Knowledge management is a tricky thing. Expertise and authority may exist, but you can’t find it. In social learning, we want to engage with these experts, we need to build emergent communities with the power to make a difference, the power of agility, and these need access to expertise and authority. Today, i want to explore some of the key questions we have to ask to identify where this expertise lies and how we engage with it.
The first thing to recognise is that expertise may be internal or external, but does not solely exist within formal hierarchies. Historically, many organisations, both military and in business, have relied on hierarchy to codify and capture expertise and authority, to delineate areas of responsibility and remit, and to control the conversations. But hierarchy as a method of command and control is outdated and, in the Social Age, positively toxic to creativity and innovation.
Agile organisations are ones that can look (and act) beyond hierarchy. Hierarchies of command, of control, of learning and action are all collapsing in favour of more agile, socially constructed models. Models where the ability to create meaning and take transformative action, to do so differently day by day, to narrate ones experience and form communities to support it are more important than the title on your desk.
I wanted to pose some questions to help you explore your organisational relationship with expertise in the Social Age. This should form a foundation for a more coherent knowledge management and social learning strategy.
1. How do you engage with experts?
What’s in it for everyone? Enlightened self interest is a powerful thing and important for engagement in social learning spaces. We have to ask people what’s important for them, rather than expecting that we know it already. Historically we have assumed that money and status are important, giving people pay rises and job titles, but today, where our authority may come from different sources, reputation may trump this. We need to understand the reasons for engagement so we can reward people accordingly, for example, through strategies to support them curating a strong reputation (references, LinkedIn recommendations, crediting authorship etc)
2. Are your experts practitioners or theorists?
Increasingly our experts are still practitioners (although they may still be theorists). I put this question in because it’s easy to swing the pendulum too far the other way, away from theory and into practice. A healthy social learning space needs both: we have to be informed by both theory and practice, but we don’t want too much of either! Understand the shape of your community and understand where you need to plug the gaps.
3. How do you find the experts?
If we accept that much expertise exists outside of the formal structure, then we need to work out how to find it. In the old days i had to tune my television with a dial, turning it through the static until a picture came clear. Similarly, today, we need to work through the social channels until we find coherent streams of conversation. We have to search for the nodes and amplifiers (of which more later).
4. How do they curate their knowledge?
It’s worth exploring how authorities and experts curate their knowledge: this is something you have to develop as both an art and a science. Harold Jarche’s PKM framework is a great example of a methodology for this, exploring how we add value to whatever we process and broadcast. The curation of knowledge is a challenge for both individuals and organisations, and one to which we should form a coherent strategy. It’s the foundation of reputation, and reputation is what is trumping hierarchy (displacing positional power, power through longevity or job title).
5. How can you engage with competing experts?
We can compete and collaborate with the same people. Honestly, it works. Unless we are at war, we tend to have shared interests, foundations for learning, and the breadth of expertise we can engage with if we work with our competitors can outweigh any risks. It’s a big old world and it’s unlikely that we are competing everywhere. Strategic collaboration can grow any market.
6. What shared interests do you have?
So work out what shared interests you have and engage in those spaces. For example: everyone in e-learning is interested in how we build assessments, what methodologies we use. So we can collaborate to discuss this, whilst still building our own unique solutions based upon what we learn. Our collaboration grows us professionally.
7. Where can you compete, where do you collaborate?
To achieve this, map our where we compete and where we collaborate and, if necessary, agree specific areas that are out of bounds. As long as these are shared and agreed, we can operate safely in competition.
8. Can you see parallels outside your perspective?
If we move beyond competitors and into parallel industries, we can unlock great expertise and authority, who may have common challenges under different names. Whilst each of our industries codifies it’s knowledge in jargon and process, the underlying issues are often common, and the broader perspective can be greatly enlightening. Understanding how military leadership compares to leadership in schools or a bank can give us a broader perspective, and perspective vital in learning.
9. How do you engage with these authorities?
Again, how can you engage with these experts in parallel industries, how can you invite them into your social learning spaces and engage with them in theirs? It’s often around specific areas: for example, why not create a space to provide definitions? Work with a group to write definitions of leadership from different perspectives. This co-creative process can be deeply enlightening, and is truly a more agile approach than just watching a video of Ghandi or Churchill.
10. Do you know where the nodes are?
Nodes of expertise exist: you have to find them. Do you know how? You need to trawl through your internal and external channels and identify the nodes. These people often have great expertise. The first step in any social learning strategy should be to identify the nodes that already exist, outside formal hierarchy. Nodes are often people who cross multiple communities, that’s what gives them wider perspective and insight, alongside great curatorial skills.
11. Who are the amplifiers?
Nodes gather and concentrate expertise: they may also be amplifiers. Amplifiers are people within networks who filter and broadcast effectively, with high reputation. Engaging with amplifiers is significant for community growth. You can form emergent communities and grow them much faster if you are engaging in a significant with with nodes and amplifiers, but to do that you have to be prepared to curate your own story on the terms of the community. Sales messages will not work.
With these questions, my aim really is to get us thinking about the landscape that social learning takes place within: it’s not flat. We need to understand how the hierarchies of learning and authority are changing, the role of reputation and authority and how we engage with it.
Agile organisations are ones that foster innovation and creativity, that are prepared to learn and change, as well as to teach and control. They are willing to take a broad viewpoint and collaborate widely, as well as fostering individual reputation and authority, recognising that it grows the capability of the organisation.
So where does this leave us?
You need to ask ‘what is your knowledge management strategy‘? ‘How do you curate and share what you know‘? ‘How do we encourage the development of nodes and amplifiers internally?‘
Our work needs to be less about infrastructure, command and control, more about enabling personal and organisational knowledge management, collaboration and amplification skills. It’s about broadening our viewpoint and being open to change, supporting emergent communities and building social capital within our teams.