Higher Ground

What goes on in some people's minds? On an April business trip to the Buying & Selling eContent show (BSeC) in toasty Arizona, I got stranded in a blizzard in Colorado. Surrounded by 40,000 other travelers in various states of distress, I marveled at the ways some dealt with the situation: cell-phone ranting, screaming at beleaguered airline representatives, even fist-fighting. At the other end of the spectrum were conspicuous acts of kindness: cell-phone sharing, blanket loaning, and camaraderie. I wonder why some come together during difficult experiences and pool resources and knowledge to better the situation while others turn competitive and adversarial, hoarding both assets and information.

I was lucky (and tenacious) enough to get booked on a 7:10 flight the morning after the blizzard—most people were told they would not be able to travel for 48 hours (in which case, I would have missed all of BSeC). In line by 5:00 a.m. for that flight, I met several other people fortuitously booked on that morning flight to sunnier climes, but when 6:30 rolled around and we were still a distance away from the ticket agent, worry silenced our amiable banter. Then, we started to brainstorm. We shared our collective centuries of travel knowledge and parlayed it into several strategies to get ourselves on that flight. We sent out emissaries to try different self-ticketing machines and various agents. But the machines said we were too late to check in and the agents told us to get back in line and just get booked on a different flight if we missed ours.

Finally, I spotted a gray-haired man coming out of an office. Stereotypes notwithstanding, he had an air of authority and the look of experience. I approached him and explained that if he was willing to check the group of us in, he could get six or more people on the flight to Phoenix and out of the line so he wouldn't have to deal with rebooking us. Bingo: We found our man. He sent another agent to ask anyone in the line on a 7:30-or-earlier flight to step over to his counter, and a whole lot of people made planes that morning because he had an approach to the problem that worked. It was not groundbreaking, but it was effective in the hands of someone who had the authority to put it to use.

Another agent working that morning may have been familiar with this strategy for dealing with a ticketing problem of this scale. However, the majority of agents were inexperienced and had been called in to staff the desks for the emergency. They likely did not possess the knowledge, and possibly not the authority, to implement this simple plan. Organizations as consumer-oriented as airlines would benefit from a knowledge system that equips employees with some of the wisdom amassed by veterans of the industry who'd weathered their share of blizzards and far worse catastrophes.

This may be knowledge management's Holy Grail: capturing tacit knowledge, harnessing the information found only between employees' ears. The problem is that knowledge isn't like other data. In its natural course, it doesn't necessarily ever get "created" in a physical sense, so there's no common resource to which we can refer. Organizations may try to impose software on the situation and ask employees to stop what they're doing and catalog their wisdom into a system—KMS, CMS, CRM, database—but even if they acquiesce, most people can't recall everything they know, even in a narrow field of expertise, and most hold back intentionally or unintentionally. Besides, knowledge is a living thing, growing in strength each time it is applied. It is ephemeral and defies structural, relational, orderly data solutions.

Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, was among the speakers at BSeC, and I did luckily make it to the show in time for his talk. He began his presentation by defiling a page of Wikipedia—the best known wiki on the Web (which may not be saying much, given wikis' relative lack of visibility). He did this to demonstrate the self-healing nature of Wikipedia, which relies on a self-appointed army of experts on an encyclopedia of subjects to fill its pages, catch its mistakes, and right its wrongs. By the time his session was over, Wikipedia's devotees had corrected the error. In the meantime, Mayfield discussed his company's tool, which leverages wikis for what he calls "simple group productivity solutions."

While wikis share some of the drawbacks of other technology solutions that attempt to harness tacit knowledge, they are predicated upon the formation of a community devoted to sharing information. If implemented in that context, they already have a leg up in garnering user participation. However, to capture existing knowledge, they would still require users to sit down at a keyboard and enter the information. Socialtext integrates a variety of real-time communication platforms into its wiki—including blogging, IM, and the de facto collaboration medium, email. What this brings to the knowledge-capture equation is the real-world dynamic nature of information exchange while storing it in a persistent archive that can be transformed into a wiki by the users themselves or by an administrator. And since a wiki, by its nature, can be edited at any time by any member of the group, it allows amassed knowledge to be fed and exercised so that it can grow.