KM – individual vs. organizational

Jeff Beard, aka LawTech Guru, has an interesting post today about KM. In KM Thought of the Day he argues that KM should shift its focus to individual effort in place of institutional effort. I disagree.

… If I were a client, I would not be happy retaining a large law firm if I could not benefit, at least indirectly, from the know-how of the partners and associates of those lawyers with whom I happened to be working directly. Furthermore, if I were a lawyer at a large law firm, I would not be happy if I could not tap into the expertise of my colleagues. [Strategic Legal Technology]

I’ve been meaning to blog this thread for a while; it’s a conversation that’s very much worth having. I used to be in the business of selling software to organizations, and by its nature that software addressed problems that were institutional in nature. Consequently, it was quite common to sell to the organization, and to sell to the entire organization.

But now I’m at Socialtext, and our strategy is to look at the problems faced by the individuals within the organization, not the organization as a whole. We tend to focus individually, and let the value proposition bubble up from there. It’s a model that’s increasingly finding favor, as enterprise software sales continue to lag the tech industry’s resurgence.

One of the underlying tenets of the social software concept is that you’re more willing to share with people you know. (The more you share, the more people you’re likely to know… and on, and on…) I think it’s impossible to solve the institutional need (large-scale knowledge sharing across individuals and teams) unless you address the individual need.

Case in point? Jeff pointed to comments by Dennis and Thomas Collins. Thomas was commenting on a post from Jack, who himself had pointed to Martin. Martin’s comment that started this whole thread:

You can’t manage knowledge. If you are an organisation.
You can manage knowledge. If you are an individual.

Look at that list above. Six people (seven, if you now count my comments). All of us seeking not to solve an institutional problem, but trying to flesh out our thoughts on KM. Each of us teased out a variation on the theme, and added our own comments and perspectives. Now we all have a greater appreciation for the thread and a richer understanding of what we all know, as well as what the dissenting views are.

Now — we don’t all work for the same corporation (what a company that would be!). But if this were internally focused (like, say a Socialtext Workspace) then the very real possibility exists that not only would we be individually smarter, but we’d be smarter as an organization as well. And we’d have arrived at that point not by trying to solve an organizational problem, but by empowering individuals within the organization to speak up.

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