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Social media: Let's get down to business

I’ve just returned from visiting several companies and discussing social knowledge networks, which is just another way of saying a knowledge management system with social components.

I’ve been struck by their needs and mood, especially when I consider the advice I often hear from industry pundits about how information professionals should approach implementing Web 2.0 systems.

Many recommend and stress “play.” This might be well and good advice for librarians serving public communities and university environments, where “playing” with Flickr and other social sites is necessary to understand how students and other users think.

But I've found that the information professionals I've been speaking with need is guidance on the role social media can play within their organizations. Often, their co-workers are asking for it, but their bosses want to know the business benefits and the ROI, especially with the economic environment becoming more uncertain every day. Telling them to go "play" is advice that does not resonate.

So rather than "play," I have advised customers to begin experimenting with social media in areas that will bring tangible benefits their organizations. Remember, experimentation is defined as "the process of testing a hypothesis by collecting data under a controlled environment."

So the key is to have a business objective in mind, and use Web 2.0 or social knowledge networks to see if it improves the situation. This strategic experimentation allows the information professional to have a structured and robust conversation with their boss or budget committee.

For example, here is the pain-point of one organization I met with. The client explained they had a great deal of valuable information on the N drive (network drive). They also explained employees were having a difficult time quickly finding the information they needed. The client had tried adding a search engine, but it did not improve the situation.

We drilled into the two key problems they faced. First, the N drive often contains the drafts as well as multiple versions of a document. For example, there might be one copy intended for internal use, and another for external use. The search engine often returned all of the drafts and versions because they were all relevant.

Employees then spent a great deal of time figuring out which draft or version was useful for their specific task. This led to a discussion about the difference between relevance and quality, and much gnashing of teeth as the (broken) promises made by IT concerning the search technology were rehashed. The client wanted to know how to make finding the right document easier and faster.

The client's other problem is the N drive contains many old and erroneous documents. They wanted to know how to eliminate them. With the drive containing over 20,000 documents, assigning a full-time resource had been considered.

But when probed about the level of domain experience needed to determine document quality -- especially considering the depth and breadth of the content -- they soon realized that this was not feasible.

In this case, I recommend they try implementing a social knowledge network focused on the N drive document repository. By loading the documents into Presto and allowing them to be socialized, they could use Web 2.0 techniques to solve their problems.

For example, document ratings can provide clear guidance about content quality. Comments can provide much-needed context regarding usage. This can delineate documents for internal and external use, for instance. Social tagging is another way for staff to quickly judge the quality and usefulness of documents.

The content administrator or information professional would be a key consumer of this social information. By watching the comments, ratings, and tags, administrators receive direct user feedback concerning content quality. This enables them to implement feeding and weeding strategies to add high-quality content while eliminating low-quality content.

Deleting low-quality content raises the overall quality of the document repository and reduces time spent by staff evaluating such documents.

After I suggested they experiment with social media to reduce search time and increase information quality, this organization felt they could sell the concept upstairs. I can't wait to hear the results.

Even though we all need to have fun, for information professionals in profit and non-profit organizations, I recommend an experimentation path with clear objectives, rather than just playing.

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