Unraveling Complexity (the Missing Link): A new approach for solving problems in Social Ecosystems

For months I’ve been reaching out to colleagues to explore barriers to collaboration, a key tool in the social innovator’s toolbox. Among those queried (and in spite of diverse backgrounds), virtually all had experienced significant barriers to collaboration over the years including silo-thinking, dated and inefficient problem solving models, cultures of control, and a strong, prevailing lack of trust.

Consensus? The barriers to innovation seem to be as universal as they are frustrating.

So something is broken. What is the root cause?

Beth Noveck and David Johnson have published important research on how new Social Media collaboration technologies can change the game. Their perspective on a New Science of Complexity is summarized in this People & Place blog post and explained further in an excerpt from their research. Their focus was the U.S. EPA (including the Federal process for environmental research and legislation) but their conclusion, which I agree with strongly, is that the principles are applicable in business (#e20) and broader social venues (#gov20) as well.

My primary takeaway?  I now believe that INNOVATION IN COMPLEX ECOSYSTEMS will depend on an improved collaboration process – a new middle ground for problem solving – that balances large-scale central organizational approach with grass-roots contributions by individuals. It is about finding the “sweet spot” between rigid structure and adaptive, organic sourcing of ideas. In a new and somewhat uncharted public collaboration space, it means that the forces of organizational scale and leverage can be networked – connected – with discrete centers (or hubs) for contribution to produce more rigorous solutions.

At the core of this thinking? A realization that traditional large-scale organizations (with their central thinking, hierarchical layers, and silos of functional experts) are generally ineffective when dealing with complex situations. Quite literally, they are too rigid. Without the ability to adapt to new variables or to coordinate across silos, grid-lock ensues. And complex social ecosystems are impacted, since “sending in experts” is how we tend to attack these issues. On the list? The well known structural challenges in energy, sustainable food and water sources, public education and healthcare.

What’s needed is an outright paradigm shift in problem solving models that are fundamentally more interactive and cross-functional. And focusing on complexity theory is key, because it begins to unlock some new doors. For one, there must be an organic aspect that allows solution teams to learn, self-correct and grow. And to meet the requirement of connecting people more dynamically, Social Media is the ideal technology. Some examples? Think about experts engaged in live chat. Acceleration of thought synergies. Tools to merge and re-mix knowledge. Ability to leverage and extend dynamic repositories.

With focus and coordination, we can work to find the elusive “sweet spot”.

In terms of naming and framing the problem, the above research makes significant strides. The next step is critical as well, and is just as exciting: in pockets across the internet, the new collaboration is already starting to appear.

Are you seeing it too? Let’s talk, I’ll show you where and how.

Gartner on the “Sea Change in KM” (some takeaways)

Just read a great post by Carol Rozwell from Gartner on challenges in the coming “sea change” in KM (or “Knowledge Management”) enabled by Social Media.  It’s about the transformation in how we approach collaboration and innovation in the work place.  She raises concerns that many are still trapped in the old 1990’s KM paradigm. As with any change, each of us must see the need for it, understand it, and accept it.

I couldn’t agree with her concerns more, and responded to her blog with my thoughts on KM’s evolution.

It is very encouraging to see more and more practitioners (organizations, companies, thought leaders, consultants) coming to the same conclusions:

Old KM often didn’t work.

New KM is about connecting people and driving engagement.  It’s not about collecting artifacts anymore. We are social and innovation engineers, not archeologists.

KM has alot to do with driving innovation.

KM has everything to do with collaboration, hence the strong links with Social Media.

Please post your comments here. Would love to know what you’re thinking. Meantime, thanks again Carol for a great blog post. Glad to know Gartner is engaging on this. Frankly, we need all the help we can get.

Chris (@SourcePOV)

KM, the Remix: shouldn’t it be “Collaborative Services”?

KM IS EVOLVING, most everyone seems to agree on that.  But the burning question remains: in what direction?

I believe “Collaborative Solutions” provides a better umbrella for the practice of Knowledge Management (“KM”), simply because it makes more sense.  And if it makes more sense, it should resonate better with C-level executives who need fund it and personally endorse it.

KM emerged in the 1990’s as an amalgam of vendor marketing and good intentions, where work group tools and new collaboration processes seemed to create a synergistic blend of capabilities.  Unfortunately, KM often struggled to get buy-in, and semantics was a factor: you really can’t “manage knowledge”.  You encourage people to develop it, share it, enhance it, and reuse it.  That’s both a leadership challenge and a culture challenge, since corporate culture tends to dramatically deemphasize sharing in favor of  producing results.

Make no mistake, results are critical.  But in a knowledge-driven economy, collaboration is increasingly the driver of how those results are achieved, especially where there is an imperative for  innovation.

Collaboration demands more mind share.

So think about “Collaborative Solutions” as a better delivery vehicle, and “Collaborative Services” to describe the activities of practioners who are driving it.

What’s in a name?  For KM, way too much.

Let’s fix it.

Chris (@SourcePOV)

DoD Query: Web2.0 Integration aka the Portability Gap

Wouldn’t it be great if Social Media tools could talk to each other, and share basic profile information about you, your interests and your network?

The Federal Goverment (DoD) is working on that very question, and has requested public input (DoD Guidance Forum).

In spite of XML, which was invented to facilitate software talking to software, it remains a complex problem.  Many vendors are in the mix (eg., Twitter, Google, Facebook, Linked-In) and social media culture tends to say ‘no’ to standards and control.  Where can we draw useful boundaries on Web 2.0 integration issues, and how do we make our profile and social network information “portable”?

Here’s what I’m thinking.  These comments and a few more are now cross posted as DoD’s blog comments:

WEB 2.0 DEFINITION. Connecting people and content in more intuitive ways through adoption of social technologies; this drives enhanced user experience and interaction capabilities, with benefits that include: (a.) expanded user personalization, choice, and content filtering, (b.) propagation of rich, more intuitive multi-media, (c.) facilitation of all aspects of community building and interaction, and (d.) empowerment of local contribution on a global scale.

PORTABILITY is a significant gap in today’s Web2.0/SM space. The need is for a common, single-source entry with multi-vendor re-use for personalization data (profile data about the user and their preferences) as well as social network data (who the users is connected to, and importantly, why, defined by tags).  The gap is the ability and willingness of stakeholders — including vendors, users, developers, large stakeholder coalitions (eg., government) — to organize around a minimal, practical set of common guidelines. I believe an open source consortium for Web2.0/SM Data (Personal & Social Network) Portability Guidelines is needed. A ‘meeting in the middle’ to achieve a shared approach for ‘top down’ and ‘bottom-up’ data exchange would be ideal. The faster this gets done, the more quickly portability gets solved, which will lead to accelerated adoption of Web 2.0/SM.

WEB 2.0 IMPACT ON BUSINESS PROCESS (“Enterprise 2.0”). Social media and Web 2.0 are ultimately about connecting people and content in more intuitive ways, so the business processes impacted are those involving human interaction and content messaging. Examples:

  1. Collaborative Research.
  2. Customer Service (1:1 PR).
  3. Software Development.
  4. Marketing & Media Communication (1:n PR).
  5. Collaborative Solutions (Knowledge Management). [enhances capability/value of 1-4 above]
  6. HR Talent Acquisition & Supplier Sourcing.

AUTHORITATIVE REFERENCE. “Wikinomics” by Don Tapscott (2006).

What needs to happen to make this work?

“For adoption in business, government or academic organizations, Web2.0/SM requires cultures of trust & empowerment, with team environments that encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration.”

Feel free to comment, here or on the DoD site, as the spirit moves you.  These are key issues.  I’d like to know what you’re thinking.

Chris (@SourcePOV)

KM Evolution: Prusak & Snowden Video

Thanks to Helen Nicol for surfacing a good video interview about the transition of KM from management fad to an integral part of Social Computing (aka Social Media). 

Posted with the original title “Is KM Dead?” the interview examines aspects where ‘KM as fad’ has expired but that many of its practices and core practitioners live on.  The video interview is a year old (July 2008, interviewer: Patrick Lambe)  but still timely –

Snowden is particularly insightful re: forces at work moving from highly structured, pre-codified taxonomies to the more ‘organic aspects of knowledge that model human interaction.’  KM has long struggled as a practice area, for many reasons outlined in the interview, but also for a key reason outlined in my earlier wiki post: fundamentally, the culture for collaboration has been lacking. Where that culture has been updated or transformed, KM will have the opportunity to add value.

I agree with Prusak & Snowden, the core KM concepts remain important, and are showing up frequently (even moreso, one year later) in interactions where collaboration and business problems require it.

Yes, the fad days are over.  KM promises were sometimes oversold by vendors and consultants alike. 

But KM practices are NOT dead, as the space is transforming to something broader and more dynamic. It will serve processes that are more integral to collaborative practices in a knowledge economy, what Snowden calls ‘a flex period of social and natural science’ or ‘renaissance’.

I call it ‘collaborative innovation’ – a new social media practice that we brainstorm often at #smchat.

In a fundamental way, KM advances processes and concepts that are intended to facilitate  communities of practice.  In our knowledge economy, demands for innovation and collaboration are pushing these requirements to the top.  As long as KM practioners are flexible, that is, able to operate in a dynamic mode and willing to new learn technologies, there will be a place for KM at the table. Social media is a powerful force, and KM may not get center stage.  But there are important engagement synergies in SM and KM that we can’t afford to neglect.

As always, would love to get your thoughts.

Twitter: A New Communications Paradigm

Lot’s of interesting data and buzz about the growth of Twitter, in spite of the apparent indifference among teens and the more predictable roller coaster of Hollywood opinion.

see Blog by Paul Dunay (where following comment was 1st posted)

For me, it’s refreshing, at long last, to see a technology like Twitter achieve massive adoption without ‘fad’ status. I find it reminiscent of the internet ca. 1996, it just appeared in the mass market one day and we never looked back.

Twitter is an evolution in global communications. Where else can you message the world and get answers?

It is a paradigm shift.

It is changing PR. It is clearly impacting news media, marketing & customer service.

And perhaps most important – it’s a brand new playing field for global collaboration & innovation.

We’re all early adopters, and need to keep that in mind. Folks are still learning how to tag & search (the magic sauce is effective use of the ‘hashtag’), and the word needs to keep getting around. I’m amazed that Twitter can grow like it has and still be stable .. well, most of the time. As long as Twitter can keep up with growth, I see good things ahead.

No one ever said change would be easy, especially on this scale.

Expect more bumps.

But I don’t think the habits of Hollywood stars will be the drivers on this one –

Why KM Struggles: Fighting a Culture of Control

CARY, NC USA.   The practice of KM (or “Knowledge Management“) has had it’s struggles, enduring many years of growing pains.  The grand prize – product and process innovation – is alluring, so KM teams have worked diligently to leverage intuitive, web-based tools and frameworks that can drive expanded use of corporate knowledge stores.   Behind the scenes, vendors have been busy too, because KM (and it’s close cousin, “Enterprise Search“) have been the best hope for social media tool developers to get a foot-hold in the lucrative commercial space. 

But lasting engagement and results are often elusive.  Why is this so?

In many important ways, KM is culturally at odds with the prevailing management mindset in corporate America. 

For the last 100 years or so, the fundamental paradigm in business has been been built around control, with administration by authoritative, hierarchical management.  Goals and policies come down from the top, and the mission is routinely around maximizing hard economic profit, often to the detriment of other goals.  In spite of efforts to maintain a portfolio of goals, the drive for quarterly earnings can often trump all else.  In fact, reducing cost of production and cost of defects has been the hallmark of industrial management, and it all comes down to standardization.  In this world, innovation is often relegated to R&D (it’s own “speciality”), if it’s funded at all.  It’s a mindset that externalizes improvement, if not discouraging change outright.

In today’s economy, the long-term effect of these trends is more apparent than ever.

KM embraces innovation, and sees change as important.  It seeks to open doors and encourage collaboration across organizational boundaries.  It is designed to weave innovation into the fabric of every team and every process.  With KM teams and practices in play, problem solving leans away from the structured organization of functional specialists, in favor of empowering individual contributors, who form fluid, cross-functional teams that are often better suited to solve complex problems.  The locus of energy shifts to knowledge workers, who can best positioned to see, understand, articulate, and guide their teams to achieve better, more innovative solutions.

In a business culture predicated on control, it’s small wonder that KM has been facing lots of closed doors.

KM is at it’s best when knowledge workers receive the tools and training they need to generate insight and act on it.   Gearing-up for KM is lots of work, but it’s the foundation for success of a knowledge enabled company in a marketplace that is beginning to reward players that are savvy about how to leverage knowledge and colloboration to innovate. 

To unlock KM’s potential within an enterprise, then, it seems the only productive path is to knock on the doors of culture change within the organization.  Is executive management open for change?  Better still, are they demanding it?  Do they see the value of cross-functional teams?  Are they willing to help break down the political barriers that are natural artifacts of hierarchical management structures?

Or is the status quo going to have to suffice? 

If you start hearing about limited money for KM, you have your answer, at least for the short-term.

Knowledge Management can work.  In fact, to compete in our new knowledge economy, it’s critical.  But we need to start with culture issues, and fix those first.  The journey is long, but there are no shortcuts.

You have to begin at the beginning.