Are Social Networking Sites Knowledge Management?

Last week I presented to a gathering of law firm knowledge management leaders on social network sites. As I have been exploring various social network sites over the last year, I have also wondered if this was knowledge management? And if social network sites are not part of knowledge management what lessons can the knowledge management community learn from social network sites?

I explained my use of six social network sites: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Upcoming, Legal OnRamp and LawLink. There were a few common themes I tried to draw out.

The first theme was the power of the network and Metcalfe’s law. Any communications tool and any of these social network sites are only as powerful as the number of of people that use them. That first person with a fax machine was very bored until lots of other people also bought fax machines. I also pulled the lever on the way-back machine and made everyone think back ten years ago when email was just coming into law firms. Ten years ago, I clearly remember asking people if they had email and if I could send something to them by email instead of FedEx. My theory is that email has become ubiquitous, because it is ubiquitous. A social network site is popular because it is popular. The more people that use the medium, the more useful that medium becomes.

I was intrigued by Upcoming, a social network site focused on events. It became many times more useful as I connected with more people in Upcoming. Then I got the benefit of seeing the events that they were publicizing.

The second theme was connectivity. There is an incredible ability to connect with people and to jump into their stream of information. This ability on these external sites far exceeds anything that our law firms have inside our firewalls.

The next theme was the ability to communicate. On these sites, you are able to put more context around the communication. You can also communicate in a variety of different ways. Again, looking at our internal communication systems made our internal systems pale by comparison.

Another theme was the ability to share information across systems. For example, Twitter updates my Facebook status. The posts from this blog feed into my Facebook feed. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Upcoming all push out updates by RSS so they are pushed into my feedreader. I can also repackage the feeds into my friendfeed or lifestream.

One thing that jumps out at me is the ability identify and find expertise. Certainly one of the challenges of knowledge management is the ability to find and identify subject matter experts. These social network sites are chock full of ways to find expertise.

The final theme was cost. That is, these social network sites are free. So it is cheap and easy to experiment. You can see what things are useful to you and where the people you know are connecting.

Several people pointed out that they had resisted using these sites. But lately they have started joining and trying to figure out how to use them. I pointed back to Metcalfe’s law. These sites were becoming more interesting to them because more and more people that they know are using them. I also used Metcalfe’s law to explain my difference in interest between LawLink and Legal OnRamp. Both are social network sites targeted at lawyers. There are many more lawyers in LawLink. But more people I know are in Legal OnRamp. Therefore, Legal OnRamp is more useful to me.

I never reached an answer to the initial question. Because, of course, the answer depends on your definition of knowledge management. Since the group seemed to be interested in these social network sites, that is probably enough to indicate that at least some element of social network sites are associated with knowledge management.

My slides: (I am big believer in using slides to show what I mean, rather that what I am saying. So the slides are just pictures.)

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