Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Have We Missed the Boat?

I have been following with interest the enthusiasm with which practitioners are adopting and promoting web 2.0 as the next big thing for knowledge management. (Myself included.) It is not hard to see why. The explosive growth of social media and social networking sites such as FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn and Twitter is enough to make any old school KMer turn green with envy. Why can't we induce that sort of participation in our knowledge sharing programs?

However, even when corporations try implementing web 2.0 solutions inside the firewall, the results are often underwhelming. That is the Enterprise 2.0 dilemma.

People have offered a number of explanations for the difference: limited audience, cultural constraints, lack of incentives, generation gap, etc. All of these have an impact. But I am beginning to think we (i.e. corporations and those who are trying to move them forward) may be missing the bigger picture.

Why did social computing succeed in the first place? Granted, a significant portion of it was originally personal in nature, but it was very quickly adopted by engineers, white collar workers, and other professionals as a way to discuss both their private and their work life, including their professional experiences. Many professions have established formal and/or informal communities where they collaborate and share information through blogs, forums, twitter, etc. outside of the companies they work for.

Why is it that they are so willing to share information on the internet that is so hard to get out of them inside the firewall? We can nitpick the details of how and why, but at some point we have to face the fact that they do it because they get more satisfaction from sharing information outside than inside.

People share information on the internet because they feel a sense of connectedness to others with similar interests and tastes. They also feel that their ideas and opinions matter.

Even when web 2.0 technologies and methods are used inside a corporation, the sense of satisfaction is greatly diminished. The audience is smaller -- immeasurably smaller -- so finding like minds is far less likely. There may be others within the company with similar roles or professions, but having the same job doesn't automatically make you friends. If, on the other hand, you take all of the people with similar jobs from all companies around the world who may be on the internet... the chances of compatibility increases.

More importantly, people -- peers -- on the internet may not be able to act on your ideas, but they can admire them, praise them, and commiserate with your inability to get them implemented. Because of the smaller audience, contributions to an intranet often elicit fewer if any comment. That doesn't mean they are not seen. But at least subconsciously, the contributor often feels like their offerings are falling on deaf ears.

What's more, the corporation's specific business focus dramatically cuts down the scope of what is "appropriate" or "noteworthy" within the smaller environment. Even without explicit guidelines, there is an implicit constraint within the firewall that does not exist externally. And if web 2.0 is about anything, it is about the individual's freedom to contribute as they see fit.

So, yes, the smaller audience does play a role. But it is the individual's sense of actively participating, connecting, and freedom of expression that drives continued use of social software on the internet and not within the firewall. Are they really free? No. They are constrained by their own personal code of civility and moral appropriateness -- especially when dealing with information concerning their employment. But the sense of freedom is key to their willingness to participate.

What's worse is that by implementing web 2.0 technologies inside the firewall without any commensurate modifications or integration, knowledge management programs once again look like stodgy organizations that see a fad but doesn't quite "get it".

So, is all hope lost? No. But there are several lessons that can be learned here:

  • Don't expect too much. No matter what you do, adoption of social software will not be as viral internally as it is externally for all the reasons described above.
  • You may need to "feed the pump". Interaction is critical to the success of social software. (That's why it's called "social".) Since feedback is going to be diminished inside the firewall, you may want to solicit the assistance of a group of early adopters to amp up the initial set of responses to get the feedback loop going.
  • If you can't beat them, join them. Before you even start planning new internal services, think whether you need them. Why compete with active, healthy services that already exist?

Perhaps it would be cheaper and far more successful to use those existing external services through the firewall as is, instead of setting up competing internal services. For example, rather than setting up blogs internally, think about the alternatives:

  • Providing a list of the best internet blogs pertaining to your company's business (including those of your employees)
  • Encouraging employees to blog externally and join external professional communities to both further their career and enhance their skills
  • Aggregating internal news with feeds from external sources to provide more dynamic, objective information to your employees

Corporations are hesitant to "open up" the firewalls and blur the distinction between internal/proprietary and external/public information. But when you are talking about social computing, that blurring of distinctions is one of its key strengths and defining attributes. Why is Twitter popular? Not because I can talk about my private life; because I can talk about whatever parts of my life, private or professional, I choose to.

Smart companies will recognize that the floodgates between internal and external information were breached long ago, without their having any control over it. They also recognize that they can benefit more from encouraging their employees to use this new powerful medium effectively -- and appropriately -- than trying to constrain it within the artificial boundaries of the corporate firewall.


Robyn said...

Thanks for a great post Andrew. I'll ponder and do a post tomorrow to further the conversation at

Susan Scrupski/ITSinsider said...

Hi Andrew. Enjoying your posts. Incredibly-NOT-dull. I've had some experience trying to pull a large organization into a more freeform, emergent socio-collaborative way of working.

One of the issues that can not be underestimated is the role economic dependencies play in the willingness of employees to be honest in their social dialogue. This is exacerbated by the current economic climate. In the outside world, those dependencies are nearly non-existent.

If blogger gave me more room to write here, I would post a longer comment. May pick this up on ITSinsider.

Barry said...

Andrew - great insight. Have real experience of what you are describing. Would fear there's a lot more to come. Another explanation is that these initiatives may often be sponsored/ led out by the believers, rather than those who can make it happen.

Have ref'd your post on

Jodi Soper said...

A great post. While working with many large establilshed firms, including TV stations, many have not been willing to take the risk to integrate social media. My question to them is... can the afford to not take the risk.