That was the title. The subtitle was “The challenge of sustainable socialisation”. It was published in the Knowledgeboard on the 24th of September 2004, and it started a very nice conversation (there, and in the old KB forums). It was kindly republished on the magazine of a consultants’ association which I can’t find now (with the wrong picture, but still nice).
I remember it now because, being bedridden, some kind friend has brought a picture that relates to the event behind the story. The result is that you’re punished with yet another reprint.
Friendship versus objectivity in KM – The challenge of sustainable socialisation
A recent development in an online community has shone the spotlight again on a matter that I’ve repeatedly found to be very important for CoPs in particular and for knowledge building and sharing in general. This is the role of social structures in the collaboration process, and the consequences of the different ways in which such structures arise.
In other words, how beneficial is the impact of human personal relationships, based on mutual acquaintance and friendship, in the knowledge sharing context? Should it be stimulated or avoided?
Are tightly-knit networks of friends a good foundation of knowledge sharing? Should we allow personal acquaintances and friendships to take a role in the knowledge management structure?
We can find reasons and extreme examples that argue for both points of view.
The case for friendship
The first argument in favour of allowing and fomenting the closeness of personal relationships between users of the system is that it is unavoidable. People want to know who they talk to, whom they help, whose guidelines they follow. And once they meet, sympathy or antipathy are unavoidable. Since unavoidable things can’t be escaped in the end, it seems logical to just allow them.
The second is that a deeper knowledge of the “others” in the system is a great motivator. A face-to-face exchange between enthusiasts is very likely to lead to new ideas and paths of work. Appreciation or interest in an idea are more clearly perceived, and more motivating, when you know and see the other people. Trust is more easily attained between people who know and appreciate each other.
The third is that, as networks of friendship and personal loyalty spread, stability ensues. Sensibilities are spared the harsher words; people become both more civil and more interested in helping friends and acquaintances than they could be in helping mere colleagues.
One fourth argument is that it “builds community” by constructing a solid feeling of recognition and belonging to the group. This has undeniable positive effects on the belonging individual, and allows the group to act as a more effective unit when pressing projects or causes. Also, it is a very effective force for retaining the collaboration of users.
Thus a group of people, bound by mutual friendship and loyalty, can constitute an active and solid force for knowledge sharing and innovation.
The case for distance
But those very arguments have a negative side that is not frequently commented. Observation shows that the above advantages can become problems if interpersonal links play too much of a role.
Knowledge management systems, and CoPs in particular, are usually built in order to fulfill a role. That role is not to be a social network or a tribe: it is to provide solutions and methods to the users, to provide value. The formation of social, friendship-based networks can have inhibiting effects on this in many ways.
To start with, it sets up a different hierarchy of values. In such a system, users value each other based on whom they are friends with and the sympathy they hold for each other. This is inconsistent with an environment that appreciates and rewards the work of people who contribute most to helping the rest. When informal authority is derived from those “social” assets and not from merit, the whole purpose of the knowledge sharing system is thwarted: the incentive is then on being social and sympathetic, not on helping and delivering.
About the second and third arguments (that close-knit networks motivate better), there is serious experimental objection. Face to face meetings do generate bursts of energy and motivation. But an excess of “density” in the network, when people hold each other in too much regard to contradict or disappoint, is a stifling influence. Arguments can be weighted more on the merits of whom they will offend or help, than on their merit in solving the problem at hand. It is the direct equivalent of doing business with close friends: all too frequently, the business suffers or the friendship ends.
Worse still, a system that contains a “dense” network (a group of friends that does not span the full list of users) is apt to find itself in trouble through preferment. Users left outside the cabal of friends are not regarded or helped in the same degree than those inside, which leads to demotivation and conflict. Users inside it come often to expect preferential treatment from their friends and even bending of the common rules.
The fourth argument stressed the building of “community” as a motivation tool. Indeed, that may have beneficial psychological aspects for the individual, but ultimately is most beneficial to the administrators of the system or knowledge resource who channel that loyalty into collaboration. Indeed, it may hinder the effectiveness of the users that are thus prevented from seeking the resource and methods that will most increase their ability to solve their professional needs.
Steering on the brink
As mentioned before, such dense networks are almost unavoidable. People want, need, and shall introduce some human element in their collaboration.
Therefore, it is not a matter of how to avoid the densification of networks, but rather of how to avoid the excess of it. How to avoid the substitution of meritocracy by socialising. How to prevent a stifling culture of considerate respect. How to guarantee access and welcome to newbies and outliers. And how to keep in mind that the best system is not the present one but that which gives the best results for our ultimate aims: we need to be open to change.
There is no magic recipe to achieve this list of goals. But the evident importance of managing them stresses the relevance of the human element in the management of knowledge sharing. Electronic systems and elaborate work processes are nothing if human characters and relationships are not taken into account at every step.