Archive Monthly Archives: December 2014

Social networks solve the needing-knowing gap in big business


I read a remarkable statistic today. 20% of a knowledge workers week is spent looking for information, according to a McKinsey report. According to their study (the social economy) social media can reduce the time employees spend searching for company information “by as much as 35 percent”. Being a champion of enterprise social networking in big business I am constantly looking to capture the business benefits. Increasing employee productivity could be a great ‘carrot’ to senior leadership who often dismiss social networking as a drain on time, not a saver of it. How plausible is this claim then?

First things first. Some degree of time is undoubtedly wasted in big business looking for information, it would be hard to refute that. Regardless of the exact percentage, anyone with experience in working for large organisations knows the challenge of information gathering across large and often silo’d parts of the organisation. Many companies have mantras along the lines of ‘if only we knew what we knew’ for good reason — the answers to their own questions are usually locked within it!

That knowledge is often locked away in someone’s head, in a deeply buried email thread or tucked away in an obscure file server or intranet page — and the means of seeking out the person who can help or ‘that file which explains x’ is practically a dark art. Employees who have been around longest usually have the best chance of knowing who to speak to or where to go, but as for a new starter it can prove near impossible. And when you take large multinationals with employees who are dotted around the world, in vertical reporting structures, often speaking different languages, what I call the ‘needing-knowing gap’ gets even more problematic.

This isn’t through any lack of good-will or wanting to hold back knowledge. It’s simply the fact the systems in place are not up to the task of facilitating this knowledge exchange. And certainly not at a organisation-wide level. It is often cited there needs to be a ‘culture’ of sharing in place too. This is also true, but I suspect all the right culture in the world will make no difference unless there is the capability (i.e. the platform) to allow this to happen.

When one thinks about the outside world, it’s strikes me that information exchange works incredibly well. Just think about Google. Within seconds of typing a simple ‘how do I…’ question you are confronted with a endless list of useful reference points. Someone has had the exact same question you now have, posted it on a help forum or similar and found the answer. In this case Google directs you to that conversation. ‘Can’t we just have a google for my business’ is one common demand made by business leaders. Well, they have a point!

As things stand, there are various reasons why a Google for business is a complex proposition. Not wanting to completely rule out Google venturing into the internal business search space (Facebook just announced last week it’s plans to launch a ‘Facebook at work’ so anything is possible) — but one significant reason behind Google’s success is the fact there are literally billions of pages being updated simultaneously, each in competition to appear as high up on your search results ranking as possible. Businesses can’t compete with this — they don’t have the time or resource to be updating pages even if a search engine like Google with it’s intelligent algorithms were ‘pointed’ internally.

Fortunately that isn’t necessarily a show stopper. One thing can and does plug this gap: an internal social network. Social networks can be as good a means (if not better) of helping people find information, ask and answer questions.

As to whether 35% of an employee’s time can be saved per week, that is another matter, and presumably some industries would benefit more than others depending on how much information gathering goes on. A considerable amount of time is spent searching for information though. Businesses tackle the needing-knowing gap in a variety of ways, many attempting to catalogue and categorise information in a myriad of different (and often unsuccessful) ways.

Social networks on the other hand are relatively simple, organizationally ‘flat’ environments and can very simply provide a solution for the needing-knowing gap. The key ingredient is of course that which most businesses have an abundance of = People. And the great thing about People is they tend to like helping each other.

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