Monday, March 7, 2005

KM, and why people contribute

Last week, I wrote about the long tail and KM, and posited that the simplicity of a wiki made it more likely that organizations would be able to capture what people knew (and therefore be in a stronger position to leverage the institutional knowledge).

Since then, Ron Friedmann (a co-presenter of mine at TechShow later this month) wrote a thoughtful piece on the same subject, and said:

Unlike Rick, I see little incentive for individual workers to take extra steps to memorialize their knowledge on the off chance that someone else may find it useful some day. As I read his argument, making it very easy to memorialize know-how means workers will more likely do so. I suspect that unless a workers think they will personally need the info again or there is institutional incentive to capture it, they will think “why bother?” no matter how easy.

Following on that theme, blog newcomer (welcome, Rees!) and long-time corporate counsel consultant Rees Morrison wrote that the greater good is no good:

Law departments struggle with these compilations of information because lawyers do not want to expose their ideas – lest they be criticized, perhaps; or they claim they do not have time, which really means that they do not see the payoff justifying their effort; or they are hobbled by technology, even down to the simple point of not being able to type proficiently.

In both cases, Rees and Ron point to the unlikely scenario in which lawyers share info simply to be nice; that there needs to be a concrete reason for capturing what they know. Rees goes further and says there may be some active disincentives that explain why some lawyers don’t share.

Jeff and I have debated this point before; last summer we offered our thoughts on whether there was a new trend in KM that focused less on the overall institutional needs and more on the individual needs — I thought then, and am even more convinced today, that by doing the latter you actually solve the former. That is, if you make it easier for individuals to simply do their job — share info, collaborate, get things done — then you’ll by necessity increase the “surface area” (hat tip: Jon Udell for that wonderful metaphor) of knowledge the organization can tap when necessary.)

To circle back to Ron’s disagreement with my original post: Am I suggesting that people will write stuff down simply because they like their colleagues? No. (These are lawyers we’re talking about, after all.) But I am suggesting that tools which make their jobs easier will get used — and if an ancillary benefit of those tools is that knowledge is slowly captured and exposed within the organization, then the organization as a whole stands to benefit a great deal.


  1. I have a supervisor at work who actively attempts to keep all information secret. In this way she can control others and come across as both essential and intelligent. She doesn't, but that is a different story for a day when I no longer work at my present company.
    However, I think it is safe to say that information is power, and very few people give it up willingly. Especially lawyers. Information makes or breaks their cases, their projects, etc.

  2. Rick - been there, tried that. see aug 7 02 and aug 29 02 - they've got to have an incentive. It might be monetary, might not, but it's got to be something that the see as valued by their managers (and which won't lead to the end of their jobs, which is how many knowledge workers see km).

  3. Steven -

    Well, I tend to agree when you're talking about applications that require a different way of working: there's just too much inertia to overcome. But what about things like e-mail? Or word processing? You don't have to incent people to use those applications - they just do, because it lets them do their work faster.

    So my point is that the wiki way of working - easy collaboration, faster capture of info - is starting to replace e-mail as the least amount of friction involved in electronic collaboration. I certainly have a reason to claim that (given my Socialtext affiliation), but I believe it to be true, and think that we'll increasingly see this light-weight technology get adopted _by users_ who want to simply get their jobs done with a minimum of overhead.

    In this case, I don't think it's about incentives, or rewards -- it's just about doing the work. Anything that makes the work easier is likely to get traction by the users... which the organization can choose to try and leverage. Or not.

  4. hmm, good point Rick, though how long did it take for folks to become really comfortable with email and wp? I don't remember. I think you're right though, and it didn't take much pulling by us "early adopters" to bring folks along.

    I guess I was thinking more of new processes/procedures/tools that aren't quite as obvious, or (in my attempts, at least) those that appear to put a person's power base (their knowledge) at risk - 'if I give everyone my knowledge than what value will I have?' That's the problem I ran into when I was trying to spread the word on KM.