional expertise in SharePoint would no longer be available to them to modify or maintain the system or its content. They would lose whatever intellectual capital I personally provide.

In other words, intellectual capital is the knowledge I can take with me and make use of in a new endeavor separate from my previous employer. Intellectual property is the information that stays with my employer and whose context is specific to their business and not dependent on my working there.

Striking a Balance

So what does this mean in terms of knowledge management? It means that corporations can benefit significantly by allowing and encouraging employees to share and expand their professional intellectual capital in the larger external world of forums, communities, wikis, blogs, etc. Their professional development, and their ability to apply it to their job, will increase much faster when they have access to the broader professional community.

At the same time, the corporation can benefit by focusing internal efforts on two key aspects of KM:

  • Managing the intellectual property that drives the corporation -- optimizing internal processes and the sharing of company-specific information.
  • Maximizing the synergy between intellectual property and intellectual capital -- helping employees find appropriate resources outside the firewall and making the connections between internal, company-specific processes, and the generalized, profession-specific knowledge available on the internet.

Finally, the company is still responsible for preserving the security of its intellectual property and trade secrets. The employees are responsible for holding up their end. However, the employees do not always know where to draw the line.

If the company takes the old Draconian view of all or nothing, for the employees to participate in the new web 2.0 information economy, they are left to choose for themselves what to share or not. The company and its employee become adversaries fighting over knowledge that in most cases no one benefits from restricting.

Rather than trying to block all external sharing (or going too far the other direction and sharing everything), companies can help both their employees and themselves by providing guidelines about what knowledge is professional expertise and what is legitimately intellectual property of the company. Names of employees, development projects, internal services, as well as descriptions of proprietary processes fall should all fairly fall under the rubric of trade secrets. Knowledge of a professional nature -- expertise in the use and application of tools, products, or methodologies -- are all part of the employee's professional identify and "toolkit" and do not warrant restrictions.

By helping the employees understand and employ this distinction, the company can help leverage the "wisdom of crowds" for both their own and the employee's benefit.

*I am using a broader concept of intellectual capital and intellectual property than the purely legal definitions. In particular, I believe the crux of the issue lies primarily in the definition of "trade secrets". Explicit Intellectual property, such as copyrights and patents, that can be isolated and articulated poses very little threat of misinterpretation. But the implicit IP of what what comprises a trade secret and suitable for protection will prove much trickier to define.

1 comment:

T Pangakis said...

Andrew, great entry; personally I don't think it's "obsolete" so much as "in need of some cosmetive surgery" to address the influx of new technology and new expectations!