War Between Social Media and KM?

Connie Crosby pointed me to Ralph Poole‘s post, Social Media vs. Knowledge Management. In it he discusses Venkatesh Rao‘s assertion in the Enterprise 2.0 blog that there exists a generational war between the proponents of knowledge management and the proponents of social media. In Ralph’s experience, this rings true:

I have seen it in the way Microsoft SharePoint, with minimum Web 2.0 capabilities, is embraced by IT departments while open source web 2.0 are shunned.

For Venkat, the combatants in this battle are the Boomers (born 1946-62) and the Millenials/Gen Y (born 1980 -). Here is how Venkat draws the battle lines:

Inside organizations and at industry fora today, every other conversation around social media (SM) and Enterprise 2.0 seems to turn into a thinly-veiled skirmish within an industry-wide KM-SM shadow war. …KM and SM look very similar on the surface, but are actually radically different at multiple levels, both cultural and technical, and are locked in an undeclared cultural war for the soul of Enterprise 2.0.

Venkat sees top-down knowledge management as the product of the Boomer generation, while bottom-up social media is more reflective of Millenial values and aspirations. Caught in between are the Gen X folks (born 1963-79) who are not numerous enough to open a new front of their own, but may prove to be the perfect intermediaries between the opposing factions. According to Venkat, each of these generational groups approaches social media in different ways, which leads to the battles we’re seeing in some workplaces regarding whether and how to adopt social media behind the firewall.

Venkat goes on to identify the 5 social dimensions of the war, and then the following 5 technological dimensions of the war:

1. Expertise locators are not social networks. For Venkat, expert idolatry is the fixation of Boomers who just love authority. By contrast, he finds that Gen Xers and Millenials believe in “situational” experts, a more transitional phenomenon.

2. Online communities are not USENET v3.0. Venkat draws the distinction between, for example, the Millenials’ fondness for wide-open Facebook groups that nearly anyone can join vs GEn X LinkedIn groups that have gatekeepers.

3. RSS and Mash-ups are Gen X ideas. According to Venkat, they derive from the Gen X need “to reuse code and content to conquer overwhelming complexity.”

4. SemWeb isn’t Next Gen, it’s Last Gen. In other words, SemWeb is the Boomers’ revenge. For Venkat, “both KM and SemWeb set a lot of store by controlled vocabularies and ontologies as drivers of IT architecture.” No more unconstrained folksonomies, thank you very much.

5. SOA and SaaS are Gen X; Clouds are Millenial. Venkat bases this assertion on his interpretation of the words used to explain these related concepts. For him Service-Oriented Architecture and Software as a Service are typically pragmatic (and, in his view, unimaginative and ugly) Gen X approaches to what Millenials describe more metaphorically (and imprecisely) as “clouds.”

Venkat ends with the following prediction:

It takes no great genius to predict how the war will end. The Boomers will retire and the Millenials will win by default, in a bloodless end with no great drama. KM will quietly die, and SM will win the soul of Enterprise 2.0, with the Gen X leadership quietly slipping the best of the KM ideas into SM as they guide the bottom-up revolution.

The problem with this approach is that it under-rates KM and, perhaps, overestimates SM. In the conversations I’ve heard lately regarding social media, the KM folks have been working hard to find points of intersection and common interest with social media. They are treating this as an evolution rather than a revolution. Some have even gone so far as to say that social media is just the new marketing spin for KM. That assertion is likely to send Millenials running for the Maalox, but it appears that KM isn’t ready to be declared dead quite yet. Rather, it’s trying to transform itself from a purely archival discipline to a more dynamic and informal approach that puts people in direct touch with each other, without the obvious intermediation of a knowledge manager.

[Full disclosure: I’m a Gen Xer as far as Venkat is concerned. The previous paragraph could be read to confirm his contention that Gen Xers tend to pragmatism and compromise.]

Nonetheless, it’s useful to be reminded from time to time that our preferences are shaped by more than our intellect or experience. Sometimes an accident of birth can dictate how you respond to complexity and innovation. For Venkat the Boomers, Gen Xers and Millenials have distinct and different approaches to technology, information and community. Think hard about how you fit into this generational view before you make your next decision about social media.

Update (12 Oct 08): Take a look at Mark Gould’s thoughtful related post — Oh good grief. He tackles the “generational” straw man relied on from time to time by advocates of the next new thing.

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3 thoughts on “War Between Social Media and KM?

  • October 10, 2008 at 2:09 pm
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    Thanks for bringing this up. All things Sharepoint are practically pre-approved around here while cutting-edge social networks are blocked at the firewall.

    What can we do to open companies up to the power of social media today? I am working with one person at a time here at work trying to spread the word. I hope it’s not as simple as “wait until GenX/Y are running the company”.

  • October 10, 2008 at 2:17 pm
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    Daniel –

    We definitely cannot and should not just wait for the Boomers to retire. Maybe we should take an incrementalist approach: if you’ve got sharepoint, use it to deploy the bundled wikis and blogs — even with their known Microsoft shortcomings. Then, once you have some user traction, use 3rd party improvements to get a little closer to the cutting edge apps. It isn’t as satisfying as launching a mind-blowing tool from the start, but it is a way to make progress while waiting for those Boomers to retire.

    – Mary

  • November 19, 2008 at 6:18 pm
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    Good article by Siva Vaidhyanathan: “Generational Myth – Not all young people are tech-savvy” at
    http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i04/04b00701.htm.

    Furthermore I think that KM has changed. A lot of KM-practitioners now strongly focus on the use of social media because of thepower of these tools to connect people, let them work and solve problems together, and so on.

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