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The volunteer army of Web 2.0

On the odd occasion where I have seen the results of surveys of knowledge workers where they are asked to rank the barriers to the adoption of knowledge management inside their organisation, one word keeps popping up at the top of the list again and again: culture.

On the odd occasion where I have seen the results of surveys of knowledge workers where they are asked to rank the barriers to the adoption of knowledge management inside their organisation, one word keeps popping up at the top of the list again and again: culture. One such response even had this in the comments: "If I could put culture #1, #2 and #3, I would". What will the advent of the new open, sharing attitude of Web 2.0 have on this age-old conundrum?

Gartner analysts used their San Francisco event in May to push the idea that companies would first implement the technology of Web 2.0, then get working on the more social aspects. While this may prove to be accurate, my guess is that it would be a mistake in a lot of cases. Of course, it's not going to hurt anything to bolt on syndication feeds to your intranet or sprinkle some Ajax over your backend app's Web client. However, once you start dabbling with 2.0 applications such wikis, blogs and folksonomies, you open up a whole new range of cultural issues to resolve.

The consequence of culture being the #1 KM issue is that your first priority as project leader should be how to involve the people you want to get information from -- the workers themselves. If they don't play nice, your databases are not going to be filled with the best data. These omniscient senseis have some strong motivations not to co-operate: the fear of losing their irreplaceability, the value of their knowledge as leverage to bargain for better pay, and the distaste for babysitting less able colleagues.

Web 2.0's answer to this is voluntarism, as explained by Lee Bryant of London-based consultancy Headshift.

The investment in enterprise systems was often calculated on the basis that everybody would use it, and many projects would fall back on coercion as a means of ensuring uptake, perhaps based on a perceived need to standardise or centralise. With social software, the opposite is the case, in the sense that projects only tend to work where they are demand-driven and people can choose to adopt new systems, rather than feel they are forced to.

The word is used in its political sense, to mean the libertarian-aligned doctrine that relations among people should be by mutual consent, or not at all. Whereas many previous KM projects have either failed to get the right knowledge workers involved, or only induced cooperation by force, the promise of Web 2.0 is that this problem is supposedly going to go away because the applications are architected so as to encourage voluntary participation.

How does this happen? The example of del.icio.us is the one most often held up as the template -- a notion that I don't support. Social bookmarking works because people use the site for purely personal reasons, as a replacement for browser bookmarking. Through analysing the aggregate activities of all of its users, the site can provide something more than just the basic function of allowing people to bookmark sites, by introducing them to new sites that significant numbers of other users have just bookmarked.

Google's PageRank algorithm works the same way. While nobody has to sign up to Google for PageRank to work -- although the code inside Google Toolbar certainly assists the process -- PageRank is an algorithm to codify the large-scale trends of linking pages on the Web. Thus, the simple act of linking one page to another, which has its own intrinsic value to those who do it, can be analysed en masse using buildings full of servers and some very smart equations, and an insanely valuable database can be inferred from the totality.

Calling this voluntarism is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion, since these users are not consciously participating at sites like del.icio.us primarily to help bolster someone else's MySQL table's row count. A more accurate characterisation would be to compare it to the customer attitude towards customer relationship management data. When you walk into a retail store and start browsing for clothes or electronics or whatnot, you do not have in the forefront of your mind the thought that your every move can be analysed by closed circuit cameras for the purposes of devising better floor display design. If asked about it, you might feel a little annoyed about being reminded about the situation, but you would (presumably) not boycott that store in future just because you might be photographed. You accept it as a part of modern society.

In the context of a corporate environment, this means that you have to build something that the best knowledge workers in your organisation would use to make their own working day better. Instead of dragging them kicking and screaming into a top-down taxonomy project, give them a search box and a HTML form to add tags and set them off. Instead of making them write TPS reports, give them blogs to ramble on about whatever they want, and let them come to the point in their own time. Instead of imposing clunky workflow procedures on their documents, give them wikis. It's all carrot, all the time. The value to your organisation is in taking all the data provided in these systems and making something cohesive out of the results.