Organic knowledge: Social networking technology just may solve impending worker shortage

Benjamin Friedman, a research manager for product life-cycle strategies with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights, thinks manufacturers can use social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies to close the knowledge gap that already is forming as workers in the baby-boom generation begin retiring.
By William Atkinson, contributing editor January 28, 2009

Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter may be useful for more than just telling the world what’s on your iPod.

Benjamin Friedman, a research manager for product life-cycle strategies with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC Manufacturing Insights , thinks manufacturers can use social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies to close the knowledge gap that already is forming as workers in the baby-boom generation begin retiring.

“The knowledge deficit as a result of workforce attrition is consistent across manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, defense, automotive, high-tech, and energy/utilities sectors,” notes Friedman, author of the report, Web 2.0: The Inflection Point for Knowledge Management .

In that report, Friedman argues that Web 2.0 technologies in some ways will prove superior to earlier knowledge management (KM) applications developed by traditional business software vendors.

For example, he says, while traditional KM solutions attempted to capture knowledge by corporate edict and with rigid tools, Web 2.0 technologies foster “organic” KM by giving workers the means to locate, organize, and syndicate knowledge themselves.

According to Friedman, a confluence of factors is creating an environment in which manufacturers must consider investing in new methods of capturing and sharing knowledge. For example:

• An aging domestic workforce creates a knowledge deficit, as does the fact that, even though emerging markets are graduating people in science and engineering and related disciplines, these people often lack practical experience.

• Traditional KM efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The investments in KM that took place in the 1980s did not deliver the desired results and ended up costing more than anticipated. The reasons? “Intentions were good, but the approaches didn’t work very well,” Friedman says. For one, the applications were rigid in nature. For another, companies tended to approach them as corporate fiats (“You have to contribute or else!”), and they were often viewed as patronizing.

• Third, as previously mentioned, Web 2.0 technologies—which were once solutions in search of a problem—are proving to be practical alternatives for this job.

But Friedman is quick to point out that Web 2.0 technologies will not completely eclipse previous approaches to KM.

“Certainly, there are some traditional KM tools that need to remain, and Web 2.0 is not designed to replace them,” he cautions, adding that the ones that should remain are those that involve very prescribed processes that do not offer opportunities for deviation. “These are processes that need to be documented, and there should be no level of editorial commentary allowed,” he says.

Timely benefits
The use of Web 2.0 technologies may be particularly relevant and useful in today’s economic climate, where every penny counts.

“It can be a way to save money,” explains Friedman. For example, if a field technician needs to repair a piece of equipment in the field, in the traditional model, he will drive his truck to the worksite, filled with various parts he has pulled from inventory that may or may not be necessary for the repair. He may even need to return to retrieve another part once he realizes that his on-hand inventory from the truck is insufficient.”

However, if the problem is entered in a Web 2.0 environment, another field technician may have logged his experiences with a similar problem. “As a result, the first technician will know specifically what he needs,” says Friedman.

In some cases, he adds, it may even be possible to solve the problem remotely, not even requiring the technician to go into the field.

Implementation strategies

According to Friedman’s report, organizations should focus on KM initiatives—including Web 2.0—that offer a mix of structure and prescriptive elements—such as Case Based Reasoning—combined with informal solutions that offer information flow at the speed of thought interactively, such as instant messaging. This approach to KM delivers agility in decision-making, as well opportunities for reusing knowledge over the long term.

“The goal should be a centralized KM solution, and Web 2.0 can provide this,” Friedman says. .

The challenge remains in creating a governance model that achieves two things. “On the one hand, it should not fall into a pattern of corporate mandate,” he states. “On the other hand, it still needs to provide some level of structure that discourages nefarious intent, and also creates rules on how these systems are to be used.”

For example: What is considered useful information? What is considered to be “noise” that needs to be removed?

Once the balance has been achieved, actual rollout to the workforce should be easier than with traditional KM solutions. “People weren’t very familiar with traditional KM interfaces,” says Friedman. “However, people today are very familiar with typical Web applications, so there should be a need for only limited training.”

For guidance, Friedman recommends researching what the U.S. Department of Defense is doing in this area.

“They are working on this challenge of balance,” he states. “They are also putting rules into place that may be able to be used in the workspace.”

To get started, go to: www.defenselink.mil/