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.