posted 30 Nov 2009 in Volume 13 Issue 3
Cover feature: Is social media transforming KM?
Social software pilots at Devon County Council are producing real results. But the implications of success are far broader for business and its understanding of knowledge management. By Caroline Poynton.
Carl Haggerty may not be a knowledge management (KM) professional, but as enterprise architect at Devon City Council, he has a unique insight into some of the changes that are likely to profoundly impact KM. In particular, he is a proud advocate of social software and the possibilities it offers to public and private sectors alike. Not that he likes to make too much of his social-software expertise. “Unfortunately a lot of people who are passionate about social networking or social software – and I put myself in that pile – can come across to other people as a bit of a geek. Then you’re in danger of alienating yourself as people expect you to focus on the technology,” he says. “But I’m not interested in the technology... I’m more interested in how the tools can be used to solve problems.”
With a broader business rather than technology-centric perspective, Haggerty is in a prime position to comment on the impact social software has already had – particularly within his own organisation – and will likely have on the future working environment. Within this, there are obvious implications for knowledge managers. Social media is yet to really impact the workplace, with many organisations still in the ‘thinking about’ or at most ‘planning’ phase of any kind of social media strategy. If early indications are anything to go by, however, social software will enable a whole new level of internal and external communication, and thereby knowledge sharing. This will not just fundamentally transform the workplace as we know it, but also relations with external customers and clients. That it will also impact the role of the knowledge manager, and of KM in general, seems certain.
The intuitive strength of social software
With social software, the possibility of profound change in the workplace is perhaps higher than ever. “We’re on the verge of mass and huge organisational change in the public sector,” he says. “In the public sector as a whole, we are going to have to think about how we share knowledge and information, and how we collaborate.” Haggerty points to a familiar development, as people have embraced social networking in their personal lives, to connect with friends and organise their social lives. He thinks this trend is translating to the workplace in that people increasingly expect that kind of flexibility and interaction in their professional as well as personal lives. “There’s an increasing expectation that tools in the workplace should be just as flexible and fast as those they use in their personal lives. Existing tools like e-mail and Microsoft exchange may be perceived as clumsy. There may be some frustration with them. This brings with it lots of opportunity – for example, that social software could be used to enable much wider connection than e-mail tools would have allowed,” he says.
In particular, he thinks that as organisations increasingly embrace social software, the scale of change could be huge. “People traditionally have this idea that collaboration is about getting together four to six people in a room. But in a social software environment we’re able to share ideas with thousands of others in the public sector, sharing different viewpoints on the same issue or sharing learning points on several issues. The scalability in collaboration is the big transformation, as we suddenly have access to this huge pool of knowledge.” Haggerty doesn’t only see the potential for change in the sheer numbers involved, but also in the quality of the conversations. “People are generally more creative when they interact with other people using social media. It’s a far more flexible platform for sharing ideas. Because the majority of it is web-based, it also supports the mobile workforce agenda as well,” he adds.
Getting senior management buyin
Nor does Haggerty think that this is a movement solely driven by the younger ‘grass-roots’ of the workforce, with slow buy-in from an older senior management. The idea that most people using social media are from the younger generation may be true in terms of, say, statistics from some social networking sites. But Haggerty thinks it would be a mistake to conclude, therefore, that social networking is the product of a younger generation. In Haggerty’s view, this would be a technology-centric conclusion that ignores the fact that senior management are in fact engaged in social networking activities already; they often just don’t realise it because they’re not using the recognised tools. For example, he points to the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE). “Most CEs are members of SOLACE, which is essentially a social network,” he says. “They buy into it because it’s a huge opportunity to talk to other CEs and share thoughts over the challenges ahead.”
For Haggerty, making a success of social software in the workplace environment is not convincing senior management of social networking per se, but linking their existing experience to a much broader social networking platform – with all the opportunities for learning and knowledge sharing that brings with it. “Most important is to remember that social software and social networking are about people, not technology. As soon as people hear the terms ‘social’ and ‘software’ they think it’s something unrelated to business – or they think it’s about technology. I think that’s where there’s a conflict which I am trying to resolve by getting people to recognise that they are already part of the social-networking context.”
The Devon County Council experience
Haggerty’s approach to social software at Devon County Council certainly seems to be paying off, with several pilot projects this year providing positive signs for further social software development. The council’s first foray into the social networking scene unsurprisingly came from having to agree a policy for employees wanting to access social networks. For many organisations – public and private alike – there have often been more fears over social networking than a desire to make it work in the workplace setting. “A lot of organisations have worried that social networking will result in a loss of productivity,” says Haggerty. “But I think it increases productivity because it enables them to tap into networks that are often useful. It’s also about treating people like adults – if you treat people with respect then you’ll get a lot more back in return. If they misuse that freedom then you have to deal with it on a case-by-case basis. If you take the technology out of the equation, it’s no different to dealing with an employee who talks to their colleagues all day. It’s just about people behaving properly regardless of the technology and the onus is on the manager to oversee this.”
As a starting point to a social media strategy, Devon County Council first developed a policy around staff access to social media – which was primarily, Haggerty says, just a review of its existing internet-access policy. The council allows staff to access and use social networking sites, although they need management permission if they want to use any of the sites for business purposes. “The policy has simple rules. If you access sites, then you do so in your own time. It’s very much like the e-mail policy – we don’t expect people to be e-mailing friends all day either. Basically, as long as you’re doing your job, you can use these tools flexibly.”
Most significant is that this initial supportive environment for social networking has led to both internal and external pilots to further develop social-software capabilities for Council activities. The first is a pilot focusing on youth connections in the region, with the Council’s youth participation team using Facebook and Bebo to do consultation and participation activity with young people who are already connected to the Council. “First we did a consultation event – our youth service holds an annual youth festival for around 900 young people connected to youth centres,” explains Haggerty. “We went along and did a consultation to find out whether a) young people would like the council to engage with them on Facebook; and b) if they agreed, how they would like that to be done – for example, via the Council, a particular project or an individual officer.” The response was positive, with young people particularly interested in engagement from a Council officer, primarily a person they already knew such as a youth worker. Two pilot exercises via Facebook followed on – one around developing positive imagery for young people. “The young people involved approved all of the marketing activity through the Facebook group,” he says.
Another pilot focused on teenage parents and pregnant girls. “These young people already had offline connections with the Council but it was about increasing our conversation with them online,” says Haggerty. By connecting with them either daily or weekly via Facebook, the Council was not only able to develop a greater understanding of this group but also offer an outlet to young parents that may have otherwise been very difficult. “One young mother found it really liberating. Without the online element, she probably wouldn’t have engaged with the project because it would have required her to turn up at a Council building. This provided her with the opportunity to connect from the comfort of her own home with the convenience of logging on while the baby was asleep, for example.” The projects have been so successful with existing contacts that the Council is now looking at ways of using social networking to generate new contacts – a prospect that is improved by the viral aspect of the existing campaigns, in that these Facebook experiences are already likely shared between friends.
From external to internal
The youth experience also parallels developments in the Council generally, in terms of developing a Council Facebook page and Twitter profile, as an additional promotional channel and hub of information. “We’ve got a Facebook page that provides links into our corporate website. We’ve also done the same with Twitter. At first we just repurposed a lot of existing content, like our RSS feeds, but we’ve since got the web team more proactively involved in creating messages and that’s helped us gain a lot of followers,” says Haggerty.
The team has also piloted an internal social software platform. Started in February/March of this year, the aim was not to prove that the technology works, but about looking at business change and the opportunities for social networking within that. “We wanted to get a sense of a) what these platforms could really do; and b) what impact an internal social network would have on internal processes and knowledge sharing,” he says. To best ensure success, Haggerty has been very careful about the terminology, avoiding the word ‘social’ and replacing it with ‘business’. “We renamed the pilot half way through to ‘internal business networking pilot’. This changed the perception for people who could then see it as business oriented rather than just a source of chit-chat.” With the pilot due to finish in December, Haggerty already has ideas of how he would like to further use the tools – for example, in creating a ‘People Finder’ site. Haggerty knows that it can be a real struggle to find the right expert within the organisation, so this ‘finding the right expert’ site would be a way of using the social software tools to resolve an existing problem – the key, he argues, to achieving success with the technology.
Success, however, has not been without its challenges. For Haggerty, though, it comes back to the same fundamental requirement: to understand the business issues and problems first, then use the tools to provide a solution. “I’ve worked in Devon County Council for 13 years and I’ve got a broad understanding of how it works. I understand where the problems are and I can go in and suggest ways of doing things more effectively... It’s about focusing less on the technology but understanding it enough to explain how problems could be solved using these tools.”
The impact of social software on KM
Haggerty may still be at the beginning of his social-software journey at Devon County Council, but there is little doubt that this is just the beginning of transformative developments. As such, he agrees that the impact on KM will be significant. “KM is a big driver for social software,” he says. “Knowledge managers should be looking at social software as part of their toolkit because it’s a great way to surface knowledge, to help with knowledge harvesting and to help with the knowledge management lifecycle.”
In the long term he also sees social software raising questions over the role of the KM professional. “I’m not a KM professional but from my perspective, what we’re seeing is a move towards more flexible ways of knowledge being created, surfaced, accessed and searched. The deployment of blogs, wikis and intranets will be a mainstay of KM over time.” Within that, he thinks the KM role may become more like an internal consultancy with strong links to learning and development disciplines. He particularly sees a strong link between KM and workforce development – the latter of which he describes as a strategic view of L&D, focusing on issues such as people development and succession planning – all of which require an element of KM. “The KM professional’s role will be about getting to grips with the business,” he predicts. “It will evolve into understanding disciplines of the business with forward-thinking knowledge managers connecting to the workforce strategy particularly in terms of internal people development over the next five years.” In the public sector, he thinks this strategic people development will be vital in a climate where recruitment is likely to remain static and where the focus will have to be on developing the internal workforce. “We need to ensure that our people can be more agile in the organisation – that we can move people around more easily, which requires a focus on knowledge sharing. We have to ensure we have the right platforms in place to do that.”
Haggerty also warns that knowledge managers who do not connect their strategies to the workforce agenda might find themselves pushed aside. “There’s a lot of opportunity for KM to grow into a business-focused role that’s about proactively creating learning organisations,” he says. “If they don’t take that role there’s a real threat that the workforce teams will run with it instead. They don’t understand KM as such, but they do understand learning and leadership development, management development and succession planning, and that knowledge sharing is essential for that to be successful. Unless knowledge managers can jump into that gap then they may miss the boat.”
Knowledge managers who are forward thinking, who can align themselves to the business issues facing their organisations and who can use whatever tools are at hand to support the process are more likely to be successful, argues Haggerty. In this respect, he also believes that social software will play a huge part, in enabling knowledge managers to take their problem-solving strategies to the next level. He does, however, perceive a potential split in the KM role. “I’ve met a few knowledge managers and some see themselves as knowledge managers and others as record managers. I think there will be a separation in there. Record managers will remain in that discipline while knowledge managers will become more business focused and strategic.”
Haggerty may be a fan of all things social software related. He may even see social software as a transformative technology. But he is far from being a technology geek because the technology never comes first. Instead he considers the business issues first, before applying the tools to address problems. Most of all, Devon County Council is beginning to see positive results from this strategy, with social software merely tapping into the need for creating better internal and external connections via social software. Thinking like Haggerty’s is clearly producing positive outcomes for Devon County Council that will be further developed in coming months. His outlook goes beyond just one Council, however. It is indicative of a change that may overhaul the practice of KM altogether.
This article is an excerpt from Ark Group's Delivering Business-Critical Knowledge Management report, by Caroline Poynton. For more information contact Robyn Macé at email@example.com