Since about October 2009, I have been trudging along with a skunkwork at my current firm to layer social networking features on top of our existing knowledge management system. Progress has been slow for reasons I attribute to innovation myth #5, but my resolve was bolstered recently upon uncovering (by chance) an HBR blog post that’s about a year old now from the Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge.
To build the business case for giving my initiative official sanction (and by extension funding), I put a lot of time into articulating the benefits of social networking in the business context – the value to the firm in our parlance. My starting premise was that our knowledge management system was great for codified knowledge but it lacked any functionality to manage the arguably larger pool of tacit knowledge stored collectively in our consultants. One of the potential sources of value that I foresaw John Hagel and John Seely Brown put in these terms:
“We’re moving from a world where value is created and captured in transactions to one where value resides in large networks of long-term relationships that provide the rails for much richer “knowledge flows.” For open innovation to realize its full potential, it will have to navigate a similar course from a narrow focus on transactions. It will have to provide much richer support of long-term, trust-based relationships coalescing around joint initiatives to address real problems or opportunities.”
Of course, I was applying this logic to the work of business consultants, not open innovation, but the challenges are the same: overcoming spacial, temporal and organizational dispersion. Most impersonal, technology enabled interactions do an imperfect job of overcoming these challenges. Newer technologies, such as TelePrsence and enterprise microblogging, hold the promise of promoting for more trust, familiarity and social capital to the benefit of innovation.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one thinking about the shortcomings of existing knowledge management systems at the time I started my little initiative. In another, earlier article that I discovered from my favorite HBR Blog feature (it recommends similar blog entries as you scroll down to the end of the one you are currently reading), Hagel and Seely Brown write:
“Knowledge management traditionally has focused on capturing knowledge that already exists within the firm — its systems rarely extend beyond the boundaries of the enterprise. Creation spaces instead focus on mobilizing and focusing participants across all institutional boundaries. Sure, there are lots of smart people within your enterprise, but imagine the power of connecting with and engaging a more diverse collection of smart people beyond your enterprise.”
Social networking technologies might be considered an enabler or constituent of the amorphous concept Hagel and Seely Brown refer to as creation spaces. The improvement they offer to traditional knowledge management is the ability to identify and direct emergent information flows. Companies like Box that are seeking to disrupt the enterprise knowledge management space, might take note and seek to develop their own social functionality while partnering with other social business software companies to find new ways of turning tacit, emergent knowledge more easily and seamlessly into explicit, codified knowledge.
Indeed, I think companies like Yammer actually need these partnerships more than the makers of knowledge management systems themselves. Yammer’s viral strategy is good for adoption in the sense of signing up new users, but that definition of adoption paints the wrong picture. What matters is that people are returning to the tools and using them with frequency. That’s real adoption. I suspect (largely on anecdotal evidence) that Yammer adoption by that definition looks very different. Right now, Yammer is a solution in search of a problem. To drive real adoption it needs to solve an acute pain point or improve a business critical function, to produce quantifiable impacts on financial and operations metrics.
For my own initiative, we sought to improve the staffing process, something central to every business consulting firm. The rationale was that participation would be assumed since every consultant either needs to be staffed on a project or needs to do the actual staffing, and the value of finding the best person for each project faster was clear – for both our firm and our clients. To measure impact, we pitched a Lean Six Sigma project using the familiar DMAIC framework. It is only by driving true adoption and accomplishing these initial measures of success that we can hope to attain some of the larger goals and bigger prizes, such as those derived from the collaboration curve that Hagel and Seely Brown described (see, I told you I liked that HBR feature).
On a final note, I must acknowledge that I have been a reader of John Hagel’s blog for some time. So before writing this entry, it occurred to me that maybe some of his thinking had subtly influenced my own, making it a little less original, but isn’t that how innovation really happens anyway? It’s an outcome of cross-pollination and the slow hunch, and my excitement at having found my own ideas echoed by a thought leader – perhaps in greater detail and with more eloquence – is diminished none as a result.
To find out more about how I made the case for my skunkwork just a few short months before these HBR blog posts appeared, check out this selection of slides from the deck I created to solicit more development resources. It’s been “sanitized” to remove anything that might be misconstrued as proprietary, confidential or competitively sensitive. Consultants communicate in slide decks so the medium chosen was intended to fit the audience.