BLOG: Self-Organized Knowledge Sharing on ESM

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On Friday the 16th of March, we organized a seminar on ESM (enterprise social media). People both from practice and from research engaged in various discussions about the complexities around using ESM in organizations.


Self-Organized Knowledge Sharing on ESM


ESM have been around for quite some years now, and organizations still struggle with understanding how, when, and why these technologies may actually enhance knowledge sharing. More recent empirical research allows us to draw some interesting conclusions and during the seminar on March 16th, we talked about some of these insights. By drawing on a variety of studies conducted at different organizations, we covered different elements that may facilitate or frustrate knowledge sharing when implementing and using enterprise social media.


Four Conditions & Tension for Knowledge Sharing on ESM


In the first part, Bart van den Hooff – Professor at KIN – talked about the tensions when introducing ESM. By drawing from six in-depth case studies of ESM introduction and use at a variety of organization, he focuses on four core differences between a top-down introduction versus a bottom-up introduction. A top down introduction of ESM focuses on knowledge integration as a management goal, while a bottom-up introduction focuses on knowledge sharing as an emergent (people-driven) process.


Nature of knowledge: From a top down perspective, ESM should be used to cross boundaries within the organization and create organizational knowledge. From a bottom-up perspective, ESM are used to exchange practice-based experiences, the tool provides environment for sharing practices and jointly creating, sharing and applying knowledge.


Motivation for participation: In a top-down introduction it is difficult to establish content that keeps the attention from participants (after initial use). There needs to be a certain continuous critical mass of relevant content but the tension here is that this critical mass only works if the connections and content are relevant to the work of the users. When the content created and posted is too broad, then the relevance declines, and thereby also the motivation to participate. On the other hand, when ESM becomes used through a bottom-up approach, ESM are used by practitioners who want (and need) help and input from their colleagues in improving practice. The content and connections are “produced” by the people themselves and hence they will keep this motivation to participate: it helps them do their work.


Technology: While ESM may have different designs and specific features, the “affordances” (action possibilities) remain the same across different tools. However, the way in which these affordances come to life in practice depends on the context in which the technology is used. On ESM you can see everybody’s contributions. On the one hand this may help find relevant content and facilitate discussions. On the other hand people will engage in strategic behavior since they know that their every move is being watched (and stored).

In a top-down environment, ESM are more likely to be perceived as management tool: people should use the technology to for example show their work, be efficient, and thereby develop strategic ways of using the technology. For example by only sharing posts to make sure they are being noticed, or by refraining from using the technology at all.

In a bottom-up environment, ESM are more likely to be used in ways that benefit work and innovation: people use the technology to share experiences and help each other with practice-related complexities.


Implementation: ESM can be implemented completely from the top down. Research shows that such initiatives face a variety of challenges since it is difficult to force people to use new technologies when they have already established ways of working. On the other hand, a completely bottom-up introduction of ESM may result in a chaos of different and overlapping communities. There probably is a middle ground where bottom-up and top-down approaches may complement each other.


What these four elements show is that the ways in which ESM may or may not become used in practice depends on complex mix of both bottom-up and top-down approaches. Managerial intervention generally frustrates knowledge sharing, but complete freedom seems to create complexity in certain contexts.


Three Myths about ESM in Practice

Commonly, managers hope that ESM may facilitate communication, increase efficiency, spur innovation, and generally make their employees work better. However, these technologies are often introduced from the standpoint that these ESM are indeed precisely what people want. Jeff Treem – Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Austin – has conducted years of research on the topic of ESM and organizational communication, and has published various top-tier papers. He explains that there are three interesting myths that surround the introduction of ESM in organizations.


Myth 1: Professionals want flexible, versatile communication platforms.

ESM provide many different types of functionalities that let people collaborate, share document, communicate publicly and privately, et cetera. The idea is that ESM are the overall technology that allows people to do everything.

In reality however, professionals tend to use communication platforms for specific, and singular, forms of communication. So people use email for one-on-one messages in for example more formal context, and want to use cloud services for other means. Putting all different features together is not necessarily what people want.


Myth 2: Professionals want platforms that are similar to the public-facing tools they already use.

ESM are often introduced with the emphasis on the social side of these technologies. For example, some ESM allow people to connect with their regular social media platforms. So if you post something on your personal Facebook or LinkedIn it can also appear on your work related ESM. In practice however, professionals generally do not want to use organizational platforms in similar ways to personal platforms. They have a clear distinction between the ways you’re ought to use Facebook versus using the company ESM.


Myth 3: Professionals want platforms that allow them to visibly share knowledge and information.

Many organizations have the ideal hopes that everybody wants to share everything with anybody. While this would potentially facilitate knowledge sharing across large amounts of people, in practice people are not that eager to do so. Professionals want the ability to manage and control the visibility of their content; when the choice is high visibility or no visibility, many people will opt for no visibility. As briefly explained earlier: On ESM you can see everybody’s contributions. On the one hand this may help find relevant content and facilitate discussions. On the other hand people will engage in strategic behavior since they know that their every move is being watched (and stored).


Putting these three myths together, dr. Treem explains that we have three directions for future the implementation and use of ESM: (1) only looking at active participation is problematic as it doesn’t show us the real use of the technology, (2) the features of the technology do not explain the use in practice, we need to understand the context and intentions of users, (3) it becomes problematic when we frame ESM as both a formal platform to support task processes and an informal platform for knowledge sharing.


ESM as Organizational Innovation


In the last talk, Han Gerrits – Professor at KIN, and Partner at KPMG – explained how ESM can also be a strong source for organizational innovation. His talk was focused on the complexities that accompany a successful implementation of ESM, when organizations want to gather ideas and spur innovation. In other words, how to use ESM for crowdsourcing innovation?


ESM is not like IT: Having people contribute to ESM is not merely a technological challenge. Though the systems must ‘work’, of course, it requires a different way of thinking and also requires that managers are genuinely interested in the ideas that may emerge anywhere in the organization.


Combination of top-down and bottom-up:  Some organizations and managers think that the implementation of ESM and the success of such initiatives can be engineered completely. What seems to be deliver much better results however, is top-down managerial support combined with a genuine bottom-up interest and engagement. When people feel forced, these initiatives are likely to fail. On the other hand, when people want to contribute to the organization and feel that their contributions make a difference, these initiatives are much more likely to succeed, also in the long run.


Moderators & Focused Discussions: The previous talks have showed that managerial intervention is very complex and often frustrates the use of ESM. What does help however, is the use of moderators that help, support, and encourage people to elaborate their ideas or move diverging discussions elsewhere. This of course requires a delicate balance between too little and too much steering.


Large communications effort: prof. dr. Gerrits emphasized repeatedly that successful implementation of ESM for crowdsourcing does require a large communication effort from the organization. The initiative might face unnecessary problems when too little support is given from the organization. People should have the idea that they can contribute to the larger good of the organization, and that their ideas are truly heard and taken seriously.



ESM – Part of the Future of Work


The presentations showed that ESM are not a magic bullet: they will not automatically “work”, and people will not blindly accept them into their existing ways of working. We at the KIN Center for Digital Innovation therefore always use our embedded and engaged research to see how technologies such as ESM are used in practice throughout the years. New digital technologies such as ESM are very likely to be part of how work gets done in the coming years. Hence, it seems very fruitful for both organizations and researchers to engage in longitudinal approaches to understand how ESM (or newer technologies) affect how work is done.