Hurricanes are hell on knowledge management. Take it from Giora Hadar, a knowledge architect at the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA).

These powerful storms can wipe out navigational aids, air traffic control equipment and radar dishes that ensure the safety of commercial and private aircraft in the US. They can also sever communications and keep critical information from flowing between FAA workers on the ground and those based in its Washington DC headquarters. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita did all this and one thing more: they spurred the FAA to start developing social networking tools to address communication and knowledge management challenges even during extreme circumstances such as a Category 5 storm.

At the FAA, hurricanes and other disasters raise a fundamental and urgent knowledge management question: who’s available to get things up and running again?

Disaster recovery

“We need to reach our people to find out [if they are OK],” says Hadar, who supports the FAA’s disaster recovery efforts. “We also need to know where they are and if they are available to participate in the recovery.” Once everyone is accounted for, the agency needs to figure out which disaster recovery specialists will do what, and who their counterparts are at other federal, state and local agencies. The specialists themselves have to track their emails, instant messages and voicemails, and locate the documents needed to bring equipment back online.

It’s a perfect situation for taking social computing tools, such as online social networks and group communications tools like wikis and keyword tagging, and putting them to work as a form of knowledge management.

The challenge for those dealing with knowledge management (KM) has always been how to get information out of people’s heads and into a database. Social computing tools are a good solution, since they encourage people to share their knowledge with others, and that expertise can easily be captured for future reference.

In fact, social computing represents a third wave for KM: the set of tools and processes companies use to create, track and share intellectual assets, says Patti Anklam, an independent consultant who is focused on KM and social networking. Anklam says the first wave involved digitising and tracking documents using tools like content management systems. When it became clear that it was too hard to share those documents, companies adopted collaboration tools. With social networks, companies are extending knowledge management to make it easier to connect employees and information.

“A framework for knowledge management consists of understanding what you need to have in place so that people can connect and share with each other, and then... connect to people outside of their own current, small personal networks,” Anklam says.

Social networking tools have been used mostly by consumers but are now emerging in corporate environments. A 2007 survey by IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher, IDG Communications) found that almost 40 per cent of very large companies – those with more than 10,000 employees – were using business or social networking tools, more than 30 per cent were using online communities and just under 20 per cent were using social bookmarking tools. Smaller companies were less aggressive in using the tools but were also adopting them.

What’s driving interest in the market? Social networking tools show clear potential for improving collaboration and sharing different types of knowledge within organisations. And employees are typically familiar with them. In fact, 25 per cent of companies say that workers are already using social networking tools for work, though only 10 per cent actually offer such tools, according to CIO’s 2008 Consumer Technology Survey in the US. But of those who do offer the tools, 30 per cent do it to improve KM.

Like the FAA, many of these companies are in the early stages of figuring out how best to use social networking tools for KM. In part, that’s because “knowledge management is a business process, not a market”, says Mark Levitt, an analyst at IDC. “There are a lot of processes that are tied up in knowledge management, and no single product can enable it.”

CIOs need to strike a balance in adopting social networking

Social networks are so easy and intuitive to use that practically anyone can jump in and get started. Just ask Cisco CIO Rebecca Jacoby. “My 80-year-old mother is on Facebook,” she says.
This ease of use epitomises social networking’s potential for companies that want to tap the knowledge of their workers. It also highlights a challenge for CIOs: the perception that IT isn’t moving fast enough to adopt these applications within the business.
Cisco is already moving down this path. It is developing a company-wide social computing platform aimed at greasing the idea process and capturing institutional knowledge by strengthening existing networks and making it easier to adopt new ones. There’s Directory 3.0, its internal version of Facebook, with employee listings designed to identify an employee’s area of expertise to enable collaboration. It has Ciscopedia, an internal document site, and C-Vision, its version of YouTube. And it has the Idea Zone, a wiki for people to post and discuss potential business ideas.
Despite these initiatives, Jacoby says IT is still perceived by business users as not moving fast enough to leverage social networks because they already use them personally. “People ask me all the time, ‘Can’t I just go to an application service provider and create a community?’”
She says they cite both the speed and the low cost of doing so. But Jacoby says that CIOs need to consider issues of privacy, data security and the ability to scale across a global organisation. It’s no good, she says, if 15 different business units develop 15 different online communities that can’t talk to each other.
Still, Jacoby says social networking has led IT to change how it works with Cisco’s business units to develop social computing tools and set usage rules.”That’s a real cultural change for IT organisations, and that’s way more challenging long-term than the technology,” says Jacoby.

The FAA started thinking about how to use social networking tools in 2000, when Alan Stensland, its Eastern Service Area emergency coordinator, saw Lotus QuickPlace, a team collaboration platform, and Lotus Sametime, an instant messaging tool, at a trade show. After the 2005 hurricane season, Stensland’s desire for better ways to connect his disaster recovery specialists only increased. So the FAA, a heavy IBM user, became a beta tester for what would become Lotus Connections, which includes social networking tools like Profiles (a directory of people and their expertise), Communities, Blogs, the Dogear tagging tool, and Activities (a dashboard). It also upgraded from QuickPlace to Quickr and moved to IBM’s WebSphere Portal.

Back on their feet

The FAA’s disaster recovery response leverages the use of these tools, which run through the Activities dashboard. Its 200 or so disaster recovery specialists invite people to join their networks via Profiles, and use Activities as a kind of electronic project bin: voicemails, documents and their electronic receipts for a project will go into it, making it easy to track and share with other agencies, easing the hassle of post-disaster spending audits.

Social networking tools should bring faster response time to all facets of business, says Rebecca Jacoby, senior vice president and CIO at Cisco Systems. Cisco is building a social computing platform because “this is the first technology in 10 years that, if used properly, lets you accelerate your business”.

Jacoby says that Cisco sees the types of knowledge sharing these tools permit as “overarching” for business in the global era. “I can bring people from locations all over the world or different functions to participate in solving a problem or creating an innovation that allows the company to have growth,” she says.

A case in point is the Idea Zone, an internal wiki where Cisco staff can post and comment on business ideas. Since it was started in June 2006, more than 600 ideas have been posted and vetted, and four new business units have been started.

Another firm exploring social networking is industrial manufacturer Flowserve. Its CIO, Linda Jojo, felt the company needed a better way to capture institutional knowledge and communicate it to employees across its far-flung offices: Flowserve does business in more than 55 countries, and IT has people in a dozen of them.

“We want to create more relationships within IT,” she says. “So if you’re in Brazil and you’re running into a problem with Oracle databases, you can find the people within Flowserve who might help you.” Jojo felt that a social networking application like Facebook could act as a virtual water cooler where employees could gather but she had reservations about its privacy and security.

Flowserve built its own version of Facebook which launched in December 2007. The project was spearheaded by two business analysts, recent graduates who Jojo asked to design something to bring employees together. It took them a few weeks, working part-time, to get the tool ready. Despite no formal announcement, interest in the tool has been building.

About 150 of the 250 IT staff members have signed up and are using the wiki, blogs and other tools built into it. Jojo says it’s too soon to say what impact it’s had on the organisation. “But in a year or so, I would hope to be telling you that this is a tool that we as an IT organisation can’t live without and it becomes an essential part of how we support the greater Flowserve organisation,” says Jojo.

While Flowserve built its own application, IDC’s Levitt says companies have plenty of social computing tools to use, many designed to work with their current software. Vendors including IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Novell and Oracle are adding these tools to their products. The trend began several years ago, but only now are companies starting to become comfortable with the idea.

Knowledge from the outside

The web makes it possible to build markets around many things, including knowledge for hire. In a sense, that’s what sites like Elance and Innocentive offer: expertise that companies bid on to expand their own knowledge.
Then there are expert networks like that of Gerson Lehrman Group. GLG’s knowledge marketplace connects customers to subject matter experts who can consult in person or over the phone, depending on the customer’s preference. It’s a broader, more consulting-orientated tool than Innocentive, which connects companies to scientific researchers with specific knowledge.
GLG says sales hit about $220m (£125m) in 2007. It has a network of 175,000 consultants, and between 20,000 and 30,000 business leaders, all of whom have worked in senior management for companies with more than $100m (£57m) in revenue. Users of the service can tag the expert or documents, rate the person and add notes. The average call lasts about 40 minutes and costs about $300 (£170). Companies can subscribe to the service.
“We’ve taken knowledge management outside our own four walls,” says Jonathan Glick, GLG’s director of research operations. “It makes knowledge management an asset.”

“The average worker two years ago had never been in [an electronic workspace],” Levitt says. But thanks to instant messaging and social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn, most business people are now familiar with online communities.

Social insecurities

But while users may feel comfortable, businesses remain uneasy. Levitt notes that tools like Facebook lack the security and privacy that corporations demand. He thinks products like Lotus Connections, which combine a number of social networking tools into familiar software and make them easier to adopt, will become more common.

Social computing would seem to solve some of the challenges posed by KM. But these tools come with their own set of issues for the CIO.

Workers can set up their own social networks outside the company’s IT infrastructure, creating privacy and data security issues. Companies will be less able to control communications enabled through social computing, both internally and externally. And there will still be a learning curve for workers used to communicating in specific ways.

Wainhouse Research analyst David Dines says user issues will be the hardest challenge for CIOs in companies that are adopting social networking tools. “What CIOs need to ask themselves is, ‘How are people actually using the wiki?’” he says. “What kind of employee structures and policies do we have in place to encourage the proper use of these tools?”

Social networking glossary

As social networking crosses over from the consumer market into the enterprise, we define the most important terms in the social computing phenomenon.
Social networking: Umbrella term for software that lets users share information and expertise. Although best known from consumer tools such as Facebook, Wikipedia and MySpace, tools are entering the workplace through commercial services such as the LinkedIn business network, or through adaptations used inside firms or through inter-business networks.
Instant messaging: A web-based text ‘chat’ service designed to facilitate a faster exchange of ideas than email can provide.
Wiki: Web pages that let users edit and share content. Wikis are used as knowledge management systems in companies.
Social bookmarking: A tool which lets users point others to useful websites on specific subjects. Digg is the best known consumer bookmarking service.
Portal: A website that applies a consistent look and feel at the user interface to organise access to disparate resources.

Nevertheless, analysts are optimistic about the marriage of social computing and KM. Dines says that in 2007, enterprise sales of tools like Liveworld, SocialText and Mzinga, which offer ways to build customer and internal communities, and wikis, respectively, reached $200m (£113m). IDC, meanwhile, projects that social networking will be a $1.3bn (£740m) market by 2012.

What seems clear is that social networking tools are poised to help businesses cut through the maelstrom of information and improve the way workers share knowledge. Dines says these tools will streamline how workers research projects, form teams and share knowledge. His prediction: “Pretty soon you’ll hear people saying: ‘LinkedIn and Facebook are interesting, but look at what we’ve got internally’.”