How online diaries change knowledge management

‘Blogging’ cited as a new tool for workplace communication, T&D

Self-indulgent, trifling and unreadable they may sometimes be. But blogs, a new Web publishing format often associated with online diaries, may just appear at your workplace as the new tool for knowledge management.

In the three or four years it has been around, weblogging (more commonly known as “blogging”) has continued winning converts — at first among narcissists given to detailing how they’re toilet training their pets, then among experts and researchers who use blogs to exchange news, research updates and ideas with their peers and aficionados.

These days, CEOs are getting in on the act as a way to bond with customers and workers. A few organizations are using blogs instead of e-mail. One software company, Macromedia, of San Francisco, employs a team of bloggers to help customers use new products.

Futurists speculate that blogging will soon hit the workplace as a communication tool and, more importantly, a way to store and exchange knowledge. And rather than a distraction or a waste of time, bloggers’ tendency to meander into intimate, personal discussions is what gives blogging its strength, say blogging fans.

“The future of business is going to be about creating human relationships, both inside an organization and with customers,” and blogs can be a catalyst for this, said Robert Paterson, a former vice-president of human resources at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and now an organizational culture consultant in Prince Edward Island.

“I think it’s a universal complaint in organizations that communication is really bad. What people don’t want is another e-mail from head office to add to the 300 they’ve gotten today. What they don’t want is ‘corporatese.’

“What they want is a real voice. They want to hear their leader say, ‘This is how I see the world,’” said Paterson.

At first glance, blogging may not be all that different from any rudimentary personal Web page. As the term “log” in “weblog” suggests, a blog is a record of interaction on the Internet.

When a Web surfer comes across something on the Internet that catches her interest, instead of sending out a mass e-mail to people on her contact list, she might post the link, along with some contextualizing comments, on her blog. Readers can post comments, enabling ongoing exchanges that often grow into communities.

The main difference between blogging and any preceding Web publishing tool is the sheer simplicity of the browser-based technology. A blogger does not need to know coding languages such as HTML to publish.

What gets bloggers like Paterson excited, is the tenor of discourse in blogs. They tend to be casual and chatty, giving rise to the comparison with radio shows or newspaper columns.

Imagine a blog that emanates from the computer desktop of a CEO and stays within the organization’s firewall.

He might come across a news item in The Economist about a new business trend or find a gem of wisdom in another entrepreneur’s blog. He might post it on his own blog and add some comments about how this relates to the company.

Paterson thinks this kind of communication could significantly improve the level of trust and loyalty among the organization’s staff.

Within the fluidity of this kind of exchange lies the possibility that tacit knowledge will emerge. Tacit knowledge refers to the kind of knowledge that one is not aware of knowing. It’s hard to capture this kind of knowledge in a knowledge management system.

When an experienced manager, even in an all out effort to contribute to the organization’s knowledge management system, sits down to document everything he knows, what he’ll end up with are pieces of explicit knowledge — policies, guidelines, how-to’s. The tacit stuff only comes out when he’s confronted with a problem, or when he’s asked for advice. Tacit knowledge is found in doing and talking.

Unlike many knowledge management systems, blogging is cheap and easy to implement — 15 minutes should be enough to get someone started.

Set up for a group of practitioners inside an organization — a sales team or a group collaborating on a project — a blog can be effective in capturing an ongoing conversation, replete with tidbits of facts, queries and comments, tips and some record of progress. And on occasion, the project manager may be given to jotting down a germ of an idea that would later transmute into a new procedure.

Another advantage blogs have over knowledge management systems is they provide context. Knowledge management systems have often been criticized as a way of storing information, not knowledge.

Knowledge is information in context, said Brian Guthrie, director of innovation and knowledge management at the Conference Board of Canada.

To the extent that blogs deliver insights woven in a thread of conversation, one finds nuggets of useful knowledge but often within context of a set of problems, a personal approach, even a worldview.

Despite these advantages, Guthrie doubts blogging will soon be adopted in any but the most innovative workplaces. Blogging’s biggest fault, said Guthrie, is the lack of search features to sort out the volumes of writing that can accumulate across an organization.

And organizations will need to develop guidelines and policies on what’s acceptable content, said Nick Bontis, director of the Institute for Intellectual Capital Research, a Hamilton-based strategic management consulting firm.

Although Bontis thinks that blogging will move into the position e-mail holds today as the primary Internet communication tool, he harbours some doubt as to blogging’s usefulness for knowledge management.

Still, for organizations interested in trying out blogging, Bontis suggests they start out with free or cheap software, set up the parameters for acceptable content, and select a group of “early adopters” within the company to run with it.

Then, monitor traffic and conduct qualitative surveys to gauge whether it brings any benefits to users.

Despite his reservations, Bontis credits blogging for promoting a culture of sharing that knowledge management systems have a hard time doing. Enthusiasts point to this as the best reason for using blogs to share and learn. As one blogger, Phil Wolffe, states, “The best KM is the one people practice.

“For all I know, (knowledge-blogging) may address only 10 percent of your KM goals,” states Wolff, vice-president of extrapreneurial strategy and technology director of the Swiss staffing firm Adecco.

“But try it. It is a critical 10 per cent. This wedge gets people owning their expertise, sharing it willingly, getting credit, getting feedback, being social about knowledge. How does this compare to any other tools you’ve ever introduced?”

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