Social Networking Helps R&D Collaboration?

20 Jul 2010 Sandeep Mehta

The article Frontiers of Collaboration: The Evolution of Social Networking in Knowledge@Wharton discusses how social networking (Wiki, Blogs, tweets, etc.) is replacing Knowledge Management and improving communication at the same time

Weinberger began the session by asking panelists what made the introduction of social networking tools different from previous technological endeavors to improve communication and collaboration. One significant issue discussed was how social networking compared with knowledge management (KM). KM systems first appeared on the scene about 20 years ago and once represented the frontier, embodying companies’ most innovative ideas for integrating internal access to disparate information in order to improve communication, collaboration and business processes.

before social networking tools enabled quick and casual communication, many bloggers in corporate organizations had “some KM tool where you captured the knowledge in the tool’s silo and assigned all sorts of tags, folders and so on to it. You would then pass the blog to your manager for him or her to [learn from] what you were writing.

Social networking is easing some of the frustration users in many organizations have encountered with traditional KM systems. Through use of Twitter and other tools, more of the intellectual capital that KM systems once guarded is flowing freely, in real time, inside and outside organizations. If an employee needs to find expertise or share information, he or she doesn’t have to work within the rigid confines of a KM system, or even the confines of his or her organization. Instead, the employee can use social media to collaborate with others and to find answers more quickly and put relevant advice into practice.

Clearly, social networking can add value to R&D community.  However, I am not sure if I would agree with this as whole heartedly as the authors / speakers about replacing KM.

One problem with social networking is the volume of information that can become available and time/effort needed to find the right information.  Consider if all employees in a 10,000 person R&D house started tweeting what they were doing – the signal to noise ratio would be terrible.  Add to this personal tweets and the entire system would become unmanageable.  Furthermore, how does one control the flow of information and ensure that proprietary information is not accidentally leaked?  The panelist thought that all that the risks outweigh benefits –  I am not sure I agree:

Fitton, whose consulting firm focuses on helping companies to use micro-blogging in a business environment, suggested that companies may find the “messy and random serendipity” of Twitter and other social networks to be more efficient than lumbering KM systems and processes. “It brings an infusion of humanity to business,”

There might be value to social networking in building R&D communities and helping virtual teams collaborate effectively, but the idea that real R&D knowledge can be shared effectively through micro-blogging sounds a bit simplistic.  R&D teams do not just need access to knowledge, they need access to the right type of knowledge at the right time.  If one is designing a new cell phone and has a question about what impact human body will have on reception, it does not help to go search through blogs, nor does one have time to do mass mailing / tweets to request help, weed out the responses and find the right person.

Underlying assumption for social networking in R&D world is that someone has the right information available at their finger-tips and are willing and able to stop what they are doing to provide that information back.  How likely is that going to be?  Not to mention the constraints that social networking tools like tweeter add to communication… Unlike the speaker, I am not sure that constraint is actually valuable:

But does the 140-character limit for posts to Twitter enable engagement, or is it “a sign of triviality?” asked Weinberger. “Constraints breed invention,” replied Shellen. Douglas added that communities using Twitter, Google Wave and other tools are creating their own etiquette. Panelists agreed that both the creation of etiquette for particular conversations and the sheer ability to engage in several discussions at once would be difficult using blogs and older forms of web content sharing programs.

There are more problems with sharing:

Lippe noted that, in the legal field, “there’s already a structure of knowledge, and most knowledge repositories and structures of the collaborative web have existed for multiple generations. So, the question is, how do you tap into them?” One core structure is attorney-client privilege, which Lippe said “has long preceded the information confidentiality and security regime that we all have now. It creates the structure of what you can and cannot share.” In the legal universe, he added, the messy serendipity of “horizontal” social networking cannot solve the hardest problems.

Just to be clear, I do not think that social networking does not have value.  If used properly, it can help companies build focused virtual R&D communities across geographical and cultural boundaries.  However, R&D managers will need to do a lot of work structuring and managing the flow of information so it be value-added.  Furthermore, objectives of social networking should be crafted very carefully and monitored consistently to ensure that it is indeed delivering results.

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