David Tebbutt, Information World Review

Artificial intelligence, expert systems and knowledge management – or AI, ES
and KM to the initiated – all represent attempts to use IT to capture and re-use
human knowledge. Unfortunately, AI, ES and KM have all lost their initial
lustre, not least because humans are hopeless at identifying their own useful
knowledge and tapping it into a computer.

Many employees might wonder why they should give up their hard-earned
knowledge at all. Yet we’re generally happy to give it up to friends, family and
colleagues.

If someone asks you for help, do you refuse? Do you think such sharing
diminishes you? Or do you believe it enhances your reputation? Hoarding
knowledge is no longer the best way to get on or avoid redundancy.

Social networking, supported by IT systems, is achieving the dreams of the
AI, ES and KM folk. It is breaking down the resistance to sharing because it
delivers clear benefits to those who participate – both the givers and the
recipients. And through this, it is delivering business benefits to those
enterprises that are willing to adopt it.

I’m going to try to bring social networking to life to explain the advantages
and provide a sense of how it might work in different contexts.

For social networking to work, each participating individual is likely to be
surrounded by a blizzard of public metadata. Social networking is an easy and
non-disruptive way for others to get to know an individual. For a start, they
need a digital placard which proclaims their essential information: contact
details, experience, skills, communities they belong to, and so on; this is the
‘profile’ page.

They will also have a heap of self-published material – white papers, blog
posts, articles, presentations and the like. They will have made comments on
other people’s articles and blog posts. They may have tagged, linked to and made
observations about other people’s work.

Inside their heads, of course, is masses of knowledge but that is where it
will stay until something triggers its exposure. A desire to show off or to
respond to a question from a colleague are both effective agents in exposing the
knowledge in someone’s head, and can enhance (or diminish) reputation.

It’s easy to see from this description how, once a group of people start to
project themselves in these ways, a social network forms, thus laying the
foundation for conventional communications, even among strangers.

When you reach out to someone or their work, it’s because you already know
you have something in common. You might be offering help, expanding on what
they’ve written, commenting on their work or asking a question.

The point is that your actions are focused and pre-filtered according to what
you’ve learnt already, without making a phone call, exchanging emails, or
otherwise intruding on that person’s time. None of this could work without
search, links and a culture of openness.

An organisation needs to choose whether to keep the social interactions
within a controlled boundary or to let the outside world in. The two situations
are wholly different.

IBM, for example, has an internal service called Beehive which staff use to
profile aspects of their private lives. They are happy doing this within a
secure system, but they might clam up if they thought it would be exposed to the
world at large.

A closed system seems to offer the best chance of high-quality information
being shared. The community can extend beyond the organisation to business
partners and customers. Each extension brings rewards but it also brings risks.

The information professional has to carefully consider these issues to enable
this new form of knowledge management to flourish.

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