Monday, October 20, 2008

Web 2.0 vs. Knowledge Management

I spoke at HR Tech last week on Web 2.0. During the session, someone asked whether Web 2.0 concepts are different than the Knowledge Management initiatives of the 90’s, or if we were just reinventing the wheel. I think they are different, and that they are part of a more systemic change happening in the workforce.

The rise of Knowledge Management (KM) programs in the 90s stemmed from the transition to an information economy. Companies, particularly in financial services and consulting, realized that their primary competitive differentiator was the information in people’s heads. If someone moved on to a new assignment or left the company, that information could be lost. So the companies started programs to have teams document their processes, results, and learnings. That way if they had turnover, they would retain the intellectual property that their employees had generated. It’s a completely reasonable request to have employees share information and collaborate with others, and this was in line with the trend toward more self-directed teams. So why didn’t KM take off?

When KM programs were implemented, they were seen as just another thing to do. (As one of my clients once said, “It’s Another Fine Program from HR.”) The systems were well-intentioned, but didn’t fit well into the processes the firm already used. Content had to be rewritten, and users had to change their processes to ensure their information went to the system. Once the system was installed, team members could collaborate or build upon content. But there were already processes in place for that, so again users had to change their processes to include the KM system. Also, team members weren’t as familiar with technology, so there was a learning curve involved in using the system. As a result, unless someone was mandating system use and including a strong change management program, the KM program became more a repository for finished documents and projects – a digital filing system.

The difference with Web 2.0, is that the users are driving adoption of the tool. Rather than a top-down mandate to share information, Web 2.0 comes from the bottom up. A developer decides he’s tired of trying to find the latest version of a document. So he builds a wiki, puts documents there, and tells the rest of his team to do the same. Or a marketer wants a new way to look at content, so she creates a team workspace to capture ideas and build up new messages. Or an employee is tired of keeping up with all the blogs and PR content that is sent around the company via email, so he creates an RSS reader, and then shares what he’s done with other team members. These people aren’t waiting for a program, or a central source. They are familiar with technology and know that it can meet their needs right now.

So what’s different? We are still capturing information, and making it available to others, just like we did with KM systems. We’re still allowing multiple people to view and build on content. But now, the focus is more likely to be individual productivity vs. intellectual property management. The workforce is much more familiar with technology, and willing to explore using new tools. In fact, they will likely bring the tools into the company themselves rather than wait for a corporate program. The new generation in the workplace expects to collaborate, to share and to use technology to do so. These systemic changes in worker attitudes and technology acceptance will lead to Web 2.0 adoption, and deliver on the promise of the original Knowledge
Management systems. We're not reinventing the wheel - we're improving on it.

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