Over the years, big companies have dumped a lot of money into computer systems that promise to automate “knowledge management.” Most of that money has been wasted. No matter how technologically elegant their design, knowledge management “platforms” and “repositories” tend to quickly collapse under the weight of their own complexity. Using them turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth – particularly for those employees who have the most valuable knowledge – and the platforms and repositories fall into disuse and are eventually, and quietly, dismantled. People go back to using efficient, direct conversations – through meetings, or phone calls, or emails, or instant messages – to exchange useful knowledge.
The collaboration technologies collectively know as Web 2.0 – blogs, wikis, tags, RSS and the like – are the latest to be promoted as powerful tools for automating corporate knowledge management. But will they share the same fate as their predecessors: heavily hyped, widely installed, then abandoned? Andrew McAfee doesn’t think so. McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor and one of the most thoughtful scholars of corporate information management, makes the business case for Web 2.0 in an article in the new issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.” (Don’t worry: The article’s better than its title.)
McAfee first explains why past knowledge management “solutions” rarely solved anything. He then explains what makes Web 2.0 technologies different. “The good news,” he writes, is that the new technologies “focus not on capturing knowledge itself, but rather on the practices and output of knowledge workers.” By providing both a platform for collaboration and a means of recording the details of the collaboration, the technologies create a public record of previously private knowledge-sharing conversations, a record that’s permanent and easily searched. Knowledge is captured, in other words, as it’s created, without requiring any additional work. As people search and use that knowledge, moreover, they refine it – through commenting, linking, syndicating and tagging, for instance – which makes it even more valuable.
“This suggests an intriguing possbility,” writes McAfee:
It has historically been the case that as organizations grow it becomes more and more difficult for people within them to find a particular information resource – a person, a fact, a piece of knowledge or expertise. Enterprise 2.0 technologies, however, can be a force in the opposite direction. They can make large organizations in some ways more searchable, analyzable and navigable than smaller ones, and make it easier for people to find precisely what they’re looking for. The new technologies certainly don’t overcome all the dysfunctions of corporate scale, but they might be able to address some of them.
McAfee makes a strong case for why Web 2.0 technologies may succeed where earlier technologies didn’t. The new technologies have other practical advantages as well: they’re cheap, fairly simple to set up, and fairly straightforward to use. Companies can test them without much expense or pain.
Still, though, skepticism is in order. McAfee provides just one case study of a company gaining real benefits from Web 2.0 – that of the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein – and even that one seems provisional. There are, to be sure, other examples of apparently successful uses of Web 2.0 technologies for knowledge management, but all previously hyped knowledge management technologies also came wrapped in anecdotes of enthusiastic earlier adopters. In the excitement of the rollout of such technologies, it’s easy to document initial “successes” – there’s always at least a small group of technologically-inclined employees who will gravitate to a seemingly cool new platform. The real test comes later, when the personal costs and benefits of using the system become apparent to a broad set of employees.
McAfee sounds a note of caution along these lines. He notes the possibility that “busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding,” and points to the fact that “most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform – they just use it.” There’s the rub. Managers, professionals and other employees don’t have much spare time, and the ones who have the most valuable business knowledge have the least spare time of all. (They’re the ones already inundated with emails, instant messages, phone calls, and meeting requests.) Will they turn into avid bloggers and taggers and wiki-writers? It’s not impossible, but it’s a long way from a sure bet.
UPDATE: On his blog, McAfee adds some further thoughts, in response to the above.