I recently spoke at the 2009 Army Knowledge Management Conference. In preparation for that event I had the opportunity to spend some time looking at the way the Army is using social media including:
• How CompanyCommand is using milSpace
• The new process in place at the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) to disseminate lessons learned as well as new techniques for collecting and analyzing those lessons
• The wiki where Army doctrine, in the form of ATTPs, is available for soldiers’ input
• Teams of Leaders (ToL) used with the Stryker Brigade Combat teams that are known for their speed and agility
• Blogs that Generals as well as soldiers have been writing
• The sixty Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS) Professional forums that have been so successful
• Synchronous chat rooms where Generals are available to the frontline
• Army strong stories for recruiting
• And much more
The Army has a lot of social media efforts going on and my preliminary look really only touched on a small portion of those efforts. The question many Generals are asking is, “Do we need all these different forms of social media?” It’s a question I’m asked a lot and one I tried to address in my presentation at the Army KM Conference and reiterate in this blog post.
I addressed the issue, not by concentrating on social media per se, but rather asking, “What ways of engaging knowledge are important to the Army right now?” and then backing into the question of what that means for the types of social media that might be useful.
My preliminary list of the ways of engaging knowledge include:
• Seeking/providing Authoritative Knowledge
Authoritative knowledge is knowledge that has been vetted and has a stamp of approval on it, for example, the kind of knowledge CALL provides, or the Military Review. We go to these sites when we are seeking an answer that is known - it’s a matter of looking it up.
• Exchanging Knowledge Sources
This is a efficient way to find informative articles, useful websites, interesting blogs, and pictures, based on the recommendation of others. Flicker and Technorati are good examples.
• Sharing and Learning from Others’ Experience
BCKS, CompanyCommand, CAVNet and other community forums do a great job of making the “how to” knowledge people have gained from their work experience available to their peers.
• Dealing with Ambiguous Knowledge
Dealing with conflicting information, or information that could have several possible meanings. On A-Space some one would get wind of a conversation between two individuals who were supposedly enemies and ask their peers from other agencies, “What do you think this means?” “Is this dis-information?”
Reformulating a problem – help in seeing an issue in a new way. I might ask you how could you find the ROI on this initiative, and you might respond, “I think that’s the wrong question.” Embedded in any question are the assumptions of the person doing the asking and if those assumptions are incorrect, then the most useful response is to reformulate the question.
• Collaborating on a Task
There are many joint tasks where knowledge needs to be pooled or coordinated to get the task accomplished. This is additive knowledge rather than the ambiguous knowledge discussed above.
• Creating New Knowledge
This is about creating knowledge - ideas that have not existed before but are generated in a conversation between people who come at an issue from different perspectives. There are lots of examples in the corporate world, e.g. Apple was able to bring together ideas from the ipod and the cell phone to create an iphone. It is the confluence of different ideas that creates something never before considered.
The second step in my thinking was to identify what factors make each of these ways of engaging knowledge work effectively and further to identify what social media tools exist that allow for those factors. The chart I created to look at that question lists three factors in the rows as a place to start.
Factors that lead to effectiveness of different social media:
• Weak vs. Strong Ties
Strong and weak ties are about the depth of relationship that exists between users. Up until Granovetter’s work in the early 1970s, it had been taken for granted that strong relationships between people were always beneficial. Granovetter wrote a classic article called, The Strength of Weak Ties. He said you have strong ties to people you are in contact with on a regular basis - people you know a lot about and intentionally cultivate. You hold weak ties with people when you know who they are, but may not know them personally. What Granovetter discovered was that weak ties produce greater diversity of thought than do strong ties. You and the people you work with every day tend to have the same information and draw on the same information sources. Strong ties require time and energy to maintain – you can have only so many strong ties. But you can have many more weak ties and with much less investment of your time. For some ways of engaging knowledge, strong ties are necessary. But for many types of on-line knowledge engagement weak ties are sufficient. Of course the strength of ties is a continuum, not an either or but the strength of ties is important in thinking about social media.
• Similarity to other users
How similar users are depends on the context in which they work and on their ways of thinking, often born out of the discipline they engage in.
Cognitive diversity, as Scott Page illustrates in The Difference, implies something different than how we generally think about diversity. Our general meaning of diversity is differences in terms of race, age, gender, or status. But cognitive diversity relates more to differences in thinking, people who have a different perspective and use different rules of thumb in making decisions. Page describes an amazing on-line site called InnoCentive where companies post difficult technical problems that they have been unable to solve themselves. It is often a team of two or three people from different disciplines, like a biologist, a structural engineer, and a chemist who work together to solve those problems. The problems are so complex that they seem to require diversity to solve – which makes sense because if people from one discipline could solve them, the company would already have an answer.
There are other ways that people can be dissimilar that are important to knowledge engagement. One is the context in which the person functions. There are also differences in level of expertise, and differences in jobs or interests.
• Facilitation or Support
This factor is important for two reasons. First both are cost factors and second, facilitation is often a key role in increasing the strength of ties when that is needed.
I’ll discuss several of the columns in the chart using these factors. I’ll start with one of the most familiar, Sharing and Learning From Others’ Experience. For this kind of engagement to be effective users need to have a similar task or job that they are interested in doing well, but they need to have different experiences related to that job or task. If all the users did the same task in the same way with nothing new happening, like people on an assembly line, there would be very little need to share. So Sharing and Learning From Others’ Experience is most useful, in fact critical, in a context where the environment is continually changing such as occurs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Users in a community forum don’t have to have strong ties – I put medium ties in that column - but the relationship does need to be strong enough to engender a belief that users have good intentions toward each other – that others won’t intentionally steer each other wrong, or think poorly of each other because of a response made to a question. It actually takes some doing to encourage to that level of trust. Which is the reason active facilitation is so necessary in community forums - to set the tone and create the esprit de corps among users.
There many forms of social media in which weak ties work well – that is so with Seeking & Providing Authoritative Knowledge. Users themselves don’t need ties with each other because their trust is not in each other, but in the system. They know that the information on the site has been thoroughly vetted – has a stamp of approval from subject matter experts or higher ranking officers. Even with Wikis like Intellipedia, it is well understood that if something goes up that is incorrect the “crowd” will quickly correct it – so wikis, like Wikipedia and Intellipedia are also viewed as authoritative, but that authority derives from a different source.
Let me contrast the Sharing and Learning From Others’ Experience column with the Creating New Knowledge column. One person can write up their experience and share it with others in a community forum – that’s a kind of one to many exchange. If it is new knowledge that is needed then the users have to be in conversation. And that is a very different kind of exchange, not just the turn taking familiar in community forums of, “here is what I did” and then, “We did something similar.” In a conversation that Creates New Knowledge each person has to actively question the other to gain deeper understanding of that person’s reasoning. They have to share their own reasoning and explore where the differences lie. To get that kind of depth you need a synchronous medium – ideally face to face. We are getting better with media that may have those characteristics. Cisco’s Telepresense is getting pretty close, and Second Life may get us there – a format the Army is considering for it’s Virtual University.
Cognitive Diversity is the real key to Creating New Knowledge. It is putting together ideas in a way that is new to both parties who are thinking about it – and it is the clash of those ideas that leads to new knowledge. That kind of conversation demands strong ties. Although social media does not yet provide participants that kind of environment, what it can do is make a problem that needs solving visible to those that have potential solutions. And then it can help people find others with diverse perspectives to work with them on that problem. So imagine if a General said, “I have a problem with IEDs in Iraq that do xyz” and he was able to post that problem behind the firewall, where clever soldiers might see it. Then those clever soldiers could gather a small team of diverse perspectives that could address that issue in ways none of them would have been able to do on their own.
Understanding Ambiguous Knowledge demands medium level ties. But this kind of tie is not so much about trust, as it is in a community forum where experience is being shared. In a community what is being shared is, in fact, a part of me, what I have learned often through bitter experience. I don’t share that easily. But with Understanding Ambiguous Knowledge, the knowledge I need from others calls on their intellect - their analytic ability that is much less personal than the lessons of experience. With Understanding Ambiguous Knowledge it is credibility rather than intention that is paramount. In A-Space users build a reputation of expertise both by what they write and by having their bona fides available. By reading responses from a recognizable person and by being able to check that person out, a sufficient level of connection is created.
On the bottom row of the chart I have suggested social media that would meet that need and factors described.
I’m just at the beginning of looking at this issue so don’t have a lot of advice for the Army at this point about what social media to invest in, but I will make one suggestion that I think is critically important.
The Army has always been a leader in transferring and sharing knowledge. I think way to lead in the world of 2.0 is to create a culture of social software experimentation.
One of the difficulties of trying to figure out what social media to use for what purpose is that purpose is not built into social media tools. Rather purposes emerge as users develop a need and see a way that a specific need can be met through a type of social media. Twitter, which was initially seen as a way for friends to keep up with each other’s daily activities, is now a major factor in conferences. Attendees use it to keep others informed about what is happening, and, by using hash marks, twitter provides a permanent record of the interaction at a conference. EUCOM has used twitter in this way. It is also being used effectively for speakers to alter what they are lecturing about in real time, based on the tweets that are coming to their iphone or PDA. The developers of twitter could not have imagined how it might be put to use.
Likewise Facebook, which was conceived as a way for college students to stay connected to friends, served as an organizing structure for protest movements in China during the Tiananmen Square anniversary. The way intelligence analysts are using A-Space goes beyond even what the developers of that software conceived.
The use of Twitter by the U.S. State Department during the coup d’état in Madagascar occurred only because that agency was experimenting with the social tools before they “needed” them. You can’t experiment with what you don’t know about which is why General Caldwell’s emphasis on social media in the Command and Staff General College is so important. Major Pat Michaelis created CAVNET because he had been a part of CompanyCommand – he knew how communities worked – but he created a new kind of forum with CAVNET.
When you create a culture of social software experimentation you certainly get some behavior you don’t want, but you also gain capabilities you hadn’t dreamed of. Make available social software and give people the freedom to experiment and amazing things will happen.