By Steve Kelman

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New technologies for knowledge sharing

steve kelman

Ines Mergel is a young, smart and productive faculty member at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, one of our country's leading public administration programs. She writes mostly about social media and government. And she has just published a new report from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, called The Social Intranet: Insights on Managing and Sharing Knowledge Internally.

We should start with the observation that opportunities for knowledge-sharing are one important reason to put people into organizations in the first place, rather than having them just work alone. We should then add another important insight: There already exists an excellent, last-century technology for sharing information among experts in an organization. It is called an office.

One of the main reasons for co-locating subject-matter experts with each other is the opportunities this provides for informal information-sharing by dropping by the neighboring cubicle, chatting at the water cooler and so forth. When experts are at different locations, there are also, as Mergel notes, traditional bureaucratic tools for information-sharing, often involving email-distribution lists that can send the same message to pre-selected groups of recipients.

But both these traditional technologies have important limitations. Obviously, when people are physically separated, they have trouble routinely communicating face-to-face. And the hierarchical methods for disseminating information to separated individuals may make mistakes in pre-selecting those who might be interested in the information; they also make feedback and updating of the disseminated information difficult and kludgey.

(I actually first became interested in the phenomenon Mergel describes when teaching about efforts many agencies are making to break down functional stovepipes, which often involves having functional experts spend significant time in offsite cross-agency teams with "functionals" from other specialties. This has a number of advantages, but creates risks that employees won't have anywhere to go to get answers to questions or refresh their knowledge base. My students and I also discussed communities of practice, which allowed employees to ask questions to fellow experts not at the same location.)

Enter what Margel calls the "social intranet" -- a one-stop shop where agency employees can go to find or request information in a number of different ways to help them do their jobs. The social intranet consists of wikis; places for people to go to ask questions or solicit collaboration; publicly available conversation threads; central places for blogs; and opportunities for people to create profiles and (in a professional context) "friend" each other. These elements all appear at one web address, with its common home page, to which an employee can link.

These different features work in different ways. Wikis, for example, allow a group of employees to add knowledge to a text that is then accessible to the whole organization -- and to which everyone can edit and add. Other employees can subscribe to the updates. Blogs, on the other hand, allow longer text to provide project updates, comment on industry developments, or introduce new issues more transparently than blast e-mail updates can manage.

The relative transparency of employees with the same interests contributing to various discussions helps the rest of the organization understand who works on what and who holds knowledge that might be useful for future projects. Even though employees might not be part of their colleagues' discussions in other parts of the organization, knowledge becomes discoverable across organizational boundaries; it can be tagged with the names of employees considered the original knowledge experts, whom others can then contact.

Most intranet collaboration platforms do not require an approval chain to publish, which lowers the barriers to quick sharing. And while the personal profiles and "friending" often start by providing occasions for social conversations, the intention is for these to be a gateway to knowledge sharing; Mergel quotes a manager as saying, "The social feeds into the professional."

At this point, however, social intranets are hardly spreading like wildfire inside the U.S. government. Indeed, Mergel was able to write about a total of just four examples, including one from Canada and one (at NASA) that is apparently semi-dormant at this point. (She doesn't say whether this was a sample from a larger universe, but I suspect, because she had to include a Canadian example and one that was semi-dormant, there aren't other ones out there.) So the U.S. examples she discusses, aside from NASA, are the State Department Corridor initiative and the intelligence community I-space.

How can government encourage the creation and actual use by employees of social intranets? Surprise, surprise, it's not mainly about the technology. Rather, it's about managing these tools to make them a taken-for-granted part of an organization's life.

Mergel suggests this includes top management not only giving these platforms an endorsement, but actually using them. Without continuous support from top managers who visibly participate and care about the use of the platform, she writes, use drops off -- and before long, the platform is seen as a secondary communication channel, not as a primary channel for sanctioned knowledge exchanges.

Mergel advocates trying to abandon siloed knowledge- sharing practices and replacing them with social intranet components for sharing and retrieval, using a phased approach -- such as starting with calendar functions, requiring employees to find meetings and appointments on the social intranet rather than relying on external software to populate their calendars. The agencies she examined are teaching about their social intranets during new employee onboarding, as well as providing training to existing employees. At one agency, managers recommend active participants in the social intranet for employee awards.

That social intranets are spreading slowly, despite the enthusiasm in government for social media, suggests that setting them up might not be worth the effort in many agencies. Unfortunately, Mergel's report does not give agencies suggestions about how to decide whether it might be worth it for them. I would suggest that the key question is how many problems are being created by the "old" systems of offices and emails.

In the intelligence community, for example, there is now a need for near-constant collaboration across agency boundaries, meaning the old systems are more likely to be insufficient. In the State Department, frequent reassignments mean that co-workers inside an existing office become an increasingly insufficient source of information over time. Agencies should look at their own situation to decide whether it's worth the candle. There is no doubt that knowledge-sharing is crucial; the trick is identifying the areas where it cannot be reasonably continue to be done by twentieth-century means.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 28, 2016 at 4:38 PM


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