Anthony Bradley, group vice president, Gartner Research, and Mark McDonald, group vice president and Gartner Fellow, Gartner Executive Programs, have an excellent piece in the Harvard Business Review on Social Media Versus Knowledge Management.
On the surface, social media and knowledge management (KM) seem very similar. Both involve people using technology to access information. Both require individuals to create information intended for sharing. Both profess to support collaboration.
But there’s a big difference.
- Knowledge management is what company management tells me I need to know, based on what they think is important.
- Social media is how my peers show me what they think is important, based on their experience and in a way that I can judge for myself.
These definitions may sound harsh, and biased in favor of social media, and to some extent they are. Knowledge should be like water — free-flowing and permeating down and across your organization filling the cracks, floating good ideas to the top and lifting all boats.
Knowledge in law firms, especially in large law with knowledge management officers and departments, is not free-flowing and open. Knowledge in law firms reflects what Bradley and McDonald describe as a:
…[H]ierarchical view of knowledge to match the hierarchical view of the organization. Yes, knowledge may originate anywhere in the organization, but it is channeled and gathered into a knowledge base (cistern) where it is distributed through a predefined set of channels, processes and protocols.
Social media scares the heck out of law firms as a means of its lawyers learning and getting their knowledge.
Social media looks downright chaotic… There is no pedefined index, no prequalified knowledge creators, no knowledge managers and ostensibly little to no structure. Where an organization has a roof, gutters and cistern to capture knowledge, a social media organization has no roof, allowing the “rain” to fall directly into the house, collecting in puddles wherever they happen to form. That can be quite messy. And organizations abhor a mess.
Law firm management reacts to social media just as a Bradley and McDonald describe how other organization leaders react:
…[They] seek to offer tools, processes and approaches to tame social media. After all (they believe), “We cannot have employees, customers, suppliers and anyone else creating their own information, forming their own opinions and expressing that without our say. Think of the impact on our brand, our people, our customers. We need to manage this. We need knowledge management.”
It’s the opposite approach law firms should be taking.
Your workforce, customers, suppliers, competitors, etc., will talk about you whenever, wherever and however they want. Even pre-World Wide Web, these conversations were happening.
We’re long past the time to seek control; it’s time to engage people.
Business leaders recognize that engagement is the best way to glean value from the knowledge exchanged in social media — and not by seeking to control social media with traditional KM techniques. That only leads to a “provide and pray” approach, and we have seen more than our share of “social media as next-generation KM” efforts fail to yield results. (emphasis added)
Lawyers and law firm management look at social media solely as means of marketing and business development. This is extremely shortsighted. Social media is a powerful professional development tool for lawyers.
Lawyers have always joined associations and networks to learn, knowledge share, and collaborate.
I joined and served on the board of my state trial lawyer’s association while practicing because of the opportunity to learn and collaborate with the best trial lawyers in my state. I was a sustaining member of the Association of the Trial Lawyers of America for the same reason, except on a national basis.
Today, thousands of lawyers and I use social media (blogging, Twitter, and more) as a means of mass collaboration, knowledge sharing, and learning. We’re better at what we do because of social media.
Organizations, including law firms, can gain from social media by this same mass collaboration, which, per Bradley and McDonald, consists of three things: social media technology, a compelling purpose and a focus on forming communities.
- Social media technology provides the conduit and means for people to share their knowledge, insight and experience on their terms. It also provides a way for the individual to see and evaluate that knowledge based on the judgment of others.
- Purpose is the reason people participate and contribute their ideas, experience and knowledge. They participate personally in social media because they value and identify with the purpose. They do so because they want to, rather than being told to as part of their job.
- Communities are self-forming in social media. KM communities imply a hierarchical view of knowledge and are often assigned by job classification or encouraged based on work duties. Participation becomes prescribed, creating the type of “mandatory fun” that is the butt of many a Dilbert cartoon and TV sitcom. Social media allows communities to emerge as a property of the purpose and the participation in using the tools. This lack of structure creates the space for active and innovative communities.
Though many law firm knowledge management professionals are leaders in social media, for the majority of law firms, social media is ‘tolerated’ as a marketing tool.
Social media as a path to knowledge for lawyers is going to take real leadership and a willingness to truly empower lawyers at the expense of controlling social media and the flow of knowledge.
Note: Bradley (@BradleyAnthonyJ) and McDonald (@markpmcdonald) are co-authors of The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees.