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3 major trends in knowledge work

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3 major trends in knowledge work

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Besides obvious trends such as that the amount of knowledge work is increasing in developing countries, that knowledge work is becoming more critical to the performance of organizations, and that knowledge work is becoming more complex, collaborative and dependent on our ability to be creative as individuals, there are a few other trends that I have seen become stronger lately and that I would like to highlight in this post.

1. Social technologies have become boring

 “When a technology becomes boring, that’s when the social effects become interesting.” - Clay Shirky
I remember the days when simply mentioning the concept of Web 2.0 and social media would get people all stirred up. Some people got angry.

Talking about how these phenomena were starting to change not only our behaviors as consumers but also how we work and how organizations can deal with their challenges could easily get the full attention of an audience of business people.

Today, talking about these things is almost like bringing people yesterday’s news - printed on paper and delivered via regular mail. They (think they) have heard all about it, and all too many times (which doesn’t mean they have really understood what it means). What might still get some of people's attention is showing ways how social technologies can help them get their work done faster and better, but it rarely makes them excited.

The hype around social media and social technologies has definitely settled during the last two years or so. To speak in terms of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, key social technologies such as tagging, blogs, wikis and micro-blogging have hit the Slope of Enlightenment and are soon on the Plateau of Productivity. I haven’t had the chance to take a look at Gartner’s recently released theor Hype Cycle Social Software 2013, but from what they write in the summary I don’t entirely agree with Gartner that there is still significant hype about many of  the new technologies:
“Many enterprises are in their second or third generation of social software initiative, but there is significant hype about the many new technologies. As social software implementations mature, enterprises must strive to increase engagement and take advantage of social innovations.”
How we can apply social principles and mechanisms to processes, ways of working and organizational design is a different story than the one about social tools and technologies, a story that we are just getting started to write.

2. Collaboration is the new black

Major enterprise software vendors have focus heavily to advance their positions in the social software and collaboration space. Collaboration has also become a common buzzword that top executives such as CEO’s and CIO’s use frequently. Even if they don't always know what it takes to get collaboration to work, they know it is something they need to address.

There is, however, still a large knowing-doing gap when it comes to collaboration. Executives and leaders don’t always walk the talk. I believe this can partially be attributed to difficulties in addressing ownership and lack of ways to fund enterprise-wide initiatives, but also in the challenge of finding a proven approach to ”eat the elephant”. Where and how do you start to improve collaboration? As most organizations that have tried hopefully also have learned, it is not enough to deploy new technologies – we must focus on how to change behaviors and ways of working. There is also a need for new ways of managing and leading people, as well as new and improved incentive systems, to create an environment that enables and encourages collaboration. Changing all this is something that might discourage even people with the best intentions to do change status quo.

Anyway, it is clear that it has become more common that decision makers from business units come together in forums to address the need for collaboration within and across their business units. Even for  basic things like document-oriented collaboration within their own business units, they are realizing that they can’t do it on their own, and that they can't just avoid to do anything about it. That is clearly a good sign, and eventually it will force top executives to put collaboration on the top of their agendas and invest whatever is required to close the knowing-doing gap.

3. Knowledge management is back

It was rumored that Knowledge Management died in the late 90's. Thankfully, it never did and now it’s back again, dressed up as ”Knowledge Sharing”.

Our various representations of our knowledge are often stored in private notebooks. Yet, most of our knowledge remains in our heads (tacit knowledge). When we share our knowledge with others, it is typically exchanged ad hoc and informally person-to-person. It takes place when we meet other people, such as by the water cooler. We don’t write down everything we claim to know just in case someone would need it. It just doesn’t work that way. For one thing, who would have the time to do that? Most of us have to get our work done.

In an increasingly unpredictable and rapidly changing business environment, the most important thing is no longer to possess knowledge and treat it like an asset that we lock inside a safe so that no one else can access it. Rather, what's important is that the people who need a certain piece of knowledge can access it and use it. In other words, one might say that we’re back at the insight that Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron who was once the world’s richest man (the late 19th century), left us as part of his legacy:
”The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it." 
For this to work in real life, we can’t continue to treat knowledge as a separate "thing", and knowledge sharing can’t be seen as a separate act that adds on our already huge workload. We need to acknowledge that knowledge is exchanged in conversations between people, and focus on making these conversations happen between the right people. We need to put less focus is put on storing, organizing and managing our representations of knowledge, and more focus on providing tools and platforms to people where they can easily find each other, create suitable representations of their knowledge, and exchange it through conversations.

Easy to use and freeform social tools enable a convenient and user-driven way to capture tacit knowledge and build collective intelligence. This is why social tools such as wikis and blogs can be seen the 21st Century’s notebooks, and social networks as the water coolers. Now that the technologies have become boring, perhaps we can now change our behaviors and ways of working to make collaboration and knowledge sharing happen more naturally across all borders.

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