Knowledge Management (KM) and Social Computing: Are they the same?

Knowledge Management (KM) and Social Computing: Are they the same?

“Knowledge Management” (KM) is a term that’ s been bandied around since the mid 1990’s, with much debate as to what it actually means. The wikipedia definition is a reasonable starting point, but you still get the vociferous few who will take the literal meaning and argue that you can’t manage (tacit) knowledge, plus a confetti (I quite like that description) of academic papers that provide a forensic analysis of the “KM” term. Fortunately, there are always two sides to every argument, and at least for me, the Dave Snowdon blog ‘Whence goeth KM’  provides a more balanced and reasoned discussion on the topic.

Anyway, one point which I trust won’t be in dispute is the fact that KM has spawned an entire industry, from academic dissertations on human cognition (how the brain thinks), to software vendors offering hierarchical and work flow-driven architectures as a panacea for everyone’s knowledge and information needs.

If things weren’t complicated enough, we now have a relatively new term to confuse all but the army of consultants who thrive on giving complicated labels to simple behaviours: ‘Social Computing’.

Now, in my mind, I can’t make a clear distinction between KM and Social Computing, except that KM is part of a broader framework that can exist independent of technology, and Social Computing is the application of KM through software tools and technology. But on reflection – I guess that is a clear distinction!

It seems that Social Computing has moved beyond the early hierarchical and work flow-driven systems and is providing a much flatter architecture with far more emphasis on peer-to-peer connectivity and disintermediation of the web publishing process, i.e. everyone can be a publisher. Information and KM professionals are starting to become knowledge facilitators, and there is a surely an opportunity here for the re-invention of the traditional Librarian role – if only they would grasp it.

Social Computing is going to have (already is having?) a disruptive effect on organisations that are slow to adapt to new technologies, where staff are getting more confident about using software services and applications that sit outside the corporate firewall. ICT departments are going to find this trend difficult to ignore, though I’ve already witnessed the Luddite trend in some organisations who’s initial reaction is just to lock down the firewall and prevent access to the facilities. Perversely, this is creating a growing community of hobbyists who are creating their own Social Computing environments (see Khub as a good example for the public sector) in their own time and space, away from the restrictions of the legacy work environment.

So, is Social Computing the next best thing since sliced bread? I believe it is. Social Computing can transform KM, shifting the emphasis from repositories and taxonomies, which are hard to build and maintain, to more intuitive, tacit knowledge sharing. Social Computing is becoming the 21st Century KM, moving it from an often too academic exercise, or limited by corporate (command and control driven) thinking, into the real world of people sharing knowledge and expertise with each other naturally, without even thinking about it.  Pity we have to give it a label really!

6 thoughts on “Knowledge Management (KM) and Social Computing: Are they the same?

  1. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always associated ‘knowledge management’ as being a top-down thing, whereas ‘social networking’ is much more bottom-up.

    But you make a very fair point about the ‘home hobbyist’ aspect here, Steve… for some time I’ve seen this as a threat (in a good way) to corporate IT structures. Managers need to accept that they basically can’t control what their staff get up to. By giving everyone web access to the desktop, the genie was released from the bottle, and he ain’t going back in.

    I’ve done it myself – building little web apps in my private web space, in my own time, entirely for work purposes, because the corporate route couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver. As time goes on, as Myspace-literate kids enter the workforce, it’s only going to get worse/better. I don’t see how IT directors have any choice but to get with it.

  2. In my mind there’s a formality to KM that isn’t reflected in social computing, which is based more around information than knowledge, and consists of sharing rather than management. You’re absolutely right about the librarian role though – there is so much data and information flowing around these networks, it’s crying out for someone to steward it on a broader platform and harness the knowledge it contains.

    Also agree with Simon about the power shift in IT. The barriers to entry to create usable, useful collaborative tools are getting lower all the time, in terms of the technical knowledge you need and the cost. Take ning for example, which makes it a trivial task for *anyone* to create a well-featured social network.

  3. Nigel Stanley of analyst Bloor Research is concerned about sensitive data being discussed on Web 2.0 sites, and is quoted as saying “The biggest problem is people wasting business time” (Ref: I guess this holds true for him as well – wasting other people’s time making stupid statements like that!

  4. Interesting points, all of them. And a very good question — I’m not sure I’d ever thought about how KM and social computing shake apart.

    I suppose for me the biggest distinction between KM and social computing is that KM focuses on the knowlege — and information — that flows between people. KM has its eye on the end goal of more knowledge being transferred, generally for the good of a company or a project deliverable. The beneficiary is the whole group (or organisation).

    Conversely, social computing seems to be more focused on the connections themselves, less what transfers between people. My social network (as maintained by LinkedIn, for example) is a valuable structure to me independent of the reasons I maintain those links or the conversations I want to have with those people. The ‘computing’ part facilitates my conversations, but I’m not sure that social computing in general is bothered about what we discuss. It’s just a framework that allows me to be a richer person.

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