Data lust, tacit knowledge, and social media

27 07 2011

Note: I’m resuscitating this blog one more time, but slowly: copying my posts from Biznology and other places to here and applying minor edits. Naturally, they lost their freshness, but I want to make this WordPress blog an archive of all my posts.

As previously seen in Biznology:

Data Center Lobby

Data Center Lobby by WarzauWynn via Flickr

We are all witnessing the dawn of a new information technology era, the hyper-digitization of the world around us. While the physical world is being captured and monitored via smart sensors, human interactions in both personal and business domains are making their way to the binary realm via social media. Did we finally find the treasury map that will lead us to the Holy Grail of information nirvana? Is the elusive tacit knowledge finally within the reach of this generation? Those are questions that not even Watson can answer, but I would dare to say that we are still very far from getting anywhere close to that.

The Internet has come a long way since its early days of consumerization in the 1990s, and we’re often amazed by how disrupting it has been—and still is—in several aspects of our personal and business lives. The more people and information get connected, the more value is derived—and we often hear that there’s much more to come. This is nothing new, of course: the lure of the new has led us to believe that technology will eventually solve all our problems ever since the days when “techne” was more art, skill and craft, than space travel, jeopardy-champion computers, and nuclear science. In the last few years, as our ability to digitize the world around us improved, our data lust was awakened, and we are currently seeing an explosion of information moving from the offline world to bits
and bytes.

The expectations are high. A recent article at Mashable stated:

Do you think there’s a lot of data on the Internet? Imagine how much there is in the offline world: 510 million square kilometers of land, 6.79 billion people, 18 million kilometers of paved roads, and countless objects inhabit the Earth. The most exciting thing about all this data? Technologists are now starting to chart and index the offline world, down to street signs and basketball hoops.

Tragedies like the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear plant combo in Japan are powerful reminders that data alone won’t save us. Digitizing information is an important first step, but it’s the easy one. A good proxy to understand the difference between collecting the data and changing the world is the human genome sequencing effort: once we finished that big effort, the question morphed from “how fast can we do it?” to “what’s next?” We got the book, but it’s written in an unknown language that will take generations to decipher.

Raising the stakes even further, the promise of finally getting the keys to tacit knowledge—defined as “knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalising it” (Wikipedia) or, more broadly, “the accumulated knowledge that is stored in our heads and in our immediate personal surroundings” (PwC article)—has often been used as a carrot to justify social media investments in the corporate world. The same PwC article says:

Tacit knowledge can be unleashed and shared as never before by connecting people ubiquitously through social networking and its closely related partner, collaboration. In large and small companies alike, tacit knowledge is stored in the heads and personal information collections of thousands of employees of all levels, not to mention their clients’ personal stores of information. Up until now, tacit knowledge has scarcely been captured in conventional computer-based databases because it has not been easy to “tap,” summarize, save, and use in day-to-day business.

After years of observing companies aiming for that moving target, it became clear to me that most of the tacit knowledge will remain out-of-bounds to us for the time being. This is not supposed to be a blow to the importance of social media in the enterprise. In the long term, having reasonable expectations will only help us all. If you use the Wikipedia definition, it actually turns out to be an easy and obvious conclusion: if tacit knowledge is the one difficult to write down or verbalize, it is clearly not a good candidate for digitization.

The actual low hanging fruit of social media in corporations is not tacit knowledge. Using the widespread iceberg metaphor, the tip of the iceberg is the so-called explicit knowledge, i.e., “knowledge that is codified and conveyed to others through dialog, demonstration, or media such as books, drawings, and documents”. Much of that information is already digitized in e-mails, bookmarks, documents and IM conversations, but often inaccessible to those who need it when they need it. Moving conversations away from those traditional channels to more shareable and “spreadable” media, and improving the filtering and distribution mechanisms will enable us to harvest the early fruits from our corporate social media efforts.

What about the tacit knowledge? This four-year-old article provides a good analysis of it. Much of it will remain for years in the “can’t be recorded” or “too many resources required to record” buckets. Social media can help by uncovering the hooks hinting that some of that knowledge exists, and suggesting the individuals or groups most likely to possess it, but the technology and processes to fully discover and digitize them are not here yet. Even if you are an avid user of Twitter or Facebook or Social Business Platforms and operating in hyper-sharing mode, how much of your knowledge is actually available there? Very little, I would guess.

So, before declaring that you are about to unleash the tacit knowledge in your company, take a deep breath and a step back. That iceberg might be much bigger than you thought. Data lust can be inebriating, but reality will soon take over.


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