Empowering your people to take responsibility and make decisions in a blame free environment is vital to your company's ability to pivot to being customer-centric and focus on constantly delivering new value.

Knowledge must flow freely in an organisation to get the best value from people. If the Corporate Memory is how Exec management wants key information to be captured, then Social Knowledge Management is how your workforce share information as peers.

Let's be social

Social media has become part of the fabric of society. Not only does let individuals communicate with friends and family, it let's them engage directly with companies selling a product or service that they might be interested in, and the ecosystem that surrounds that interaction.

For individuals, particularly the millennials, who have known little else, this is a perfectly natural way to ask questions, gather opinion and engage directly with fellow consumers, influencers and brands. People tend to adopt the opinions or actions of people they trust. Social proof is a basic human reflex to adapt behaviour to fit in with others. It is evidenced in celebrity endorsement, an expert's stamp of approval, online reviews which increase confidence, brand value which increases trust, or FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) when 'everyone else' is doing it.

Irrespective of the nature of the validation, the outcome is that people are now far more engaged in the purchase process before the sale is made.

Social sharing of information is a powerful way for people to voice their opinions, and for companies to join in the conversation and engage with potential consumers.  

This change in style from a hierarchical and broadcast past to a peer-based meritocratic present has brought a major shift in how consumers perceive brands, and in what they decide to buy and on what basis they will buy. Brands like Go-Pro, Nike, Starbucks, Burberry, Wayfair & Pop Tarts have all embraced social media to engage with, and influence, their audience.

What is social knowledge management?

In so far as organisations which have embraced knowledge management to date - and many haven't had that benefit - it usually involves a company deciding what its employees need to know, and then giving them access to information or documents according to perceived relevance and to their authority to view such information. Knowledge spreads only through predetermined channels, or becomes a rumour shared at the water fountain. It also results in middle-management being almost overwhelmed in passing on information and feeding back comments, and fielding questions.

Social knowledge management, however is concerned with the information that the employees want to consume, share and record. It allows the recipient to decide if the information is relevant or of value to themselves, or to the service that the company is providing to its clients.

Knowledge must freely flow across the organisation and knowledge management must be about how an individual judges what is important from the information which is shared and validated by peers.  

Engagement rather than control

Many traditional companies have a hierarchical 'command and control' structure to govern how they interact with their staff, and many expect to sell to customers who happily and patiently wait for the next price, feature, service or quality manipulation.

The corporate knowledge necessary to facilitate this approach was often shared on a need to know basis because sharing information across the organisation doesn't sit easily with many of those at the top of the hierarchy who see knowledge as power.

It's much more productive to have an open, trusting and inspiring culture where knowledge is shared freely, and put to use by those who see value in it.

Why do traditional companies' leaders fear sharing knowledge?

Three main reasons:

1. Loss of control. First up is concern that if the staff or the customers decide what is important or relevant then the management's hierarchical control over who knows what is eroded.

2. Message dilution. Next on the list of worries is concern that freedom of conversation between staff, consumers and anyone else with an interest in the company could lead to opinions being formed that don't necessarily sit well or align with the brand image that its leaders want.

3. Unstructured data. With no predefined taxonomy, and no defined management, socially gained knowledge is perceived as an unstructured mess. With no approved procedures to control or predict what happens, and no way of throttling back the flow, it makes many managers uneasy.

People will talk about your products, your brand, your company - whether you like it or not.

The word at large has been comparing notes since time began. As opinions are shared more easily and openly, then it becomes more important than ever to engage with those around you, and to do so transparently, honestly.

Engagement builds knowledge

Value from feedback.  When you listen to what employees, partners, customers, suppliers have to say, you'll learn what people truly think about your company and its offering. This can be put to good use in decision making on many levels, including the products you offer, the service you provide and the depth of engagement with the different stakeholders in your eco-system.

Feedback drives creativity and solutions. Engagement across these many different stakeholders builds communities, and brings a many-fold increase to the number of minds actively considering what your company and brand is, and ideas for what it could be. This type of collaboration is gold-dust, creating engineers and advocates well beyond those on your payroll.

Bond with customers.  It's human nature to want to be included and to have our opinions respected. Millennials share opinions and interact online daily. Your employees and your customers are by nature extremely social, and what works for them as individuals also work for them as staff or as consumers. By including both sets of people in the company's social knowledge sharing, reach is increased and bonds strengthened, with a likely positive increase in sales.

Engaged fans. The majority of millennial social media users share opinions and photos about a product or service before they make the purchase decision, and then again after purchase. Each millennial your company engages with is likely to tell hundreds of others of their experience. The cost to acquire this kind of reach from scratch doesn't compare, so the effort you put into engaging fans of the company or brand will be amplified significantly.

Staff empowerment. Sharing knowledge socially allows your teams to search for and find the information they need for their daily work, and can immediately ask for help in finding what they don't know. The ability to be master of their work is a great motivator.

Product insight. In a Product-led organisation, the self-organising cross-functional teams build tacit and experiential knowledge about the products and services that they create and run. Whilst much knowledge remains with an individual, those same individuals will capture what they know as a collective asset.

Easy access to information builds knowledge

Just adding a social element to an existing knowledge management solution is unlikely to work. The in-built desire to control knowledge dissemination will prevent wide availability, and may just add cost and complexity. Employees must be able to find the information that they are looking for, to increase their productivity and engagement. Any tool used must be easy to use and allow and encourage information to flow freely through the organisation and beyond. Tools such as Sharepoint reflect the hierarchy of the organisation, and don't provide a transparent and easy path to the information sought. Tools such as Teams can democratise knowledge sharing.

Knowledge dissemination and awareness of key information declines when tooling is not accessible or is poorly designed.

Become a social business to truly access knowledge

People unite around a cause, a channel of information, a reason. Communities naturally rise based on shared interest, a purpose and a tribal home. Social knowledge management tooling provides a natural home that is easily used by employees and customers alike, who are very comfortable with this method of interaction. The openness invites participation and encourages growth reach and engagement.

All you and your leadership team have to do is to let go of the reins and become a social business. Let staff, customers and everyone else in the value chain interact as they please, and provide tooling for them to do it with. Then benefit from booted engagement and amplified outreach to your customers and increased morale and productivity within your company.

We discuss three different organisational structures in Leadership Tensions, and comment on how you can build a social business structure.

Leadership Tensions
Most workers today would agree that org charts cannot even remotely describe the reality of working life. Hierarchy works for setting up corporate contracts and paying taxes. Over-emphasis on formal structures reduces effectiveness and inhibits innovation. There are alternate structures.


Capturing the corporate memory is vital to understand why things are what they are.  If Social Knowledge Management is how your workforce share information as peers, then Corporate Memory is how Exec management needs key information to be captured.

Corporate Memory
There are many sources of knowledge across the business. The challenge is harnessing this knowledge in a coherent and productive way. The way a business gathers, shares and exploits its knowledge can be central to its ability to develop successfully and to continue trading.