Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 5: Knowledge Management

I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but years ago I heard a story about tulips. With advances in transportation and in technology, there were people interested in time-shifting tulip production. So they tried various methods associated with making tulips believe it was spring already, placing them in hothouses, keeping the surroundings springlike, and so on. The bulbs refused to budge and the experiments were gigantic failures.

Until someone figured out, maybe it’s not worth conning the bulb into thinking it’s spring. Maybe the bulb needed to know that winter was over. So they tried to keep the bulbs in artificial cold, and bingo the tulips had been time-shifted.

I felt the same way when I made the decision, some years ago, to open up my mailbox to my direct reports. My intention was to let them see precisely what I did by showing them what I faced, the incoming mail. That they could somehow vicariously gain the experience of sitting where I sat, doing what I did, thinking what I thought, by seeing what I saw.

And then I observed what they did. Boy was I wrong. Most of them were far more interested in my “sent mail”. They felt they could learn more by watching my outgoing rather than my incoming, they felt they could get “into my head” faster by focusing on my responses rather than on the stimuli.

I am no expert in knowledge management; I just like watching people and learning from them; I like teaching and mentoring people as well; and I try and do all this with an open and “sharing” management style. More trust and less verify until the need for verification keeps presenting itself, so to say.

What I saw with the opening up of my mailbox  confirmed a number of prior suspicions, suspicions that I had held ever since I’d seen early versions of Autonomy and Verity, suspicions enhanced as I got used to Copernic and Momma and Google.

People learn best by watching what you do. Not what you say.

And it is with this perspective that I am fascinated by the potential provided by Facebook and its ilk.

For example, one of the Story Types available in Facebook goes something like this:

John Smith used Blog Friends to read 24 Hours Left to Apply to Join Tulsa. John surfed from his own profile. The post was written by Fred Jones.

I think this is very powerful. Let me explain why.

I believe there are three primary reasons why an enterprise would want to “manage its knowledge”:

One, to share learning, so that the same mistake is not made multiple times.

Two, to share learning, so that activities get sped up.

Three, to share learning, so that people are motivated to learn and to teach.

To share learning.

Knowledge management is not really about the content, it is about creating an environment where learning takes place. Maybe we spend too much time trying to create an environment where teaching takes place, rather than focus on the learning.

Since people want to learn by watching others, what we need to do is to improve the toolsets and the environment that allows people to watch others. It could be as simple as: What does my boss do? Whom does she talk to? What are her surfing habits like? Whom does she treat as high priority in terms of communications received? What applications does she use? Which ones does she not use? When she has a particular Ghost to deal with, which particular Ghostbuster does she call?

What makes her tick. That’s what they want to understand, that’s what they want to learn from.

This type of learning is not just about subordinate-to-boss and succession-plan related, it is also about newbie-to-old-hand, mentored-to-mentor. A picture of the activities and relationships and paths followed, a “let me show you” session, is worth a thousand “let me tell you” sessions.

More and more, knowledge management is going to be about reducing the cost of, and simplifying the process for, letting someone watch what you do. Nonintrusively. Time-shifted. Place-shifted. Searchable. Archivable. Retrievable.

That’s how we are going to create the right learning environments. I think Facebook has the tools to capture much of this in the nonintrusive time-shifted place-shifted shareable way. Let the patterns emerge. Share the patterns. Get inside people’s heads. More to follow, let me see how the comments flow from this Starter-For-Ten.

44 thoughts on “Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 5: Knowledge Management”

  1. JP, since you seem to think so highly of John Seely Brown, I think it is time for you to get hold of the following though your favorite library or reprint service:

    John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid, “Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation,” Organization Science, Volume 2, Number 1, February 1991, pages 40–57

    This may broaden your perspective of knowledge management as “creating an environment where learning takes place.” The environment to which Brown and Duguid aspire (and illustrate with some promising examples) is one in which working, learning, and innovation are so tightly coupled that positivist ontologists can barely try to deal with them as separate categories!

  2. In theory ‘nonintrusive time-shifted place-shifted shareable’ FaceBook + ‘immersive shared virtual space/real time’ SecondLife is beautiful.
    Indeed their beauty is skin deep – try building real applications with them for proof.

    I’d rather wait for the initial dust to settle, and if I wait long enough, the open source community will build ‘right-handed, left handed, lite, and XXL’ version of above killer applications. Too bad the opensource community will only always follow :( [ OpenSource overkill Killer Apps rather than build one :) ]

    I’m tempted to skip the KillerApp first wave, wait for the second (open source) wave.
    Remember E-mail was pimped as something that will bypass hierarchy. Now we have, Inbox with 600 Unread mails and many of them are Spams from known circles that cannot be marked as spams – lest you mark your coworker as spammer.

    FB et al are next Google(donkey), Next Email waiting to happen.

    For instance, if the content is to be ‘time-shifted and searchable’ the content’s (share)permissions must become progressively less tight with time. Just like once classified top secret military documents become declassified with time. This is just one situation I’m able to think up on the fly. There will be more such Inbox like black hole traps( in FB et al). Which I’d rather avoid.

    Till the second wave rises, I’d rather take a ‘call a spade a spade’ pragmatics and avoid the hype and associating a premium to the potential.

    Thanks JP for helping me clarify my own thoughts.
    -Balaji S.

  3. JP – A very clear and compelling post. “People learn best by watching what you do” strikes a deep chord. I learned my earliest lessons in project management – and teamwork – in an “open book” environment, using (paper) project serial files before there were social software tools (there was barely email). I think the “social” part counts for more than the “software” part as an enabler, but the software part can be a lot more fun than paper once the doors swing open!

  4. JP – another classic post!

    “Knowledge management is not really about the content, it is about creating an environment where learning takes place” – maybe it’s time to dump the term “Knowledge management”? A highly confusing term in my view.

    Knowledge being a result of learning, how can one possibly “manage” such? It’s after all about preparing the environment (as Maria Montessori would say) then stepping back and let learning take place.

    Unless you have dogmas to spread of course, that requires “teaching”, the good old goose-liver-method that we all know too well… perhaps that’s where the problem is? Too much stuff that is not made for questioning…

  5. JP – I agree with much of what you say in theory.

    But right now, any corporate employee who puts any data of import on Facebook has probably (imho anyway) committed a near sackable offence, for 2 reasons:

    (i) Security is pretty lax on any of these consumer SocNets (see our notes here for eg) – they are just not built for Enterprise needs

    (ii) Facebook’s IP Terms and Conditions are probably unacceptable to any IP owning Enterprise.

    This is not to say that Social Nets as duch are not very useful within and without Corporates – they are – nor that people will use them anyway. It’s just that the current consumer oriented services have some way to go before a Corporate can responsibly condone their usage them safely and securely.

  6. alan p, I actually know of at least one case of a large corporation that tried to initiate a Facebook-like social networking environment WITHIN its firewall. (I heard it reported as part of a presentation at the American Productivity and Quality Center; and, since this was a subscribed-members event, I shall not be specific about names.) I also know that this corporation made its attempt at least five years ago (in other words long before “Facebook” was in anyone’s working vocabulary). Finally, I know that there was a lot of internal push-back, which probably explains why there have not been any published success stories about this effort! I am sure there are plenty of evangelists who would crow that the lack of success could be attributed to a look-and-feel that lacked the appeal of Facebook. My own hypothesis is that people draw a sharp line between the normative behavior of their leisure time and the normative behavior of the workplace. I realize that I am beginning to sound like a broken record in invoking that “normative behavior” phrase across so many of JP’s Facebook posts; but it just shows how little technology enthusiasts seem to know about the role it plays in the adoption of ANY technology.

    Meanwhile, Greg, if your “deep chord” is resonating so strongly, then you, too, should check out that Brown-Duguid paper and bone up on the theory of “legitimate peripheral participation” (with a nod of thanks to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger)!

  7. I hear you loud and clear, Stephen. So what constitutes “normative” behaviour? What percentage of employees must do something before it is considered normative?

    If I take the Goldmans example, where 25% of a large company’s employees voluntarily sign up for something, is that not normative enough?

    Facebook takeup is huge. I’m even tempted to spell that word in capitals, but I shall resist that temptation.

    And anyway it’s not just about Facebook. I think it is about norm-setting. It is rare for grassroots individuals to be able to set the norm in enterprises. And that is what is happening.

  8. JP, unfortunately there are no positivist “necessary and sufficient conditions” for normative behavior. Recognizing normative behavior is part of the skill of the workplace anthropologist (and that skill also involves recognizing how much observation is necessary before trying to say anything about the normative). Of course there are good observers who are not trained workplace anthropologists. Sales representatives who make regular and frequent visits to their customers’ sites often have the right techniques that just need to be channeled by the right questions. Whatever the strategy may be, the results are rarely just a matter of percentages (and I am sure that you appreciate that “signing up” is not always the same as “doing”).

    I do not dispute the mass appeal of Facebook. I would question, however, how much power we have, as all-too-human individuals, to SET norms. (On the other hand I suspect we have all encountered bosses who felt they could, and should, set norms!) Finally, I continue to hold that the norms of the workplace do not always align with the norms of our leisure time.

  9. Stephen, with respect to “…I continue to hold that the norms of the workplace do not always align with the norms of our leisure time.” This is probably true with respect to the babyboom generation, and probably wrong with respect to the digital generation (or generation ‘Y’). I’m gen X so basically my norms are unclear!

  10. Sean, I’m not sure just what we know about the normative behavior of that “digital generation.” I know that the mass media are full of just-so-stories about that generation; and the business press tends to follow after all of those just-so-stories like a dog in heat. There is also the possibility that you are right because workplaces that have grown out of the digital generation, such as Google, seem to have a grip on both the work and leisure time of their employees that is downright (dare I say it?) authoritarian. Some recent incidents involving blogging practices at Google make for an interesting case in point.

    So you may be right, there may be an emerging confluence of work and leisure. However, it may be embedded in an authoritarian context in which Big Brother watches you at both work and play. Unless I am mistaken, this is what Hayek called “the road to serfdom!”

  11. JP, like you I am no KM expert, but work frequently with knowledge workers of all colours. I guess I have KM knowledge through informal rather than formal learning. I find it puts me ahead of the game sometimes when dealing with more traditional KM people – librarians, knowledge managers, information managers and records management folks.

    It’s heartening to see that I’m not the only one pushing this particular barrow.

    I gave a talk yesterday at a significant Australian IM/KM conference entitled Knowledge Worker 2.0 – Power to the People that delves into these notions. The audience there, who were largely working in the roles i noted above, took it remarkably well give I was messing with their sacred cows. Your readers may also be interested in it.

  12. Hi JP – thanks for the mention of Blog Friends (“John Smith used Blog Friends to read 24 Hours Left to Apply to Join Tulsa. John surfed from his own profile. The post was written by Fred Jones.”). We’re pleased you’ve found it’s reports interesting!
    If you’ve any more thoughts about the app and the data it displays, feel free to email me and/or befriend me on facebook.

    i-together ltd

  13. @ Steve…..agree re intracompany, also tried to put something like a socnet in years ago on an intranet – pre open source – I was more talking about people using facebook itself in any business sense

  14. Steve,

    Great post! I found your blog post at Knowledge Jolt with Jack site.

    When you said, ‘I am no expert in knowledge management; I just like watching people and learning from them; I like teaching and mentoring people as well; and I try and do all this with an open and “sharing” management style. More trust and less verify until the need for verification keeps presenting itself, so to say.’ I thought of Practice generalization. I assume you’re trying to move us by visioning your ideas. In return I feel like offering the imaginable perspective of Connecting Practice – a good source of Learning by watching (observing and reflecting) and doing.

    Connecting Practice is a forum that concerns with connecting practice where reflection and thinking can take place. It is an environment for practice generalization.

    If you and others want to know more about Connecting Practice – currently it is in “ready to use” phase – you may visit the page at: http://iquoth.org/forum/index.php

    Some recent posts:

    ~ What Skill Could Help You To Manage Interaction on This Forum?
    ~ What Skill Could Help You To Convey Information on This Forum?
    ~ How Could You Engage in Well-reasoned Discussions on This Forum?
    ~ What Specific Behavior Could Help You To Participation on This Forum?

    Steve and others, I will be grateful for kind Connecting Practice support.

    Kind regards,


  15. Stephen,

    Thank you for this. It moves me reflect and think about “legitimate peripheral participation.”

    I wonder what you mean by “internal push-back” in your Aug 15, 2007 at 4:45 pm post? But it made me to reflect and think about barriers in any development processes like that of Facebook-like social networking environment. My assumption is that, aside from disorder to learning and improving a practice or knowledge – see my recent post at: http://iquoth.org/blog/are-you-having-problem-in-learning-and-improving-your-practice, the lack of motivation to adopt a practice; inadequate information about how to adapt the practice and make it work; and the lack of “absorptive capacity,” the resources and skill to make and manage change (the hopeful results) explain why the efforts failed.

    I agree when you said, “Recognizing normative behavior is part of the skill of the workplace anthropologist (and that skill also involves recognizing how much observation is necessary before trying to say anything about the normative).” I believe normative behavior is just one out of those mindset (modeling principles) that can be used to model a practice based on certain setting and situation – it only solves simple and not complicated and complex problems. Thus, it is also important to consider other behaviors (techniques, norms, etc) that could synthesize to affect a practice – in this context refers to “setting norms”.

    Think the theory of “legitimate peripheral participation” can be countered by a framework (self-assessment, self-development, and improvement plan) that could empower us to cope with the demands of the practice. The framework can help us in developing and achieving the necessary areas of the practice.

    Moreover, the adoption of the framework is a strategy for improving the performance of any effort with the assumption that the locust of control is in the people.

    Further, the framework needs to be applied regorously in a cyclical nature.

    What do you think?

  16. Bong, you raise several relevant points; and I shall try to address them in the order in which you posed them.

    What I meant by “internal push-back” in my Aug 15, 2007 at 4:45 pm post was a flat-out refusal to participate in the social networking environment by those who were supposed to be its beneficiaries. The reasons for these refusals were are SOCIAL issues, having nothing to do with the barriers you enumerated in your comment. For example, all participants were required to identify themselves with a photograph. Many of the women on staff refused to do this out of concern for unintended consequences (such as stalking). The development team had either never considered this an issue or had dismissed it as too unlikely to be relevant. This reflects the usual way in which developers who live only in the objective world try to deny the social world:


    I do not consider normative behavior just as one of several behaviors to be considered. Rather, I feel it is necessary to assume it as a BASELINE. Adopting a new technology is always a question of change management. The case I tried to make is that any path to change needs to start at the baseline level, rather than from any more abstract set of assumptions about behavior.

    Your alternatives to legitimate peripheral participation, while they certainly have admirable qualities, are based in the subjective world, i.e. the world of individual psychology. When Brown and Duguid wrote about the tight coupling of working, learning, and innovation, they demonstrated that this coupling takes place in the social world:


    Whatever role technology may play, work is, by its very nature, a social phenomenon; and the value of legitimate peripheral participation resides in its positive impact on how workers socialize. Much of that baseline I previously cited is derived from how socialization is practiced, and you cannot achieve effective change management without accounting for it.

  17. Stephen,

    Thank you for the kind response. It leads me to understanding more the “legitimate peripheral participation.”

    SOCIAL issues are situational, a case-by-case judgement where one claimed depends on a particular situation. Say in your example, you said that “all participants were required to identify themselves with a photograph.” Think it is understandable for someone to reject or refuse this kind of requirement (mandatory?) in a social network application due to concerns like those unintended consequences you mentioned. But this claim cannot be true in all cases like in facebook or any other social network apps since it gives us preferences, right to privacy (respect our peace of mind).

    Moreover, I agree that the framework is subjective because it is found in our values and meaning. It becomes objective when we test the framework in our action. The exeperiences – which drive from our action – influence others (only if we allow it) and produces social phenomenon that is ligitimate to complement (brings positive impact) or affect (example of a legitimate peripheral participation) one technology like the social network apps.

    For me, social is group dynamics and its nature is found based on certain needs. Giving these groups an opportunity to challenge social network apps will help them to see things fit to their needs. The intention is to test or see how far the social network apps would apply and satisfy the needs. Usually in a situation, an issue is raised when this social network apps are challenged by questioning their value, means (features), and meaning (definition). Here the issues needs to be brought out to light for likely actions – reducing negative feedbacks and rejections.

    I agree when you said, “and you cannot achieve effective change management without accounting for it.” Thus, the role of Developers and all its stakeholders are important in conceptualizing a killer social network apps.

    What do you think?

    I wonder how can we introduce more change against this legitimate peripheral participation theory?

  18. Bong, just to be clear, my example about including photographs was not about social networks but about the short-sightedness of many of the IT teams that have had to launch such social networks in an enterprise setting; and, as we know from the history of decision-support technology, there is nothing new about that kind of short-sightedness!

    I think the best way to understand the “real” social world is in terms of MOTIVATED INTERPERSONAL ACTIONS. In the Kantian spirit of breaking a topic down into its components, that means we need a theory of action (a major topic in social theory), a theory of motives (which has occupied literary theory as much as social theory), and a theory of interpersonal dynamics (which I happen to think is still beyond our grasp because most of our abstractions involve statics rather than dynamics). In other words we have a long way to go before we understand the social world well enough to take a theoretical approach to managing the changes that arise when new technologies are introduced!

    Finally, in case you had not noticed, “legitimate peripheral participation” is just “newspeak” (thank you, George Orwell) for apprenticeship. The world in which JP is now asking questions about “enfranchisement” is a world of educational institutions that have devalued the practice of apprenticeship as some antiquarian artifact from the days of craft workers. I find it sad that, in order to convey its relevance to “knowledge work” (whatever that may mean), we have to dress it up in new terminology!

  19. JP, it’s very refreshing and enlightening to read your comments. I am an advacote of creating an environment for people to share, communicate and learn from. If Facebook could create a corporate edition with integrated VOIP, video, IM, email that was interoperable with common standards it would establish a great platform for an organisation to create such a community within an organisation. We are not there yet but we are close and this type of medium would stimulate the ‘water cooler’ conversations. The challenge it needs to be a single application that would enable employees to work, communicate and play and also for managers to realise the benefits of this type of communication.

Let me know what you think