Social networks offer a new way of sharing knowledge

The rapid spread of enterprise social networks is still a huge puzzle for most senior managers whose bewilderment at the topic and attempts to make some...

The rapid spread of enterprise social networks is still a huge puzzle for most senior managers whose bewilderment at the topic and attempts to make some sense of setting policies for social networks is clear to see.

Advice on various aspects of the changing nature of using real-time business intelligence touches on the need for people to leverage expertise through social networks, as well as using the more conventional aim of accessing the right information at the right time. This introduces the need to work in a different manner - or collaborative working.

Knowledge can be defined as the capture of experience in the form of data that can be indexed and applied to similar situations when they occur to optimise the effectiveness of the response. Various tools exist for this, including Wikis and blogs.

In a social network people tag themselves to their interests and can be located by using the tags. This creates a pool of people with like-minded interests and expertise to share.

The challenge in the constantly shifting event-driven environment is that more and more enterprises and people are finding themselves working with this new stream of knowledge and frequently they need help in interpreting the facts or completing the picture.

Social knowledge

Now imagine how social interaction can influence knowledge... Imagine you are hungry, and see what looks like a good restaurant. Then you study the menu, and subsequently decide to eat there. The food is okay, but the evening is not great, even if all the necessary parts were apparently present, so your experience is poor.

Now consider what Twitter might bring to this. First, our friends in our online social network are offering continual insights to their activities, so now we have the benefit of knowing more about the whole situation in real time.

We could ask for feedback on the restaurant before we enter, or for recommendations of others nearby as a start. We might even see that we have a friend close by with whom we could share the meal, or maybe even change our whole approach to the evening and join up with some friends going to the cinema.

All of this would enable us to describe ourselves as being "in the know", a unique English phrase used to describe someone who always seems to have better connections and experiences than most people. We would never feel left out of knowing about what else is important to other members of our community.

There is a perfect parallel to this in many enterprises within the community of smokers who meet regularly in real time and share information from across the enterprise. It is perceived that they are more in the know than their colleagues.

Shared expertise

The topic has been explored in various management papers, and books such as Knowing Knowledge by George Siemens, which bring out some key points. Starting with this is not just about knowledge workers. In fact, this group may be more linked to knowledge than knowing. Instead it is focused on those whose job contains a significant number of variables day by day.

Many of these roles are frontline and are being filled by younger people. This is a key difference from many managerial positions, which are to some extent more abstracted from the churn of activities and held by older, more knowledgeable people.

It is in this front line staffed by usually younger and more technology-savvy members of the enterprise that social networking is flourishing. These networks are almost without exception based on external free tools with no official standing. From a manager's perspective, these networks can be classified as distracting, or even dangerous, and certainly risk the destabilisation of data and processes.

A lot of the concerns also come down to managers simply being left out, as their staff seem to know more than they do. The same situation occurred with the introduction of e-mail around user PC communities in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the battle to decide if there was a corporate justification for it.

The power of real-time online social networks is that they harness many individuals, creating continuous expertise. Traditionally, expertise is gleaned over time, periodically harvested and indexed. Social networking does not replace existing knowledge or processes. It merely provides a constant dynamic environment which people can use to begin their decision-making journey.

Should you use social networking to collaborate? 
There are two very separate schools of thought on this.

Conventional business managers who take a top-down view based on the management of people towards knowledge and managed processes want to limit, or even stop, the free exchange of expertise and decision-making. Such approaches are usually called collaboration as a workflow and knowledge management tool.

The alternative approach is to see it as a people-driven structure and recognise that there will be many different social networks and communities present in the enterprise and that, like e-mail, it is up to users to decide how to use it. This approach emphasises the importance of existing systems for operational activities.

With an enterprise acting in a regulated market with many low-skilled workers, the enterprise-driven approach with management control is likely to be correct, whereas for an enterprise in the services sector that wants its people to optimise its customer services, then the use of people/community-driven processes in front of the existing processes is likely to be more successful.

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