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Dealing With the Downside

By Guy Currier  |  Posted 2010-06-28 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.

Dealing With the Downside

What’s the downside of using social networking to power knowledge sharing? Loss of control. “You have to have a tolerance for a certain amount of chaos or disorganization,” says AIIM’s Mancini. “You can’t anticipate many of the outcomes, so don’t try to over-engineer the whole thing.”

Companies that are risk-averse or have stringent legal or compliance concerns could find it prohibitive to have a messy, widely distributed accumulation of Twitter-like information bits.

However, idea-centric companies that don’t have to operate within these strictures can adopt corporate tools to encourage individuals who already like to share ideas and knowledge to do so internally—to the company’s benefit. Once such a system has started and the organization experiences tangible benefits, it can convert more traditional employees—and, more importantly, managers—into the sharing mode, creating another kind of virtuous circle.

Consider Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), a global company headquartered in India, which has developed a “find an expert” social application called Just Ask. The app identifies experts through their participation, based on the answers they give. It uses a points system—a kind of virtual currency—linked to a companywide points system that employees use to purchase merchandise from the internal company store.

Employees gain points—as in a social network–based game—and are also rewarded materially for their contributions. Initially, the only motivation was social, says Krish Ashok, head of TCS’s Web 2.0 Innovation Labs. “It was having their photos appear in the Champions’ list,” he explains. (“Champion” is the top expert level in the Just Ask system.)

Another company, the global consulting and outsourcing firm CSC, uses Idea Central from Imaginatik as a “platform complementary to our social software and enterprise wiki,” says Howard Smith, global lead for CSC Collective Intelligence. “Social networking is essentially a bottom-up phenomenon: a proliferation of actions and groups that are sometimes difficult to sustain,” he says. “We use Idea Central to create ‘ideation events,’ that have clear sponsorship—a director, vice president or president who owns the issue or challenge.”

When events launch, hundreds or even thousands of employees are asked to take part, starting a massive idea- and experience-collection process. A panel of experts organizes and develops these views using the same portal. The event framework provides discrete lifetimes and documented practices.

As Smith describes it, the Idea Central system directs CSC toward quantifiable results against “hard-edged commercial objectives.” When one region at CSC was showing weakness in cash flow, an ideation event was built to address it.

“The cash-flow event included 27 experts and approximately 3,000 employees, and produced a permanent impact worth $64 million to $128 million per year to CSC,” Smith reports.

But the long-term benefit is the shift in corporate culture that accompanies the understanding that all employees can contribute to the resources, capabilities and direction of the company—and that, by so doing, they also help themselves and their careers in a documented, public way. “If there’s a covert objective to our ideation events, it’s cultural change and social engineering,” Smith explains.

This objective is not a general knowledge sharing goal for most surveyed companies. Only 23 percent said that knowledge management tools would help in the creation or maintenance of shared visions or goals, and only 19 percent said they would help promote innovation or improve employee satisfaction.

Nevertheless, these figures are significantly higher in companies that have made the necessary leap connecting the two halves of knowledge sharing: knowledge management and collaboration. So it would appear that this connection makes the crucial difference. “From this point forward, I don’t think you have knowledge management unless you also have collaboration,” says AIIM’s Mancini.

This new category—the fusing of knowledge management with collaboration tools to create knowledge sharing systems—offers a rare triple threat. It meshes well with a contemporary social phenomenon; it delivers near-term tangible benefits; and it promises to improve how the organization as a whole operates. Now we can exploit, in a far deeper way, an evergreen resource every enterprise has and already counts on: its people.

Guy Currier is executive director of research at Ziff Davis Enterprise.

Executive Director of Research for Ziff Davis Enterprise
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