Turning Noise into Knowledge

The meteoric rise of Slack over the past few years has re-energised the digital workplace field, and now with Microsoft Teams starting to become widely adopted in more traditional enterprises, new opportunities are opening up around this class of tools.

Most interesting to me, currently, is the emerging opportunity for turning ephemeral chat into more permanent actionable knowledge that can be communicated and shared to wider groups.

In our work, we often advise companies that they should think about three levels of intimacy and scale for collaboration tools: the small team (10-20), the department (100-1000) and the firm (1000’s). Large group companies sometimes have a fourth level that can reach hundreds of thousands of people, but at that level of scale, connecting people is more about communication and less about collaboration. We also advise them to provide tools to support three speeds of collaboration: synchronous (e.g. Slack, Teams), semi-synchronous (wikis, enterprise social networks, etc) and asynchronous (social intranets, document repositories, etc).

In its simplest form, this often maps to three key value propositions:

  • Real-time collaboration among small teams. Slack and MS Teams are the leaders here, but new entrants like Atlassian’s Stride are also worthy of note.
  • Department-level coordination of project spaces, communities and networks. Enterprise social networks (ESNs) such as Jive, IBM Connections and, arguably, Yammer are the incumbents here, but Facebook Workplace is a fast-growing challenger.
  • Firm-wide sharing and signalling to enable cross-fertilisation and allow employees to know what is going on elsewhere. Social intranets and communication platforms are often used in this way, but enterprise social networks can also perform this role.

We have been working on trying to humanise and connect organisations using social tools since the beginning of the enterprise social computing field in the early 2000’s. Progress has been slower than we hoped in the early days, and it is humbling to acknowledge that most organisations continue to use the stone age tools of Word/Powerpoint + email to communicate and collaborate, sometimes even if they have an ESN or similar platform in place. Bad habits are hard to break, especially when leaders don’t set the right example.

In the early days, we had high hopes for the idea of a personal activity stream to replace the inbox, and tools such as Socialcast and Tibbr had some success in achieving that, but progress in this area was inhibited by Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer, which became dominant, but without continuing to innovate. This is the space that Slack would later jump into with great success.

At the level of the ESN, progress has been frustratingly slow, and the biggest failure of this category is that the main platforms became places for conversation, but not really where day-to-day work happens for the majority of people. Part of the reason for this is the slow pace of integrations (once again, Slack has really demonstrated what a powerful concept that can be), but also because of the continuing addiction to packaging up knowledge in the opaque and clumsy format of documents and slide decks.

At the level of the social intranet, however, in many ways a less glamorous category, several platforms have been quietly working away to achieve impressive levels of adoption.

Looking at this picture from above, most of the action currently seems to be on the left-hand side, where real-time tools are full of chatter and activity, whilst the right-hand side of high-scale / low-intimacy connective platforms continues its slow but steady growth. But the middle is perhaps where the most interesting new opportunities exist today.

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Two immediate gaps come to mind, but I am sure there are many more.

First, as places where work gets done and teams collaborate, the real-time tools are throwing off a ton of unstructured content that, if captured and summarised, could be extremely useful in creating better ambient awareness at the next level up, in the middle of the picture. At its simplest, this might mean departmental dashboards of team activity, themes, keywords and active projects, but there are many more interesting things that could be done with AI or cognitive computing methods.

Second, among this tsunami of unstructured content is a lot of potentially actionable knowledge and learning that could and should be shared for the benefit of others, but also which needs to be pulled out of the stream and given more permanence before it disappears from view. This is a knowledge curation challenge of the type we often discussed from the 1990’s onwards – as is so often the case, we often understand the opportunity long before we reach the critical mass of usage to make it viable. For example, just as Storify allowed people to make stories from tweets about popular events, perhaps teams could use something similar to capture the story of a project, decisions that were made, challenges overcome, etc.

Could it be that the need for social knowledge production and sharing will finally become a priority issue for traditional organisations? It would certainly be nice to think all those quaint, nerdy KM conferences we used to attend were not entirely a waste of time.

Some tools are already taking this approach in the Slack ecosystem, starting with an integration and developing from there, such as Guru, Tettra and Papyrs, who each provide a wiki-like repository that is tightly integrated with Slack. But whilst we are wiki-for-life obsessives, we also know how hard it can be to popularise this way of working inside traditional firms. People are lazy, it turns out.

Coming at this from another angle are platforms like Elium, who have remained focused on knowledge curation and concrete use cases such as market intelligence, innovation and research since their early days as Knowledge Plaza. Whilst the platform has added collaboration, social networking and sharing features over the years, what they do best is provide a great experience for knowledge curation. I had the chance to spend some time with their team in Belgium recently, as part of a small project we are doing for them, and it really opened my eyes to the value their clients place on well-curated and effectively-communicated knowledge within their organisations.

Their new release doubles down on this value proposition with a super-simple unified content format for stories combined with fine-grained faceted search and targeted sharing features. If they continue to improve their integrations with tools like Slack and (perhaps more importantly in the enterprise) Microsoft Teams and Office 365, then there is certainly a space – and a need – for a knowledge curation platform such as Elium somewhere between the ephemera of unstructured micro-content and the rolling plains of the company-wide ESN or social intranet.

Turning content into knowledge, and conversation into learning, becomes more important as online engagement in the digital workplace increases. I have previously described how the digital workplace needs learning communities to help employees overcome learned helplessness towards technology at work, but existing ESNs do not make it easy to find, collate and curate engaging content that can be shared and discussed in such communities. This is part of the gap that I think a dedicated knowledge platform like Elium, or other players such as Guru, Bloomfire, etc., can fill.

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that social platforms have negated the need for dedicated knowledge sharing tools, but not all knowledge is emergent; we still need people to lead the process of sense making, curation and communication, and they need better tools that can create knowledge from noise. With the exponential growth of Slack and Teams, this is looking like a more important use case than ever before.


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