Friday, July 03, 2009

Is the Time Finally Right for a Knowledge Market Model?

I was just reading Leon Benjamin's KnowledgeBoard article titled Social media on the inside in which he writes about the transformative nature of social media platforms, the value of "flat" communities and networks as structures for building and maintaining intangible assets and getting work done, and the conflicts between these and traditional management approaches - a good, pithy article.

One phrase in Leon's article jumped out at me - "markets are conversations."

In 2002 I was fortunate to have had a number of great conversations about knowledge management with Leigh Weiss and Tim Shavers from McKinsey. Many of the conversations revolved around the concept and applicability of a market model for knowledge. This concept was succinctly described in Making a Market in Knowledge written by Lowell Bryan, McKinsey Quarterly 2004.

In a preamble to describing the concept, Bryan explores a number of "KM" approaches that have failed to generate the required returns, including:

  • big investments in document-management systems, shared servers, and other technology solutions that most often result in large volumes of outdated documents, making it difficult for users to locate the best few "just in time" relevant, quality and timely documents
  • "push" strategies where centralized staff provide knowledge to users that does not meet user needs
  • letting organizational units solve their own knowledge problems, which often results in knowledge silos and solutions that are non-scalable across the organization
I think most medium to large organizations have felt at least some of this pain. Though I don't whole heartedly agree with Leon's assertion in the KnowledgeBoard article that "It should be obvious by now to most people that social software changes people’s behaviour," I do think that social technologies, if fluidly interconnected and highly customizable, can create a "knowledge platform" that will allow natural human behaviour to emerge - productive conversations and knowledge markets.

Critical, though is the need to build a true learning and collaboration culture, else these markets / platforms will remain underutilized.. Many knowledge and information initiatives I've heard about focus on enabling the knowledge / information owner capturing and making their "stuff" available, or pushing it on overworked knowledge workers. The focus needs to be more on the learner / consumer. (Nancy Dixon wrote a great article titled The Neglected Receiver of Knowledge Sharing a while back - one of the few on the topic.)

We all learn before doing (from information content, friends, colleagues, experts etc.) as part of doing knowledge work, and as a result, often create new / improved /evolved knowledge and information. We need to remove the many organizational and social barriers to learning and knowledge seeking, recognize and reinforce these forms of behaviour in ourselves and our colleagues, and create a demand for knowledge and information in all its forms.

That demand, the learning needs, will create the context and the markets that are critically important for learning from and benefiting from the experiences of others. Learning is evidenced in changes in thinking and behaviour. And the change comes from the learner (demand side of the market) not the knowledge / information transmitter (supply side).

Nurturing the evolution of this type of learning and collaboration culture is not an easy task, given the power of the human ego - "I'm different".. "my agenda above all else".. "I can do it better".. "I'm afraid to let others know I don't know something" - or the time pressures we're all under - "it's too hard to find what/ who I'm looking for.. so I'll just recreate it.." Nonetheless, a culture that values experential and serendipitous learning is a critical success factor for knowledge markets and platforms.

I'm beginning to think that the evolution of knowledge management thinking, the growing promise and potential of emerging social technologies, demographic shifts in organizations, behaviours of newer generations of techno-savy employees, and the growing acknowledgement of the need to systematically go about connecting people to each other and to information, may be creating a more generalized readiness for "knowledge markets" of the type McKinsey was writing about earlier in this decade.

As I mentioned above, Leon writes "markets are conversations." I'd like to flip that and say "conversations are markets." Thinking back many of my conversations, they are often highly dynamic markets where knowledge and information are exchanged in a complex web of interactions across multiple communications channels, with each participant assessing value of the exchange based on their own criteria.

Imagine elevating the level of conversation at an organizational level.

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