“We are on the verge of a new form of knowledge management”

    interview with Dr. Richard Straub, Senior Advisor of the Chairman of IBM in Europe, Middle East and Africa

    01. Oktober 2010 von Dr. Richard Straub

    The congress Professional Learning Europe will take place in Cologne from October 12th to 14th. The organizer talked to Dr. Richard Straub about learning in the Enterprise 2.0.

    Dr. Straub, the concept “Web 2.0” has been present in the media for more than five years now and has become quite normal in private internet use. “Enterprise 2.0”, the use of social software in companies, is much less popular, especially when it comes to professional learning. Why is that so?

    The use of learning technologies inside a company does not follow the same rules as private use. Many companies are in a very early phase of evaluating these technologies and some have not considered at all what Enterprise 2.0 could mean for their business.

    How would you define it?

    Enterprise 2.0 means the use of all elements of Web 2.0 for internal purposes. This has an influence on the structures and the way employees work together; new learning processes emerge. Employees create networks across job hierarchies. They can have networks according to their interests, specialization, know-how or experience, without any intervention from the management. This has nothing to do with Web 2.0 activities outside the company, even if the limits between one and the other sometimes may not be all that clear.

    Which external activities do you have in mind?

    Imagine for example a quality problem with a new product, or think of product evaluation by its end users in general. A Web 2.0 environment quickly creates communities for experience exchange, improvement proposals or quality analysis, which would involve marketing, quality and communication experts. The internal use of Web 2.0 is different from that. It can include the early involvement of end users in the development process of innovations. Enterprise 2.0 would be involved in this process as an organization. Nonetheless, I understand the term in the sense of Web 2.0 inside a company’s firewall.

    Many companies have not gotten this far. Do you think they were justified in their hesitant approach to the subject?

    Most people are just not sure which is the best way to use Web 2.0 based tools for knowledge management and HR development. On the one hand this is a generational problem and on the other companies have already had difficulties with the introduction of new learning technologies in the past. The implementation of new learning management systems, for example, has not been easy. And as a general experience, it has been difficult to increase the share of e-learning components. These are complex processes, which not only include the introduction of a new technology, but require a cultural change even on top-management levels. Nonetheless, during the crisis, we observe a faster adoption of new technologies. But we have not yet arrived in the age of social media. Companies tend to try out tools like webinars, different types of web lectures or collaborative technologies to allow employees to work together on a shared document. Companies are catching up on basic technologies.

    IBM has been a pioneer of Enterprise 2.0 for years. What advice would you give other companies from the perspective of your experience?

    There is no standard concept, because each company has its own history, culture and demographic pyramid. Companies that have used relatively little technology so far will have to think harder than others about how to take the first step. Others are already on an advanced level, have more experiences and can implement next steps relatively fast. One thing is clear: It does not start with the technology. That is only a tool. Especially technology businesses, which are usually very active in implementing social media, tend to think that the tool alone will do the job.

    What should happen before any implementation?

    The management has to make certain decisions and establish a clear answer to the question “What is our management philosophy and our communication policy?” If you allow the implementation of Web 2.0 elements but at the same time have a very hierarchic and bureaucratic communication policy, it will not work. The strategic questions are: “To what extent are we ready to give up management control on communication processes? To what extent do we trust our knowledge workers to proceed independently?” The e-mail has already started a process which will be reinforced by social media. Taking IBM as an example, we can say that the company does understand itself as an Enterprise 2.0, but at the same time it has issued a clear cut policy for the use of Web 2.0 based tools. You cannot just throw this at the employees and say : “Go ahead, use it”. Employees need to know what they are allowed to do and what they are not.

    Are there other typical mistakes companies should avoid?

    Many companies have not understood the strategic importance of learning. Too many of them are still surfing the traditional wave of education and training, like having a training center and periodically sending their employees to take courses there. Maybe they are doing a part of it online. But to understand learning as a strategic function and include it in all relevant business development processes, that is a real challenge. Even if we are not talking about social media, the most important question for success is: “Is learning an integral part of our strategic focus?” There and then, decisions will be made from a completely different perspective.

    After those preparations, what could the first steps of implementation look like?

    Usually it is a good idea to gather experience in a few selected areas before starting an extensive campaign across the whole organization. Companies have to test what works in their specific environment, and then expand their project after a first pilot.

    Are most of the companies in this pilot phase right now?

    That depends on the individual company, but in fact most of them are in this phase now. It seems that we are on the verge of a new form of knowledge management, and most of the companies are beginning to understand that. Today, it is more important to generate knowledge, make it available and distribute it simultaneously across the organization, than to just randomly gather knowledge that may or may not be useful in the future. This old concept of knowledge management has basically failed. Knowledge data bases have proven not to be the best tool for a quick consolidation of new incoming knowledge, which had already become obsolete when the information was finally codified. Now, companies realize that knowledge is a dynamic factor and that it grows and develops very fast in the minds of their employees. If you find a technology that can translate knowledge practically at the same speed it is generated, it will be a great advantage. That is where social media come into the picture. Companies wonder how to build internal communities: the new trend is personal learning networks. The original learning management systems have evolved and offer an increasingly personalized learning environment. That’s where the networking aspect of social media fits in.

    You have repeatedly stressed the importance of knowledge management. That could create the impression that learning as such is not the primary focus here.

    In daily practice, employees learn between 70 and 80 percent of what they need for their work, directly “on the job”. That means they learn while they work. To acquire the rest of the knowledge, formal learning processes are still necessary, and that will probably be true in the near future as well. Formal learning may shift a little more towards e-learning, but for certain processes such as the introduction of a new sales procedure or new management principles, formal learning will always be necessary. To me, knowledge management nearly equals informal learning. Only that it becomes more deliberate and with technological support we can exchange experiences more easily in communities of interest.

    During the past years, experts have declared the breakthrough and coming, first of e-learning, then of social media. What makes you think that it will really happen now?

    You are right, there have been a lot of euphoric prognoses, while the real process has advanced rather slowly. Sometimes “leading edge” also means “bleeding edge”: those who adopt processes at a very early stage, when they are not yet mature, may pay a high price for it. There were huge projects and learning programs that proposed purely electronic knowledge transfer, and quite a few of them failed. But today, technology has reached a new standard: the benefits quickly become visible. Companies can much better make use of their employees’ potential. Moreover, companies will have difficulties to attract a new generation of qualified employees if they don’t develop towards Enterprise 2.0.

    What does that mean for Human Resource Managers?

    What we want to achieve with the new congress “Professional Learning Europe”, among other things, is a wake-up-call in their direction – it is now extremely important that the HR departments take on their strategic role and take these developments seriously. If HR managers do not pick up the impulse and act, other functions in the company will take over that role.

    Interview: Stefanie Hornung

    - published by courtesy of spring Messe Management GmbH & Co. KG -


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