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Engineering the social knowledge network vision

I spent a few hours last week with a research firm we are looking to partner with. They asked me to explain, in straightforward terms, what it means to have a social knowledge network, and what value it would have for a typical organization. I gave them a short story colored by my background as an engineer.

Picture an engineer in a large company. Her boss asks her to design a component in a new product the company is building. She has only two weeks to come up with a conceptual design of the component's mechanical structure.

Step one: Before jumping in and designing this from scratch, the first thing our engineer does is to go through her memory banks to see if she designed something similar to this in the past. No success.

Step two: She begins to tap her social network; trusted colleagues with whom she’s worked on many projects in the past. She talks to them on the phone, walks to their cubes, meets some for lunch, etc. Still, she finds nobody has designed a component like this before.

Step three: She wades into the myriad company databases, content management systems, and even raw file folders on servers. She spends a great deal of time sifting through search results for documents, drawings, images, and anything else that might have keywords in it associated with the component she has to build.

Step four: It's days later. Our engineer has found hundreds of pieces of information. But her quest has only started. Now she must validate each piece of data by checking its relevancy. This will eat up still more time, as she performs cross-references, corroborates data, discusses her findings with colleagues, and so on.

It's not a stretch to say she could spend 75 percent of her total project time just looking for pertinent information and validating it. That leaves her with 25 percent of the project time to focus on her core competency: designing reliable and safe components.

Now consider the same scenario with a social knowledge network in the mix. It starts adding value right after step two (and in many cases, after step one). After our engineer has tapped her personal social network, she taps the company's social knowledge network.

The social knowledge network contains information that is vetted and approved (perhaps it's been vetted by her company's standards board, for example). And the information is relevant. That's because the community of experts within her company -- and perhaps even beyond her own office or country -- have added their input, value, expertise, and intelligence. This makes our engineer confident that the information she turned up is relevant to helping her complete the project.

Instead of being limited to her trusted inner circle, our engineer can access the collected wisdom of her entire organization, and possibly beyond. Better still, because it's not a one-way flow of information (i.e., data in, data out), she can reach out to the associated experts who provided the knowledge, and gain additional insight into their thoughts.

It's a powerful concept that leads to more efficient knowledge workers and, by extension, more efficient companies.


Anonymous said...

It is an intersting and accurate idea, but do you really think anyone will spend time to vet information that has nothing to do with delivering on a current project? I don't think so. This is what kills all KM projects. Why should I do something now that "Might" have value "Someday" in the future... Current PLM systems suffer the same problem. There needs to be value for the individual at the time.

That said I agree social networks will be important as a tool used in product development.

John Callan said...

You are exactly right: When nobody has the time to vet the content, the whole notion of a traditional KM solution breaks down. This is where the role of the “librarian” (or more generally, the information management professional) plays such an important role. They are tasked with ensuring that the information remains current, is vetted, and is accessible to the population.

With traditional KM solutions, this is a very difficult task. However, with the advent of Social Knowledge Networks, this task becomes a lot easier. Why? Because the information manager can gain tremendous insights into the validity of the content by reviewing the ratings, comments, and blog postings that are occurring around the content.

Take a look at some of Phil Green’s blog posts on this topic: Fear and Loathing in Seattle ( and Fear and Loathing in Seattle part 2 (

Again, you are 100 percent correct in stating that PLM suffers the same problem. These systems become in effect the "lost repository" of parts, assemblies and drawings at the various stages of their lifecycles. Searching for and finding the relevant part for your new assembly can be a time consuming (and time wasting) task.

A librarian who has the advantage of understanding the wisdom of the community when it comes to whether a part is good, bad, or ugly can perform the necessary task of moving it to a location that would register more appropriately on the search results, allowing an engineer downstream to more quickly find the relevant and accurate information he seeks.

The question is, have organizations like yours invested in appointing a person or group to fill that librarian role? We know that in law firms, for instance, there is almost always someone in that role. What about engineering firms? Or is it left to IT to "figure it out?"


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