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The Culture Complication

By Guy Currier Print this article Print

An age-old corporate maxim says, “Our strength is in our people.” Cliché? Definitely. But the concept should see new life today, as knowledge management systems merge with collaborative and social technologies to create a new category of business tool: knowledge sharing technology.

The Culture Complication

Where job functions already align with sharing and organizing information, businesses can benefit quickly from the deployment of knowledge sharing systems. But it is hardly a given. For one thing, the corporate culture can work against it. One complication to watch out for is management suspicion concerning collaborative applications that frequently look or behave like social networking applications.

But management isn’t the chief culprit: Even though 31 percent of companies in the survey cited a lack of management commitment as an obstacle, that does not indicate a widespread problem. Rather, the management issue is a reflection of the overarching work environment.

“‘Nice’ organizations are better at this,” says Lisa Welchman, founding partner at WelchmanPierpoint, a management consultancy in Baltimore, Md. “‘Political’ organizations can have problems getting enough participation” for the investment to pay off.

So a clear enabling factor is a corporate culture that already has strong collaborative and creative elements built in. In such organizations, knowledge sharing systems can provide the kindling for explosive development.

LeapFrog, an educational toy company based in Emeryville, Calif., has used Arc90’s Kindling idea management tool since late 2008. Now, says Mark Tellegen, director of studio operations, “We’ve got it engrained in our culture. We’ve seen that the act of submitting an idea in a system that allows you to see activity has a multiplier effect.

“When Kindling launched at LeapFrog, lots of green initiative ideas came in, leading to a dedicated ‘room’ within the system, and to a new team of five or six core people who led the initiative. The system creates leaders organically.” This generates focus out of fruitfully disorganized activity.

The result is the creation of a “virtuous circle” of collaboration, idea generation and information gathering. In such a circle, initial participation leads to concrete and publicly recognized successes that increase the perceived value of the system. Those successes stimulate even more participation, value and successes—the essence of knowledge sharing.

But how do you jump-start such an initiative before any virtuous circle has been created, when you don’t have many idea-development job functions or a collaboratively oriented corporate culture? That was the situation facing WelchmanPierpoint, a small company in which the chief deliverable is knowledge.

There, the process was relatively straightforward, if not painless: The company adopted KnowledgeTreeLive to collaborate on document management. “We are a document-driven organization,” says Welchman. “We were having version-control and redundancy issues, but the shared document repository solved that.”

Welchman believes that, in most organizations, management must adjust job functions and processes first. “You have to teach people what collaboration means, and that might mean changing the core business rules by which they operate,” she says. “People will bend the tool, break it or boycott it before changing how they work.”

Getting People on Board

It seems clear from the survey results that people management is the greatest sticking point. Among the cited companies that strongly connect knowledge management with collaboration initiatives, end-user training is the number-one challenge in the deployment of these tools; in other surveyed companies, it’s number three. Employee resistance is the number-two challenge for knowledge management technologies and number three for collaboration tools in companies strongly connecting the two. In other companies, it doesn’t crack the top five.

“Roll it out in a way in which those who have interest and skills in this area can get a ball rolling, and others will hop on,” counsels John Mancini, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM). He also suggests a healthy measure of leadership and expectations-management. “Make sure you’re serious about it, from the top of the organization,” he says, “but don’t try to bite off everything at once.”

There are many more benefits to be found if you can go beyond the classic process of planning, training and execution. It turns out that, especially when launching a knowledge sharing initiative, you already have a natural ally—and a nearly overwhelming one at that—right under your nose: social networking.

Led mostly by younger employees, there seems to be a new work philosophy developing: Sharing is good. Or, perhaps more accurately: Sharing is fun.

“This is how the ‘Y’ generation wants to work because they love the immediacy,” says Brian McDougall, provincial program officer at the Nova Scotia Justice Department, which uses RHUB Communications’ TurboMeeting Web conferencing appliance.

Collaborative applications are increasingly adopting Facebook- and Twitter-like interfaces and functionality. As these appear, in turn, within knowledge sharing applications, they profit from the very market forces managers worry are sucking up employee work time and causing a drag on productivity.

Beyond merely transferring excitement from a popular trend (an ephemeral advantage, at best), social features allow you to bring social forces to bear on knowledge management initiatives.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) “started out with a pretty small effort around SharePoint,” says Dan Wakeman, the Princeton, N.J., company’s vice president and CIO. “The first people we worked with were the ‘influentials’ we were able to identify through a social-networking analysis we had done with Rob Cross.” (Cross is an expert on social networks—the original offline version—from the University of Virginia.)

“Influentials” are individuals who hold positions of social influence over others in the organization. This socially based seeding effort was complemented by the use of social tools that create recognition and rewards for individuals contributing to ETS’ knowledge base. “It’s given the opportunity for some people, who otherwise might have remained unknown here, to get known,” says Wakeman. This sort of participation driver can overcome employees’ hesitancy to share their experiences or change their work habits.

Finally, companies are encountering real usability and applicability obstacles to knowledge management and collaboration deployments, as one would expect from a nascent technological area. Social tools can help address this because the interfaces and modes of interaction are so familiar.

In the survey, about two-thirds of knowledge management technologies and 58 percent of collaboration tools deployed had to be customized in order to be truly useful. But under the influence of social tools, a kind of a “harmonic convergence” seems to be gained from combining the two because social tools allow collaboration in an unstructured way that can still feed into a highly structured resource of organizational knowledge.

This article was originally published on 2010-06-28
Executive Director of Research for Ziff Davis Enterprise
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