For what do we get paid in a social business?

John had worked four weeks on the proposal.

Days, evenings, some weekends and even two nights. Finally, John and the team heard the words they had been fighting for so hard: We have decided to award you our business. And then – even better – …the solution you have suggested is more complete and smarter than your competitors and you have also done a better job of presenting the benefits our company will reap by choosing you and your solution.
Time to celebrate!

A week later, after the first turmoil of getting things started, John thought it could be a good idea to share the winning proposal with his colleagues through the social intranet. First, he hoped that such a strong proposal could help colleagues elsewhere win even more business. Second, John, who was a nice and empathic fella, wanted to save colleagues some trouble and hardship in creating proposals for similar deals from scratch. After all, he knew very well how unhappy he and his family had been with his workload during those four weeks. Finally, he realized that sharing the proposal would build his reputation as an expert in this field and as a good salesguy. Win – win – win!

But, first he needed to cleanse it from confidential information, client identifiers, financial details etc. It took him two hours to do so. But then he shared the file and posted about it in a couple of forums and – of course – in a status update on his profile page. (He added a couple of relevant tags to his profile too, while he was at it, by the way).

Over the following weeks and months, colleagues around the world re-used John’s shared proposal, tailored it to their needs and managed to win several deals around the world, spending only half the time and much less weekends and evenings in doing so. How many millions was it worth for the company?

What did John get out of this? Indeed, his reputation got a boost and people from near and far asked him for supplementary information. Flattering, but time consuming. He probably spent another day’s worth of time on answering such supplementary questions over that period. Still, John thought of the good business he helped the company to make and the gratefulness from colleagues who could work so much smarter than he had been forced to do.

But apart from some thanks a million in mails, chats and over the phone, what did he get out of it? Did it show on his pay slip or in the appraisal by his manager? Not at all. On the contrary. His manager said John, you winning that deal for us was great. But since then, you seem to have lost focus and keep chatting away with colleagues across the world. But out business is here. Our department is measured on the profits we generate from our clients in our local market. Not on some deal in Farawayland. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball, you know.

Social Business brings fundamental changes to the way we reward our employees

For ages, workers’ pay has been based on what they produced. Number of widgets produced, seams welded, kilos of produce, hours worked etc. Our pay has been in direct relation to what came out of our hands or our time worked. Only very few people have been paid for what came out of their heads: artists, writers and maybe a few others.

But Social Business breaks this direct relationship between our effort and the benefit to the company we work for. Our shared knowledge and experience can mean so very much more to the entire company than our original effort actually did. But – and this is the tricky part – we are unlikely to know where or when those benefits are generated and there is no good way of tracking the benefit to the company from what an individual has shared. At least I haven’t seen any, yet.

So, HR folks will have to work out new formulas to reward us for what we bring to the table.

And suppliers of social intranet software or other software manufacturers will need to come up with ways of identifying re-use and benefits reaped from shared knowledge

If they don’t, luddites will keep coming up with the same excuse for not collaborating and sharing: What’s in it for me really?

It will be most interesting to see what they come up with.

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The knowledge that Knowledge Management forgot

Traditionally, the benefits of corporate Knowledge Management have had something in common with the Snark of Lewis Carroll. They have been evasive and difficult to describe.

There have been endless repositories, taxonomies and similar initiatives undertaken, but something seems always to have been missing. I think it boils down to the concept itself being wrong.

Typically, Knowledge Management initiatives spend lots of energy in attempting to identify which knowledge is needed and available, in categorizing it in some kind of taxonomy and in trying to motivate, nag or coerce those who have the knowledge to contribute it. Next comes “knowledge marketing” in trying to make others aware of the knowledge that is available and training or supporting them in how to find it.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is why:

  • The need for knowledge is dynamic, unpredictable and largely dependent on context. In the rapidly changing world of today, it’s close to impossible to predict which knowledge you will need. You’ll know first when you realize that you lack it. Any list of knowledge needed will end up largely incomplete because of difficulties in predicting the needs of yourself or others.
  • As we all think differently, even the best taxonomy will inevitably not reflect the way all users think about the knowledge needs they have. Therefore, there will always be complaints about the knowledge being difficult to find.
  • To top that, the taxonomy is doomed to better reflect yesterday’s needs than today’s. The process of defining  and updating a taxonomy will inevitably be slower than the development of new needs.
  • Finally, due to the combination of the efforts needed to collect and redistribute knowledge and the limited resources of all organizations, the focus will be to manage what I call prescriptive knowledge: blueprints, best practices, frameworks et cetera, i.e. knowledge from formally recognized experts describing how things should be done, often of a rather general nature.

A truly social intranet based on a comprehensive collaboration platform changes all that. For example IBM Connections that forms my everyday digital workplace.

Without preventing the spreading of the kind of prescriptive knowledge traditionally available in KM systems, a social intranet overcomes the shortcomings listed above.

  • Networking, board statuses, forums and communities enable you to reach out to colleagues for the knowledge you need when you realize that you need it. By reaching out directly to people we are able to access the knowledge they never shared in the KM systems.
  • As a truly collaborative environment allows us to tag content, documents and people as we see fit, the sum of all tags is more likely to better reflect the way people really think than any taxonomy created by a group of people ever can do for others. The result may not give an equally organized impression, but the probability is increased of someone having used a tag that suits your way of thinking, thereby making it easier for you to find what you’re looking for. A “suggested taxonomy” can still be implemented, but as a default that can be expanded, not as a prescriptive taxonomy.
  • Finally, and most importantly, making it easy to share your knowledge exposes all the additional descriptive knowledge, to supplement the prescriptive knowledge that usually is distributed in KM systems. Instead of only “This is how you should do” from acknowledged experts, there is suddenly an abundance of “This is how we did it” kind of knowledge. More of a flavour of experience, rather than expertise. The blueprints and frameworks, often generalized and open to interpretation, get supplemented by results and examples of how interpretation. By making it easier to share, a complete new category of knowledge surfaces – grass-root experience.

In short, moving from knowledge management systems into collaboration systems increases the availability of knowledge, makes it easier to find and supplements the official, prescriptive knowledge with inspiring examples “from the front line”, helping people interpret and understand how to best use the blueprints and frameworks as well as making the benefits more tangible of using them, thereby encouraging their use.

A positive side effect is the visualization of many additional employees with specific experience, if not expertise. A talent pool to tap, reuse and invigourate the cadre of existing experts.

Putting it in even shorter words:

It’s not about managing knowledge, but about releasing it!