What is Social Knowledge?

Expanding on the issue of social knowledge I started last time, thanks to my friends at Moxie and my sponsored research model, I want to take it one step further.

We explored last time what is the path to social knowledge and how today’s shifting paradigm of knowledge management makes it possible.  We talked about how the upsurge of user empowerment generated by the advent of social networks and online communities made social knowledge possible where similar endeavors failed before.

What we did not do is define social knowledge – or how to make it work.  I want to take the next two posts to do just that.  Will start with a definition this time and present a framework to embrace it in the next installment.

Here is a diagram that shows the progression to Social Knowledge, and how it begins to integrate communities.

timeline to social knowledge version 2

That last chart? That’s a play on my continuum model – but that is a very different topic and model; just know that social knowledge is a stepping stone towards implementing continuum in lieu of cycles (read more here if you want, but come back because we are just getting started).

Now that we have put social knowledge into the proper context as one part of the evolution towards collaborative knowledge, let’s define what we mean by social knowledge.  I wrote some time ago a pseudo-definition for social knowledge that read:

Tapping into communities and subject matter experts, social knowledge moves away from the traditional knowledge-in-storage model of accumulating “stuff” in knowledge-bases to getting the information directly from the knowledge owner that has it.

This knowledge is used, cataloged, indexed and used again – but only as long as it is the right answer – after that, new answers become “the right answer”.

Within these statements we have all the elements that make social knowledge work.

At the baseline social knowledge is the realization that knowledge bases don’t contain all the necessary information.; while in certain instances (e.g. financial services and regulated industries) it may be necessary to have an “official” version of knowledge, in the real world knowledge is augmented each and every moment during usage; this is one of the driving forces for online communities.

The more you use knowledge management as part of your customer service endeavor, the more knowledge changes.  The number of intricate combinations possible for use of any product of service by the large number of customers using them is astonishing. 

Even if there are “recommended” uses for the product, customers will always try new things and new combinations; as an example, I doubt very much that the inventors of duct tape thought it would be used one day to make clothes and other findings – yet, my daughters are living proof that is the only recognized use of duct tape (for them).  Everything they ever needed to learn from how to use the product to make what they wanted to make came courtesy of YouTube via non-official videos of other people making the same things.

Organizations began to realize some time ago that the source of the answer lies within those experts, called Subject Matter Experts or SME, and their use of the product or service.  This is marking the shift in knowledge from Knowledge-in-Storage (KiS) to Knowledge-in-Use (KiU) we are seeing, and the beginning of social knowledge.

One caveat, whereas users still remain the ultimate source of how the product should be used, this is not an excuse to dump all knowledge management efforts in the path to creating user-only knowledge solutions.  SME are a part of a total solution, not the only solution – there have been some organizations who have recently tried to outsource one-hundred percent of their knowledge management to communities with mixed results – at best.

However, the same model of communities and tapping into communities powered and populated by users can be used internally.  SME can live within the enterprise as well as outside, but without the right technologies is hard to impossible to find them in a timely manner to use their knowledge.

Social knowledge does not just happen via external communities, it must also occur with internal SME in internal communities and eventually ending up in hybrid communities (see the chart accompanying my last post for more of this evolution).  That is the next step, the evolutionary model of collective intelligence.

It would be simplistic to say that is the only definition for social knowledge, but since it is the first step in a multi-iterative paradigm shift we need to add some of the elements that are necessary to make it work.  Since a formula would have too many variables for any one organization to account for, I prefer to use a framework or template approach.

Alas, that is the next post on this series.

I want to know something from you though, are you seeing this shift in knowledge beginning to take place in your organizations? Are customers demanding more knowledge than you have access to?

3 Replies to “What is Social Knowledge?”

  1. Hi Esteban:

    I agree totally with the most of what you are saying, but disagree with labeling all knowledge bases as “Knowledge in Storage” (KIS). Traditional KB’s that will be going the way of the dinosaur, Yes. Community KB’s that retain editorial controls but have community conversations and reputation engines baked in to ensure the content perpetually evolves with practical know-how while also providing a high-quality, evolving answer the brand can stand behind, no way!

    Support staff, customers, partners, etc. just want to quickly get to great answers they can quickly understand that succinctly yet completely answers their questions and evolves as necessary. Community KBs serve an invaluable purpose to meet this need that purely community-generated content will never fulfill for all but a subset of folks that have the time and interest to work for cobbling together answers.

    The convergence of Knowledge in Use and KIS (but not static) found in a true community KB is an important delivery option for Social Knowledge.

    Chuck Van Court
    CEO, FuzeDigital
    http://www.fuzeanswers.com http://www.fuze.com


  2. Hi Esteban, I really like your continuum. For us, level three has been state-of-the-art for quite some time. Why 2025? I’d rather set the time frame to 2000, 2005 and 2012. Best, Dirk


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