Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Creating a culture for peer-production and community?

I was talking with some good people from Yahoo last week, and the subject turned to their wildly successful Yahoo! Answers. I don't recall exactly how the conversation turned to the failed Google Answers, but I was not surprised when one of them said, "Of course they failed. They paid people to do it!" I thought immediately, "Ahhhh, here's a person who has read Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks." Where there are lots of ways to kill the conditions necessary to drive peer production, devaluing it by making it a paid endeavor is one of the fastest paths to ruin. The smart people at Yahoo apparently understood this. Google, et al are still trying to figure it out.

Which brings me to this Jon Husband interview with Dave Snowden... The Impact of Web 2.0 on Knowledge Work and "Knowledge Management", where Dave makes the following observations:

One of the things I've always argued very strongly is that you shouldn't provide any incentives to knowledge work because, for example, to reward people for contributing to a knowledge management database fails to understand the basic trust implications of the knowledge interaction. If you ask me for something that I need in the context of genuine need, very few people if anybody other than the obdurant is going to refuse to give it to you... but if you ask me to share my knowledge in anticipation of possible need in the future by somebody I don't know, then you're never going to get it. It's the immediacy of the context that matters.

Two consequences of this. One is if you give people incentive or money for posting knowledge to a system, the people who are very good at achieving targets will find material to post to the system so they can earn the rewards. The people that are actually getting on with creating knowledge will get totally pissed off by the process...

Now the solution to that historically has been to, it's an awful phrase, I get asked it all the time at conferences, how do you create a knowledge sharing culture? To which my general answer these days, as I'm getting old and cynical and impatient, is that if you ask that question, then you're doing the wrong thing in the first place, so lets get back to basics. You can't create a knowledge sharing culture, but you can increase the interaction between people. You can increase their interdependency, and you can increase the immediacy of the knowledge management request...

Knowledge work becomes the way that we do things around here. it's not something that is subject to corporate objectives or focus or to formal roles. In fact I think the day of the knowledge management department is more or less over and will die before too much longer. It's kind of like just the way we do things.

I was definitely thinking about Dave's interview when I made my comments over the weekend about creating the paid role of "community manager". It's very much the same dynamic with being participating members of communities, and creating the conditions necessary for knowledge sharing. Once you make it someone's job you give permission to everyone else to stop paying attention or to otherwise opt out. When you reduce something that people should be driven to do for intrinsic reasons, and totally disrespect it by treating it as something that you can just buy, you kill the conditions necessary to achieve success.

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