In their book Building the Knowledge Management Network: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Putting Conversation to Work, Figallo and Rhine (2002) provide a useful analysis of knowledge management as a social process based on human interaction (sometimes facilitated via information technology, sometimes not) and offer practical advice for implementing a knowledge management strategy within an organization. Key points of the book include an examination of our understanding of knowledge, the evolving definition of knowledge management as a social process, the organizational culture that must exist for social knowledge management to succeed, the importance of tapping into knowledge from both within and outside of the organization, and the role of the knowledge manager as a connector of people and information sources within a wider knowledge network. Written in 2002, before the rise of social media, the book is a prescient description of networked knowledge environments that have only recently come into existence with the massive adoption of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, wikis, and other online, interactive forums. As a result, there are many recent technological opportunities for social knowledge management that are missing from the book, but the description of knowledge as a social process, supported by technology, fits perfectly with the latest theoretical models, such Connectivism (Siemens, 2004), new social learning (Bingham, Conner, & Pink, 2010), and informal learning (Cross, 2007). Figallo and Rhine’s work allows us to better understand the importance of social connections and communities in knowledge management, a field traditionally dominated by discussions of documents and technology.
What is Knowledge?
For Figallo and Rhine, knowledge is too often thought of as simply an object that can be put into a container (such as a book, article, video, etc.) and transferred from one person to another. In much of the knowledge management literature (cite, cite, and cite), this is referred to as explicit knowledge, knowledge that has been captured and codified into some kind of container, such as a document, report, recording, or database. In fact, this would be a better description of information rather than knowledge. Instead, Figallo and Rhine argue, knowledge should be seen as a social process, emerging from conversations that take place between individuals. This is a description of the difficult to get at kind of knowledge often referred to as tacit knowledge in the literature. This position is similar to Downes (2009), who wrote:
- Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product
- It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people
- The idea of acquiring knowledge, as a series of truths, is obsolete
Coming from this perspective, Figallo and Rhine go on to describe in their book a system of social knowledge management that focuses primarily on enabling the power of tacit knowledge within organizations and facilitating interactions amongst individuals to make it happen.
What is Knowledge Management?
If knowledge is an object that can be put into a container, whether it is a book, a report, a video, a web cast, or a blog post, then knowledge management can be the organization of these containers, allowing them to be created, searched, discovered, reused, and preserved. This has traditionally been the role of the corporate librarian, with an expert knowledge of the organization of information (or explicit knowledge), through the creation of structured taxonomies or, more recently, online tagging systems. This kind of information management however, is only one element (although still an important one) of what is now commonly known as knowledge management. If instead, knowledge is a social process, and emerges from the interactions between individuals (including tacit knowledge), then knowledge management becomes more about the facilitation of these interactions. This is important because it brings not only the information to the table, but also the meaning of that information, providing significantly more value to the organization, and a powerful input for decision-making. For Figallo and Rhine, this is exactly the kind of knowledge management they wish to build within organizations. Of course, this kind of knowledge is much more difficult to grasp than a stack of annual reports or meeting transcripts, and therefore requires new sets of skills for knowledge managers as well as a new kind of culture for the organization.
What are the Organizational Requirements for Knowledge Management?
According to Figallo and Rhine, implementing an effective strategy of social knowledge management requires a supportive organizational culture that values the conversations from which knowledge emerges, and encourages the sharing of knowledge throughout the organization. For this to succeed, senior management must be supportive. “Most people rely on guidance, clarity of mission, and good role modeling in deciding how much and how deeply they will commit themselves to adopting new practices” (Figallo and Rhine, 2002, p. 71). If management seems ambiguous to the social knowledge management process, most people will not make the effort to participate. And without the active participation of many, it will fail. According to Hasanali (2002), one of the most important ways of ensuring management support is to closely connect all knowledge management efforts to business outcomes. If a strong case can be made that implementing a social knowledge management approach will reduce costs, increase sales, enhance innovation, or meet other strategic objectives, management will be more open to supporting it. Ongoing evaluation will also be important to ensure continuing support as well.
Trust is another critical factor for knowledge management to succeed, identified by Figallo and Rhine and others (Ford, 2001, Politis, 2003; Lee, 2003). If members of the organization do not trust one another, they will not be inclined to participate in a knowledge sharing community. If the predominant values are more competitive than cooperative, people will not trust their co-workers with their knowledge and will not engage in open conversations. They will fear a loss of personal worth if they share their valuable knowledge too freely. However, in a cooperative organizational culture, sharing will be a much more natural response, and open conversations will flow more readily. This will lead to a wider flow of ideas within an organization, with the possibilities for innovations expanding as a result.
Figallo and Rhine argue that traditional command and control organizational structures will also inhibit the success of a social knowledge management environment:
The decentralized, self-organizing social communication structures required to efficiently gather and circulate the knowledge that individuals learn and develop don’t fit gracefully under the hierarchical, centrally-controlled structures that still rule most organizations (p. 62).
The development of a more collaborative business model was later envisioned by McAfee (2009) in his book, Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges, where he describes the importance of knowledge sharing built
upon the emerging Web 2.0 technologies (including blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, etc.) in more open, non-hierarchical environments.
Figallo and Rhine also recommend developing opportunities for “cross-pollination” within organizations, allowing individuals from different work units to interact, converse, and share their knowledge and experiences. This can broaden the network, develop a broader systems approach throughout the organization, and increase the opportunities for valuable knowledge to emerge. This kind of systems thinking is a critical component to developing a “learning organization” (Senge, 1990), an organization that understands that the value of the whole is greater than its parts, and that is constantly looking for opportunities for learning and developing.
Figallo and Rhine also recommend developing an organizational culture that embraces contrary opinions, allowing those who have disagreements to share them in open forums. This is similar to Fullan (2001), who also recommended listening to and respecting dissent. If the dissenting perspective has no value, it should be openly refuted, based on solid evidence. If it does have validity, it should be acknowledged, respected, and accommodated. Stifling dissent will only build resentment and distrust, which will undermine any attempts at building a knowledge-sharing environment.
Where Does Knowledge Reside?
Traditionally, knowledge management has concerned itself with knowledge that is generated within the organization. This can take the form of internal reports, meeting minutes, or transcribed personnel interviews. In a social knowledge management environment, this can also include conversations between staff members, as well as internal blog posts, wiki updates, or discussion form entries. Figallo and Rhine expand the concept of who should be involved in this social knowledge process by acknowledging the importance of external participants as well. If knowledge resides within networks of individuals, those individuals can be found both within the organization and outside of it. External participants can include customers, collaborative organizations, funding bodies or donors, community groups, investors, suppliers, or potentially even competitors. All of these groups have an interest related to the organization, each has a unique perspective and set of experiences with the organization, and each can potentially contribute valuable knowledge for the success of the organization. For example, customers have expectations that must be met for ongoing success. If customers are unhappy with the organization, it is critically important to find out why. If complaints about poor customer service are common, additional staff training may be necessary. If customers are expressing an unmet need, it may reveal an opportunity for the development of a new product or service. In addition to exchanging knowledge between the organization and external groups, Figallo and Rhine also describe the possible benefits of supporting knowledge sharing between external groups. A powerful example of this would be technical support forums, where software companies can often rely on many basic, but common (and time-consuming) customer questions being answered by other customers. When done right, this kind of customer community can be a source of valuable knowledge as well as marketing. Apple, for example, is famous for the devotion of its customer base. Just as the command and control organizational model of the past is being replaced by “Enterprise 2.0”, so too is the nature of marketing and customer relations. The communication can no longer solely exist from organization to customer, but has now expanded to include customer to organization, customer to customer, and customer to other external groups (such as regulatory agencies, environmental groups, labour organizations, etc.). Today, successful organizations must embrace a collaborative, open, and social “Knowledge Management 2.0” model envisioned by Figallo and Rhine.
Role of the Knowledge Manager
If the model knowledge manager of the past was a corporate librarian, skilled in the organization of information contained within knowledge objects such as books, reports, manuals, minutes, and transcripts, the social knowledge manager of today needs to also be a community manager. This change, according to Figallo and Rhine, requires an additional set of skills and abilities, such as being a clear and effective communicator, able to grab and hold people’s attention, being a strong facilitator, making connections between people and encouraging others to communicate, share, and learn from one another, and being a leader, inspiring others to get involved in the knowledge generation process and provide the additional value critical to organizational success. In many ways, this parallels the social constructivist model (Lambert, 1995) of the educator, moving away from being a content expert (“the sage on the stage”) toward being a “guide on the side”, encouraging others to take on a leading role (and responsibility) in organizational learning and the social knowledge management process.
Knowledge Management Tools and Techniques
In addition to outlining their theoretical approach to a more social form of knowledge management, Figallo and Rhine also provide descriptions of tools and techniques that can foster this kind of knowledge sharing within an organization. Significantly, they do caution against putting too much emphasis on technology:
When all is said and done, knowledge networking is not really about technology. A poor choice of tools for conversing online is less likely to undermine the success of your efforts than your lack of a common purpose and a clear reason for conversing online. If your group agrees upon its purpose and is motivated to get something useful out of its knowledge-sharing conversation, even the most rudimentary online interface will be sufficient at least for starting your conversations (p. 166).
One of the most important knowledge management tools for an organization is its intranet. An intranet is a web site that is only available within the organization, and therefore provides a secure location for linking online documents and carrying out private conversations. Some intranets also provide a “yellow pages” feature, allowing each member of the organization to have a person profile page, detailing their responsibilities, expertise, past and current assignments, interests, etc. This can be an extremely useful tool for connecting people within an organization to one another. While intranets can provide the home base of social knowledge management efforts, its closed nature will not facilitate networking with external stakeholders. Many organizations have both an internal intranet as well as a publicly available web site to ensure those important external communications.
Whether it is hosted privately on the intranet or publicly on the internet, Figallo and Rhine recommend the use of online discussion boards for facilitating social knowledge management processes. Online discussion boards allow users to post information or questions, and allow others to respond. This typically results in a threaded series of comments and comments on the comments, providing a simple way to have an asynchronous conversation. Discussion boards also have the advantage of being inexpensive and easy to set up. Many people have had some experience with them, or can quickly learn how to use them. The main disadvantage can be the possibility of spam attacks, which need to be monitored for, blocked, and deleted. Newer discussion board software, however, has built-in functionality, which largely eliminates this problem.
Another tool recommended by the authors is the email group. This works in a somewhat similar way to the discussion forum, allowing registered users to post questions and others to reply to the original post or to the subsequent replies. The has the advantage of bringing the message directly to each user’s email inbox, but can potentially lead to frustration, as many people are currently feeling inundated with email. Deciding whether a discussion forum or an email group is the best approach will depend upon the needs and preferences of the community.
A final tool that Figallo and Rhine discuss is instant messaging. Instant messaging, also known as online chat, has the advantage of allowing live, online conversations. These can either be one-on-one, or be organized as a group conversation. This allows for a great sense of social presence, which can foster greater participation (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000), but does require everyone to be available at the same time. It also is requires a certain amount of typing speed to keep up with the conversation, which can be a disadvantage for some. Overall, however, it can be an easy, inexpensive, and effective method for holding online conversations.
In the ten years since Building the Knowledge Management Network was written, discussion boards, email groups, and instant messaging remain common and effective conversation tools. New technologies have also emerged however, that the authors could not have predicted, but add to the social knowledge manager’s toolkit. One popular example is Skype, which not only provides free instant messaging, but also voice and video chat as well. This can significantly increase the sense of social presence between participants and is particularly useful for distributed teams and communicating with external stakeholders.
Another important new tool are online meeting rooms / classrooms, such as WebEx, Adobe Connect, or Blackboard Collaborate. Similar to Skype in that they allow for groups to meet remotely, see each other via video, hear each other via audio, and conduct “back channel” conversations via instant messaging, they also allow for screen-sharing (such as Powerpoint presentations, web sites, etc.) and group moderation. This technology can be used for one-way communication, such as a webinar to demonstrate a new product or deliver a report, or a more collaborative, interactive discussion such as brainstorming or debriefing after a project completes.
Blogs have become ubiquitous on the internet, but can also play an important role in social knowledge management. Each member of an organization can have their own blog and make the narration of their work part of their regular activities. This can keep everyone informed of what is happening in the organization, but also allows for commenting, which can be used to post questions or suggestions to the writer. All blog content can be tagged, categorized, and searched for future reference by different project teams. Blogs can be useful at every level of an organization, but can be particularly valuable from senior management, providing regular communication to all members of the organization and allowing for an open feedback channel for comments, questions, and suggestions about the future of the organization. This can, of course, be perceived as a risk in a command and control environment, but is critical to the healthy operation of a modern, Enterprise 2.0 organization.
Wikis are another useful tool for a social knowledge manager. The most well known example of a wiki would be Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. This same model can be used within an organization to collaboratively record important knowledge, such as project descriptions, lessons learned, etc. It has the advantage over a standard web site in that any registered user can add, edit, or delete content, making it a much more participatory tool. Again, this can either be perceived as a risk or an opportunity, depending upon the culture of the organization.
Social bookmarking is another tool that can be used for knowledge management 2.0. Almost all members of an organization do research on the internet, and virtually all of them will save bookmarks of important web sites to their local workstations. Social bookmarking tools, such as Diigo or Delicious, allow for bookmarks to be saved, tagged, and shared, either on the open web or to a limited group. The saved bookmarks can also be annotated to indicate the saved site’s value and possible utility within the organization. This kind of knowledge sharing is free, replicates and widens common behaviour, and can provide significant value in both the content that is recorded and in the act of sharing and discussion that it can facilitate.
A final tool to mention is the Twitter microblogging service. Twitter allows anyone to create an account and post brief messages (140 characters) and links to members of their selected community (“followers”). Although frequently dismissed as a forum of egocentric celebrity reports of breakfast choices, it has instead proven itself to be at the core of a powerful personal learning network strategy (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011), which can be broadened into a wider organizational “network of personal networks”. Free, fast, and easy to use, Twitter provides an ideal forum for knowledge sharing and focused online conversations.
Although Figallo and Rhine have provided a highly useful introduction to social knowledge management and its practical implementation, some important issues either received insufficient attention or would overlooked altogether. One area that could use further elaboration and more discussion of practical strategies is resistance to social knowledge management from senior management. The authors do pay considerable attention to the need to develop an organizational culture that is open to knowledge sharing, but a more detailed look at why managers are often skeptical or even obstructionist to social networking at work, and how to overcome this problem, would be helpful. It may be that this resistance, based on a concern of employees wasting time on Facebook and Twitter, is a more recent problem that has only emerged with the more widespread use of social media tools. Overcoming this resistance, however, will be critical for anyone planning to implement a social knowledge management strategy in the organization. As with the implementation of any kind of learning and development program within an organization, an evidence-based argument of how the program will directly contribute to the overall organizational strategic objectives and provide a demonstrated return on investment will be fundamental to the sustainability of the program.
A second area worth further exploration, and which to authors overlook completely, would be an examination of employee resistance, especially in a unionized work environment, where levels of trust may be low and suspicion of management’s motives will be quickly aroused. A theoretical understanding of where this mistrust comes from, based on critical management theory (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996), as well as practical suggestions to allay that fear such as transparency, sincere motives to benefit everyone in the organization, demonstrated widespread benefits, and not using the process to undermine labour costs or unionization (Gertler & Wolfe, 2004), would be helpful to many readers who will want to move forward with a social knowledge management plan, but will be blocked by employee or union resistance.
By helping us to understand knowledge as a social process, Building the Knowledge Management Network provides an important advance in the practice of knowledge management and organizational learning. Instead of focusing on documents and technologies, social knowledge management turns our attention to the people in an organization, and the knowledge that can emerge from the collaborative interactions between them. The authors provided a solid theoretical foundation for their approach, and discussed some important barriers to moving in this direction, such as the need to modernize the organizational culture from a command and control model to a more “Enterprise 2.0” perspective. The authors also shared some important examples of tools and techniques to allow for an inexpensive and rapid implementation of a social knowledge management strategy. Although newer and more powerful tools are now available, and the benefits of networked knowledge is more widely appreciated, the book remains an important introduction to this new way of practicing knowledge management. Although it may underestimate the challenges associated with implementing a social management strategy within an organization, such as the resistance that may be encountered from both above (senior management) and below (unionized employees), it still provides a valuable guide for moving forward, when supplemented with related literature from cultural change, organizational learning, and critical management theory.
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