What Can Facebook and Twitter Teach Us About Developing Knowledge Communities?

The social media tools of the tech-savvy have gone mainstream in the last year. CNN and many other news organizations now encourage us to follow them on Twitter for the most up to date and breaking news. And not just follow them, but share news stories as they are happening!

Facebook has gone from a way of connecting with other college students on campus, to an international community that includes not just students but mothers, fathers, and even grandmothers and grandfathers.

These new ways of connecting, communicating and sharing information are now making their way into the corporate world as organizations look for ways to capture, share and manage the knowledge and expertise that exists within them. Social Learning is quickly becoming a new catch phrase in the corridors of HR.

So what can we learn from Facebook and Twitter as we examine how to develop knowledge or learning communities in our companies. I think there are several lessons to keep in mind.

  1. Some people will take to it naturally and some won’t.  Just like any other media, the social media approaches will naturally fit some people’s learning and communicating styles better than others. Some people enjoy the conversations and interactions that social tools encourage, while others find this type of sharing and discourse uncomfortable. Social media tools should not be viewed as the answer for knowledge sharing and information, but be part of an overall strategy that includes a variety of options. These new tools have not replaced the telephone, email and face-to-face contact. They have augmented them. In the same way, they will not replace classroom sessions, online training or reference sources, but provide new ways to enhance them.
  2. Plan for organic growth rather than mandated use. Okay, I will admit it. The first time I checked out Twitter about a year ago, I didn’t get it. Now I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy guy, who enjoys being on the cutting edge of technologies, but I really didn’t care what my friends had for lunch! However, as more people I knew began to use Twitter and use it to share important news, ask questions, and crowd-source needs, I found that it did have a place in my communications toolkit. While both Facebook and Twitter have grown exponentially in the last few months, it has not been through a strong marketing push, but rather an organic pull. Friends ask “Are you on Facebook?” and in online discussions “What’s your Twitter handle?” Sure once CNN and Oprah got on-board they took off, but the initial success was built by individuals sharing: “Hey this works for me, check it out.” Successful implementations of knowledge management/sharing communities within organizations will grow the same way. As people start exploring and sharing with their friends, co-workers and network, the value they are getting, and ways they are using the tools, growth will happen. So plan your roll-out strategy to build off of this organic growth.
  3. The greatest power will come in ways you won’t anticipate or expect.  The founders of Twitter had no idea that it would become a means for people to share breaking news during times of crises (like the riots after the Iran elections). It was simply a way to stay in touch with other tech friends – quickly and easily. But as people started using it, they found their own ways to make it valuable.When Facebook opened up to third party developers all types of additional possibilities were created. Now, I don’t really need any more Mafia Wars or Farmville invitations, thank you! But the variety of applications and ways of interacting that are being created means that there can be something for everybody. Again, not what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind when he started it, but certainly a big part of Facebook‘s appeal for many people. Now if you are a corporate IT person, this probably scares you to death. But the more open and adaptable you make the tool, the more ways people will find to use it to add value to the organization. The more locked down it is, the less it will get used and the less value it will create. Remember the folks who created the Internet never imagined it would become the ubiquitous tool for commerce, communication, and sharing that it is today.
  4. Don’t try to think or plan too far out.  Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace and before that Friendster. Soon there will be something that replaces Facebook. (Some think it could be Google Wave, but that’s for a future post). The technologies are evolving and creative people are developing new ways to connect, share, collaborate and work. And the pace of this evolution is accelerating.Three years is probably a good horizon for planning for any social media/communication tool. To plan beyond that is likely a waste of time and resources. And again, as more people begin to push on the capabilities of whatever you implement, there will be a demand for more, better and faster ways to share, organize and access knowledge.
  5. Finally, make it simple and easy to get started.  One of Twitter’s greatest advantages for growth is similar to one of Google’s, it’s dead simple to use. It’s just a single text box. How intimidating is that? And while Facebook is a bit more involved, the main use that most people start with is simply answering the “What’s on your mind?” question. Of course, there is a lot more you can do with Twitter once you start learning about hash tags, direct messaging, retweets, etc. The same goes for learning about the various features and options available on Facebook. But you don’t need to understand, or even know about those, to get started using them. In fact, go back to point number one, most people learn about these more advanced methods organically. They don’t need a “Here’s how to use Facebook” guide.

There are many platforms or technologies that you can use to implement a learning community or knowledge-sharing infrastructure in your organization. (In fact, we have recently rolled out our own platform Boost!,) Regardless of what platform you choose, following the lessons of Facebook and Twitter can help make your implementation more successful. I’d love to hear what you are doing and what you are learning.

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