Blogging in a KM class - summary

For those that have been following my blog for at least three months, you'll know that I've had my students reading blogs and keeping their own.  The class and the blogging experiment just finished, and they had a final paper in which they summarized their experiences and answered some final questions I had for them.

The first question had them reflect over the quarter and consider whether their opinion of blogging had changed.  The second question asked whether they thought blogs could be a useful KM tool.  The third asked what they thought was the unique power of blogging.  The fourth question asked them to come up with circumstances where blogging would be useful (or not) in a specific organization of their choice - to think about limitations that could be removed through blogging.  And the final question asked them to consider the rules that would need to change within their chosen organization.  (The last three should sound familiar to the TOC / Haystack aficionados.)  For the truly curious, you can have a look at their abstracts on their blogs via the blogroll here.  The remainder of this entry will cover my reactions to their responses to each of these.

Has the experience changed their opinion (of the value of blogging)?

Most of the students leaned toward "yes," but there were a number whose opinion didn't change or who qualified the change by talking about how their views became more nuanced around how blogs could be used.  I was gratified that a number of people saw the experience as showing how communities could develop through the connections over time that blogging provides.  I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise, since we talked about communities throughout the quarter too.  Yet, this aspect of making connections through blogs is something that is difficult to describe in a generic description of blogs and their benefits.  It is the experience of it that makes this shine through.  And I think this aspect of blogs is reflected in the list of "powers of blogging" below.

I also note that several students plan to continue blogging at some level.  One person is thinking about starting a poker-playing guide, and another is starting a business that caters to a very local clientele and both are considering blogs as a communications / community mechanism. 

Could blogs be a useful KM tool?

Most people responded in the affirmative to this question.  I suppose this should not be a surprise, given that this was a course on knowledge management, and we covered the topic from several angles.  A few people responded along the lines that blogs are just another technology.  To make it "KM," blogs need to be implemented as a part of a larger system where "knowledge" is a primary component.  One person suggested that the inherent disorder of blogs could be a detriment to considering them a part of a KM strategy.

A few people added the idea that blogging helps create or develop a sense of community, which was one of our other topics throughout the quarter.  I find this a particularly interesting aspect of blogs-as-KM, since the connections are nearly impossible to create a priori.  It is through the process of writing and reading that a community appears.

What is the unique power of blogging. 

We had discussed this in class and two students blogged the list we wrote on the white board: kilouie and mikek.  I'll tabulate their responses below and add the additional thoughts people had after our classroom discussion.

Access to other peoples’ thoughts and resources 7
Form communities - make new connections ("leap frogging" thoughts from one person to the next) 5
Feedback process (together) 4
Information depository 4
Communicate/efficiency of communication 3
Evolving thought process (see it; access to it) 3
Publicity (expertise; digital reputation) 3
Diversity of thought / opinion 2
Easier to share tacit knowledge 2
Learning how to write 2
Real time access to info/reports 2
Anthropology 1
Created connectedness 1
Interpersonal engagement 1
Personal "antennae" get longer in hopes of finding interesting material 1
Personal learning processes 1
Thinking together 1
Save time 0

What limitations does blogging remove (in a selected organization)?

This question was asked in the context of an organization with which the student had familiarity.  They were asked to describe some limitations of the organization in terms of knowledge management and knowledge sharing, and then describe how the powers above might be employed to remove or reduce those limitations.

Knowledge isn't captured in an organization or it is too difficult to use the existing capture mechanisms.  Blogs could be a easy-to-use mechanism for ongoing capture of what is happening on a project or in the business of a person or group.

Information organization is difficult to understand, especially for new teams and new employees.  Blogging could remove the need for so much organization.  Or blogs could provide hints for people as to how information is organized via the tags and categories that people use in their blogs.

Customers don't know what is happening, and a public-facing blog could give people a deeper understanding of what is happening in the company.  One student suggested that a help desk could rotate people on a group blog with posts about latest news and information from the front line view, rather than the "sales" view.

There was some mention of the value of internal blogs as a means of unearthing stories and knowledge that might not arise during after-action-reviews.  More importantly, since people don't know they are going to need to know something until they need it (corollary to "I don't know what I know until I need to know it."), blogs and the reading of them could serve to put more of these stories into the conscious of the organization, so that the distance between "need to know" and "now I know it" is much shorter. 

Many companies do not have a good mechanism to track cause-and-effect history of decisions.  People frequently adjust the way they do things in response to internal or external stimuli, but this isn't normally recorded.  Could a blog be used to record the reasoning and the results, as well as mechanism to check back on the history of some of those projects to see if they are getting better over time?

Remote employees are often disconnected from the activity of the head office.  Blogs could help people feel more connected, whether in remote offices or on geographically distributed teams.  Blogs can help to build understanding of what is happening in the worlds of other members of the group.

New employees and long-term employees don't always have access to one another.  Blogs could provide a mechanism for some long-timers to discuss their stories in a way that is more accessible to new recruits are people new to a given organization.  Similarly, blogs could be used by the new employees to talk about their own lessons and as a mechanism to request assistance of the larger organizational community.  Could this be another way to provide for mentoring opportunities?

Some organizations have no mechanism to access the knowledge and expertise of the internal consultants, other than informal conversations.  Blogs could be a mechanism for this, although the question of why that access is blocked should be addressed as well.  (Are there incentives for knowledge hoarding?  Organizational silos?)

Limited access to information.  In some cases, organizations might not have enough access or the right kind of access to information.  Blogs could provide another mode of access to people and information that isn't traditionally available in expertise locators and content management.  It's another mechanism for collaboration, though individual-focused.

Another view of this "access to information" issue is in the sense of timely access to information.  If used to document what's happening, blogs give access to current, unfiltered thoughts.  A great example might be communication between shifts in a factory or other hourly situation.  This is as opposed to official research reports or formally reviewed scientific research.  The balance, of course, is that quick access also implies the possibility of inaccurate or incomplete information.  The bonus is that the missing info can be updated quickly too.

Blogs could be another channel for communicating with a company's constituency.  This is mostly a public relations viewpoint, but blogs can provide a different external perspective.  Blogs could also provide a different internal view on what is happening.  Imagine seeing a VP's personal perspective on a recent announcement.

Blogs for recruiting.  One student suggested exploring prospective employees' blogs as another means to screen candidates.  Just as easily, companies can blog to attract new employees (as well as general notice). 

Training isn't the most effective means for teaching employees how and what they need to do.  This is particularly important where there is a lot of "unwritten" information in how to do the job.  Blogs could be used to showcase stories or let people talk through their activities and thinking.  One person likened this to the apprenticeship.

What rules that would need to change to make this work (at that organization)?

Most people suggested some form of a blogging guideline and some form of incentive program to make blogging a part of the way things are done within the organization.  The guidelines can vary anywhere from "don't be stupid" to formal policies on what can be discussed and specific issue resolution practices.  Incenting people to participate is always a tricky problem, as the first pass is always something like dollars-for-content.  The result is usually lots of content with unknown value.

While guidelines are a good idea, a few people reminded that too much structure around blogging can just as easily kill off the effort as too little structure.  Telling people exactly what and when to write can't work in development of communities and connectedness.  At the same time, idle blogs are the first sign that things aren't working or that the authors have lost interest.

One aspect of the guidelines has to do with trust.  Whether there are specific guidelines or not, implications of mis-steps must be clear.  If someone makes a mistake on their blog (talking about a "taboo" subject) and they get severely reprimanded, this will be a sure way to kill the effort throughout the company.  It needs to be clear to the organization that mistakes are okay and will be handled fairly.

People mentioned concerns about InfoSec (information security) and the guidelines that need to be established around talking about sensitive or protected business information, even for internal blogs.  In organizations that are heavily siloed or heavily political, this issue comes up again and again.  Blogs create a big shift in the way information gets shared.  Or more accurately, blogs make explicit some of the information sharing that is likely happening on an ad-hoc basis via lunchroom conversations or one-to-one emails.

Another twist on InfoSec is ownership.  Internal blogs are fairly obviously the ownership of the blogger and the company.  But what about blogs kept outside the walls of the company?  This is another area where a blogging code of conduct or guidelines comes into play.

Several people mentioned the value of creating opportunities for face-to-face gatherings.  This was particularly obvious for my class.  Most of the students know each other fairly well, and the blogs enabled them to talk about things with each other in a way that might not have been possible in a community of people that didn't already know one another.  It was also clear that some people enjoy participating in community discussions (comments; trackbacks) much more than others, both on their blogs and in the classroom.  I have always believed that there are some people who are built to write and participate in this way. 

Showing people how to tag and organize their information isn't so much a rule that has to change as additional support that should be provided in a larger roll-out of blogs and social media within an organization.

People gave some thought to how to start a corporate blogging project.  Some said it should start with an executive blogging.  Others suggested looking for lower-level volunteers. 

Help bloggers understand how they are responsible for what they write.  Decide whether comments are allowed and who is responsible for maintaining / editing / rejecting or accepting changes.

Need to be careful about considering blogs as an historical record.  If "historical record" implies immutability of the content, then blogs probably aren't the right place to archive that information.  That can be great sources for perspective on how an individual or team saw the events at the time. 

Next time

Having the students start with reading other blogs is a good idea.  If I were queen of the universe, I would have them start reading a few weeks in advance of class.  And I would give them a list of websites to visit without introducing them to RSS aggregators first, so they could see the value of aggregators more directly.

Pseudonyms are a curious thing.  Everyone in the class knew who their classmates were, but it was still confusing for me to make the mental connections between the pseudonym and the person in class.  I think I would require the students use their real names as their username, and still let them come up with any name they wanted for their blog.  There were a couple students who were extremely concerned about having their real name associated with anything they write online, and I think that colored the opinions of many others.

I wonder if it would be possible to add other social media to the mix in a quarter long project?  Or would this change the focus of the class from knowledge management to use of groovy tools.  I'm thinking of wikis as well as blogs, but I don't quite see how to make a wiki work in this particular setting.

One student had the excellent idea of being more intentional with blogging assignments as extensions of classroom discussions.  This is an area where I might have been too cautious for fear of stifling creativity and experimentation with the blogging medium.  Of course, this is a huge variable when working with a group of people.  Some are going to want structure, and others will push back against the structure.

2 Comment(s)

Matt Moore said:

Very interesting, Jack, thanks for posting this. I know that Anne Bartlett-Bragg @ UTS in Sydney has been using blogs with her students for a few years now.

In terms of introducing students to other tools, getting the class to collaboratively write an overview of the course for the next semester's students using a wiki might be an idea, possibly based on social bookmarking they had done

jackvinson Author Profile Page said:

A number of people have picked up this post and made their own comments. Here are some links, if you want to follow up with other thinking.

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