Is Collaboration Enough for Knowledge Management?

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve written (dashed-off is more accurate) about the relationship between collaboration and team productivity, and collaboration and the ability to connect the dots.

I’m working to ensure that we move the conversation away from collaboration per se, to what we’re actually trying to achieve –

  • We want to increase the productivity of knowledge work.
  • We want to solve hard problems.
  • We want to ensure that we can leverage the collective intelligence of our organizations.
  • We want to leverage the work, expertise and assets we have.

That last bullet there is what has traditionally been called Knowledge Management.

Knowledge Management has been in a tough spot for the last couple of decades. Its been identified both as a strategic imperative, and largely a failure.

There are three key reasons for this.

1. First generation knowledge management captured only formal, not tacit, knowledge.

I previously swore off using the term tacit knowledge because people don’t get it and think that its too abstract a concept. For the purposes of this discussion, lets just say that tacit knowledge is the stuff in the organization that people know, but haven’t written down in a formal, organized fashion. It its most basic form, this is the “does anyone know if we’ve ever had a customer who needed x?” or the “does anyone know where to get y” type of information.

It is well known that the vast majority of knowledge in the enterprise is tacit.

2. First generation knowledge is not part of any natural workflow, but an afterthought.

Its an additional chore. It doesn’t help me, so I don’t always practice perfect citizenship and take the extra time to ensure my work is properly catalogued.

3. Usability is poor. I can’t find what is useful for me when I need it.

Obviously defeating the purpose.

So – how does collaboration, or more specifically, social collaboration help solve the knowledge management problem?

1. Social collaboration puts more work and communication in shared, digital form.

By work, I don’t just mean documents. I mean discussion, question and answers, comments – the types of things that often either happen over the phone, or in the black hole, commonly known as email. Because these less formal, more fragmented items are captured, indexed and searchable in conjunction with the more formal knowledge captured in documents.

2. Knowledge capture becomes an organic part of work.

The greatest part of these systems is that I do not have to do anything extra to contribute to the knowledge base. The collaboration platform just absorbs what I do as the course of my work – comment on documents, ask and answer questions, revise, collect feedback, collect links and resources, etc. THIS is the critical point – knowledge capture – the key to knowledge management is organic and automatic.

3. Ease of Use

I’ve called social media in the enterprise a Trojan horse. Its raising the bar on usability for enterprise apps (and how we approach work – but that’s the next post). Social Collaboration tools (good ones!) are well designed so that people actually want to use them. The benefit far outweighs the trouble of using them. So they actually get used. Knowledge is actually captured, and can be meaningfully found.

4. Finding and connecting.

So what about the case when there’s knowledge and resources out there, but you don’t know it? See the last post on Connecting the Dots.

Even better – if your collaboration system is a good one (disclosure, this one is my baby right now), when you search, you’ll not only find the content, but the people who are most actively contributing content in that area.

Now the obvious issue – if I build it will they come? No. They won’t. To be successful in collaboration there must be a happy marriage between understanding your business objectives, the technology, and perhaps most importantly, the culture of your organization. That will be the topic of my next post. If you’re curious about some of my thoughts in this realm prior to my next post,  you can check out a little 10 minute  webinar on the culture of teams that I did (its not my finest – lots of uhms and ahhs, but it makes the point, consider it an early rehearsal) or this slideshare below:


  1. Collaboration is a great place to start but it is only one piece of the puzzle and in some ways intensifies the need for knowledge management; and just to take a step further, the need for information optimization. Collaboration gives us access to so much more data and information in various forms. The challenge then is to access this knowledge, extract contextual intelligence and transform into business value. So yes we can collaborate, but if we cannot access this knowledge quickly, and actually pull quality information from it a piece of the puzzle is still missing.

  2. i agree – i think this is where technology can make a huge contribution. knowledge capture, and knowledge availability and retrieval are very tightly linked. I cover some of that in my “connect the dots” post from last week, but i’m interested in hearing more about your thoughts here – which I think are different

  3. Speaking about productivity and hard problems. What do you think about creating web index of keywords with relevant excerpts and references? The idea here is to run text summarization robot and extract the most relevant text from web pages and documents to create a sort of “knowledge index”. The are many ways of organizing indexes of the summarized material. Mybe you would like to share your views on this approach…

  4. Hi Henry – I do think that semantic analysis plays an extremely important role in connecting the dots – did you read that post? I don’t think its a knowledge index so much as a relevance index that you’d want to create with it. Using the kind of tool you’re talking about could help me raise a flag when it detects similar and/or relevant ideas – otherwise, why would it be an advantage over full text indexing? To be able to skim more effectively – a good thing for info dissemination – but more akin to microblogging – enables you to create ambient awareness.

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