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Social Networking Dinosaur Syndrome

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I just finished Leonard Susskind’s The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. If you enjoy having your mind explode, you need to read it, because your mind will detonate at least three times while you do. Probably more.

The Black Hole War re-introduced me to grok — Robert Heinlein’s term (from Stranger in a Strange Land) for understanding something deeply and intuitively. Susskind used it to explain why people have so much trouble with quantum-mechanical and relativistic concepts … they have no way of grokking them.

It’s also a reasonable way to understand why many IT departments loathe a technology that might solve two long-running business challenges.

The challenges: Keeping the enterprise skills database up to date, and achieving true “knowledge management.” The technology: Social networking.

It’s like this: For years, companies have sought the holy grail of an accurate, up-to-date, employee-self-administered skills inventory. As doing so requires a bit of time and effort, provides no noticeable benefit to the employees, and only happens when it occurs to an employee that something needs updating, most corporate skills inventories contain data that isn’t worth shoveling, let alone mining.

At the same time, many companies have attempted to implement a discipline wrongly titled “Knowledge Management.” It’s wrongly titled because managing knowledge provides no benefit. The payoff comes, not from managing it, but from sharing it.

And once again, the solutions mostly consist of asking already-stretched-thin employees to spend time updating a database — the Knowledge Management System (KMS) — without giving them much of a reason to do so.

Corporate knowledge-sharing? Mostly an informal activity among friends that ignores the KMS. Accurate enterprise skills tracking? A non-starter.

Meanwhile, millions of people enthusiastically keep their Facebook pages up to date with … well, sometimes with considerably more than we want to know. Scattered throughout is information about what they like to do, what they’re good at doing, and what they’ve learned that’s interesting and worth sharing.

It’s filled with what KMS and skills inventory administrators drool over.

Yet the default condition for IT, aided and abetted by Information Security and Human Resources, is prevention rather than exploitation. Why? My guess is that those responsible for IT management, Information Security and Human Resources don’t grok Facebook.

Some are suffering from a potentially lethal case of Social Networking Dinosaurism Syndrome (SNDS), denying any possible value for the technology without even using it, let along grokking it.

Others have a milder case, having academic knowledge but not personal experience.

I’m among the latter. I’m active enough on LinkedIn that my case of SNDS isn’t lethal, but I certainly wouldn’t call myself a social networking grok ‘n roller either.

Here’s what I can say with confidence: Those responsible for encouraging knowledge-sharing and an enterprise view of employee skills can gain important insights from social networking sites. Here are two:

1. Facebook’s subscribers want others to see what they put up for display. That’s in contrast to how most companies approach knowledge management and skills inventories, which are defined in terms of what the company wants them to share.

2. Facebook makes the whole experience fun and engaging. Can you say that about your knowledge management system? Your skills inventory database? Of course not — this is serious business, and fun has no place here. It’s why we call it “work.”

I don’t know exactly how you should apply these insights to knowledge-sharing and skills-inventory management. I doubt the best solution is Facebook itself. I’m pretty sure, though, that as friends from Texas sometimes say, “There’s a pony in that barn somewhere.”

There’s a certain sad sameness to what most of my age cohort has to say about social networking: “I don’t use it and don’t intend to. I don’t understand why anyone would want to socialize on-line instead of face-to-face. It’s a symptom of what’s wrong with the millennials.”

That’s in contrast to my conversations with a few in my own age group and more in younger ones. They explain how enjoyable it is to keep up with friends remotely and in real time, and to expand their horizons by making new friends from all over the world.

It reinforces a conclusion I drew some time ago: Getting old consists of spending more time disapproving of how others spend their lives than enjoying how we spend our own.

And so, with some regret, I’ll probably have to invest time and energy into Facebook, to cure my case of SNDS.

But I draw the line at Twitter.

Comments (13)

  • I’m with you, Bob: I have no desire of joining the Twitteratti, either. Facebook is fun but much effort at 3-4 times per week. Being bombarded with daily overdoses of Tweets has no attraction whatsoever.

  • Okay – you can leave draw the line at Twitter, but you might want to check out some of the corporate micro-blogging tools. The best known is Yammer, which is a bit of a Twitter clone for enterprise use. The better option is Socialcast, which mixes messaging with powerful searching, sharing and analytic features. Out of the box, Socialcast looks a bit like Facebook, and it enables exactly the type of sharing you’re describing, in a package that will be far more inviting and easy to use than your typical slow-to-load, hard-to-navigate Sharepoint portal.

    My take is that email is overtaxed and damaged by the 80% misuse that most email boxes suffer. It was never designed to handle the volume of mail we receive; it’s inferior to RSS as a news-reading application; and it’s destroyed by the number of “Sally from accounting won’t be coming in today” and “I have two tickets for the Journey reunion gig to spare” emails that bury the important ones.

    So businesses need a casual messaging format, which is what Twitter is, but one that’s used to share project-related links; advise people of whereabouts; convene casual lunches or after-work social events, etc. Get it out of email, and inject some casual communication into the cubicles.

    I’ve seen the quotes from CIOs who ban social media sites and swear they’ll never try Twitter, and I wonder what qualifies them for their jobs. It’s not about restricting use of technology, it’s about maximizing it, and, for that, you have to be looking for value in new trends, not blindly dismissing them. They won’t all pass the test, but, where micro-messaging and social networking go, a lot of people who really should know better are missing the boat. They’re keeping their jobs, because the execs they report to are just as narrow-minded about technology as they are.

    BTW, probably my best piece on how corporate IT misses this particular boat is here: http://techcafeteria.com/blog/2009/04/21/the-roi-on-flexibility/. Love your blog (as I loved your column back in the Infoworld days); it’s an inspiration.

  • The thing about Facebook is that your friends might post something about you to your page that you would rather not share with a prospective employer [or your Mom].

    At least friends cannot post stuff on your page in LinkedIn.

    But even on LinkedIn experience or knowledge that one might be proud of or wish to share could be viewed by a prospective employer as a lack of focus or some other reason to place you in the ‘do not interview’ pile. It may not be smart of them but it is efficient.

    I have loved computers and all kinds of technology all my life. My bachelors was in engineering physics and my masters in computer and information science but I am less and less happy with what I see as a major portion of the result.

    If you have some time [and it is slow but I know you have a longer attention span than most] please take a look at these six youtube clips [which could be found on my Facebook page but not my LinkedIn]


  • Interesting theory. What I have seen with skills inventories is an initial enthusiasm about the project, an enthusiasm that might even extend to the employees. They get to crow a bit about their capabilities and experience – and go through the drudgery of documenting them – but then what? Nothing. Ever. (In my experience.) If the data never gets used, what’s the point of keeping it up to date? Even when the company makes the effort to regurgitate it annually and ask for updates, it becomes ever easier to blow off the request if the data is never (or appears never to be) used. [Is my cynicism showing?]

    Same thing may be true with social networking. Initial introduction to the site, the user gives his history and begins to interact – socially – with friends. The work skills are found to be of somewhat less importance and probably don’t need to be maintained, except maybe to be pared down to little more than an expanded job title.

    Now that’s my experience from a year’s use of Facebook, mostly connecting with scattered family and one-time friends who have moved all over the country. LinkedIn could be a different story; though I’m a member I really haven’t figured it out more than to register and link up with a few one-time – friends. So I’m not expert there.

    But what I see about the social networking and work skills is people tending to use those to expand outside the company rather than inside. Maybe that has something to do with the perceived utility that is missing from the skills databases.

    But a corporate Facebook? Hmmm. There might be something there. Limited to the enterprise and intended for collaboration – but not exclusively! – employees just might talk about themselves and their projects and see others with an interest participate with them. And the profiles, with public (within the enterprise) access, just might contain some useful skills data.

  • My very first job out of college was with a small company, where the Boss held a cocktail party every Friday. To make it workable, spouses were invited. To make it effective, it was held in his office. A great deal of networking went on there, ‘socail’ and ‘professional’.

    In my very first real ‘leadership’ position, a job within a Govt facility where no booze was allowed, I sponsored a monthly, after-work-BBQ. My staff were all older, with more practical experience than I; the networking promoted by a couple beers was invaluable to me.

    Unfortunately, these booze involving techniques are no longer PC, so I guess the facebookers will come to rule the world.

  • Facebook is fun, but I’m no millenial, so I have a separate account for work/professional “friends.” I like a division between work and fun, unlike a lot of the younger crew. I also have a linked in and a twitter account, but I’m not all that active in those. Twitter can be useful, I think, but you have to spend the time to engage. It’s like a big group of people all talking at once, and you can pay attention and chat with whoever you want. A good networker can get something out of it. I’m not a very good networker. But I know it can be used well and productively.

    I really like the idea of making knowledge sharing easier and fun, though, and social networking is all about that. I think the battle would be to engage people who feel more powerful through knowledge stockpiling rather than sharing…

  • Hi Bob,

    I always look forward to your newsletters. This week you are giving me a chance to point out something about Facebook and MySpace, is that people should create two accounts (depending on which one they hang out) one for business associates and one for friends outside of work. This makes life a bit better to deal with, since there are always people who are out to find the negative, especially in corporate areas (Usually described as looking out for the interests of the company).

    In this job market where everyone checks the internet, it is definitely a good idea to do this, it prevents personal items that you don’t want to be shared with co-workers/potential employers to be made available.

  • Bob,

    Knowledge sharing is what the Internet is about, or it was before pornography took off. Now the rage is social networking, but the people who are reaping the rewards are not the participants, but the people who are data mining what the participants are doing for marketing purposes. Many of the things on Facebook are mindless games with which people can waste loads of time with. At least one of my friends wastes his time playing virtual farmer or hit man. I avoid social sites for one reason, their privacy rules stink. I don’t need to be in yet another database that the police can easily use against me if they wish to find me. I haven’t even spoken about companies spying on employees’ activities and their blogs. My former employer’s Code of Conduct forbid anything that could be seen as against the company’s best interests and I was reprimanded for submitting an email to a private IT Security forum even though my company was not mentioned by name and no people or their titles were named in the email, and I used my gmail email address. I deliberately kept the content vague and anaonymous, but it was not enough to prevent me from being turned in and reprimanded.

    If I need knowledge I don’t have, there are forums and Google for help. I suggested to my management that they set up a wiki for sharing knowledge at work. That idea went knowhere. Customer service call centers have databases of answers to specific questions. Chances are that once the tech understands the database and its limits, your chances of problem resolution are 75% or higher. They would be higher still if the CSR understood which questions to ask and the customer was more forthcoming about what he did to cause the issue, and people regularly updated the database.

    But setting up a knowledge database for managers impinges upon their power. In politics and management, advanced and confidential knowledge is power. It’s the same in poker. The player who has knowledge of the others’ hands or who can convince the others that he has a stronger hand wins. But your analogy of bridge is even better. Management should be playing bridge when they are playing poker. Bridge players cooperate and learn what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps the underlying problem is capitalism and its emphasis on the individual instead of the collective. Another problem with capitalism is that bad ethics can drive good ethics out of the organization. If cheating keeps you in business you cheat, but the company/collective will suffer greatly as a result. Individual executives will make out like bandits though.


  • Why draw the line at twitter? It – and services like them – are not for every organization, but as with IM and social networking in general, understanding what it’s about is important for an organization – and by extension, the people who advise them.

    • Two reasons. As a content creator I’d need to feed the beast, and I have enough trouble supporting KJR and Advice Line.

      As a content receiver, I just don’t want to read all that many 140 character messages written for mass audiences. Seems uncomfortably close to volunteering for spam to me.

      But that’s just me. I’m certainly not prescribing this for anyone else.

      • Bob, I’d say, from this response, that you’ve missed the boat on Twitter. I don’t write my tweets for mass audiences, I write them for a very specific set of technical peers working at nonprofits. I don’t follow Ashton Kutchner and I have no care for him to follow me. Twitter is about the community you build there, not the world at large.

        Second, my presence on twitter has been the single most powerful impetus for blog growth that I’ve seen. I see steady rises in visits and subscribers, fueled primarily by retweets when I post good content and let people know about it. So using your blog as an excuse not to Tweet suggests that you really have it backwards.

        You don’t have to commit a lot of time to it — one of the benefits of Twitter is that it’s casual communication. I generally ignore it on the weekend, because I have family and other commitments. And, while I follow about 430 people, I use my Twitter client’s “groups” feature to prioritize who I actually read regularly, as do most of us. So the combination of following intelligent people with similar professional interests, and adjusting my following so that it doesn’t overwhelm more important things, makes it a very good resource.

        Twitter suffers from looking, on the surface, like something very vain and useless, but it’s far more than what it appears to be.

  • Just a quick note. My company put up a Networking site to accomplish some of the things you posited. It was like the party that you gave and no one came. No one used it because we are all so busy at work, who needs to “socialize”. Last time I looked there were about 40 people in there of 600+. In th mmeantime I use Facebook at home and except for the games and causes which I ignore it is a good experience.

    • Hi John:
      It sounds like no one took ownership of the project and set some seed conversations. They set it up, but they didn’t sell the idea to the managers and supervisors. To say that everyone was too busy is a cop-out, they just didn’t buy the idea that it wasn’t a trap.

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