Knowledge Creation and Social Collaboration in the Digital Workplace

“The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people.  The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.” – Andrew Carnegie, 1919

The creation of a digital workplace, through the introduction of state-of-the-art ICT technology and new ways of working (NWOW), puts a clear focus on streamlining in-company communication, improving organizational performance, and increasing the overall satisfaction of employees.

In today’s business environment, remote working and collaboration are considered keys to success for organizations of all size. Particularly in enterprises that employ many knowledge workers, introduction of new technology may lead to higher productivity and to a positive change in the company culture.

In 2010, Alcatel-Lucent launched Engage, a social collaboration platform that has become a cornerstone of the company’s global Digital Workplace. With over 70,000 users and more than 4,000 formal and informal communities, Engage facilitates worldwide employee communication and collaboration.

Riding the Knowledge Spiral

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) already described two kinds of knowledge: “a subject we know ourselves, or one we know where we can find information upon.” This premise that there are two types of knowledge is also one of the fundamentals of Japanese professor Ikujiro Nonaka’s knowledge spiral [1].

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Explicit knowledge is the objective, factual and rational knowledge that can be expressed in words, numbers and formulas – and, consequently, that can be easily stored in and retrieved from databases and traditional content management systems (CMS).

But in each organization there is also a massive amount of so called tacit knowledge, the subjective and experience based (and often also context-based) knowledge that is stored in people’s minds and memory. Tacit knowledge may also include mental models, cognitive skills and technical skills, such as know-how and how-to.

Information can be converted into knowledge, and each type of knowledge can be converted into the other one: tacit knowledge can be made explicit (externalized), and explicit knowledge may be absorbed (internalized) into new tacit knowledge. Nonaka models these handovers into a spiral, as they fuel a continuous learning process within a company or an organization.

Communities Come To The Rescue

Knowledge is an extremely valuable asset for any company, and needs to be cultivated and re-used rather than just collected and stored.  Companies need to consider “knowledge work” as part of their employees’ normal activities –rather than capturing knowledge through a separate organization– and create community structures to create, raise and nurture the knowledge spiral.

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Within an enterprise environment, communities can be defined as networks of individuals with common problems or interests that ‘get together’ (either physically or virtually) and collaborate to identify common solutions, explore new ways of working, and share good practices and ideas. Rather than bringing knowledge into an organization (that’s what training is for), communities help to grow (cross-organizational) knowledge that can be applied in day-to-day business.

Communities may be formal (also called Communities of Practice or COPs) or informal (often referred to as Communities of Interest of COIs). Formal communities mainly deal with explicit knowledge and often align with organizations, projects or activities. They are a means to bring domain specialists with different skills together, e.g. engineers and marketers dealing with the same product portfolio.

Informal communities host individuals that share a common interest or passion – which may be either work-related or non-work-related. COI members typically belong to different parts of the organization, may know little about each other, and have no other common interests outside of this area. Work-related COIs may e.g. be looking for disruptive innovation ideas, while other groups may deal with more casual topics like language learning or photography.

Both COPs and COIs are instrumental to activating and fueling Nonaka’s spiral. Formal communities are mainly contributing to adoption and application of explicit knowledge, while informal communities socialize and externalize tacit knowledge.

The Benefits Of (Social) Collaboration

With an unprecedented digital data storm raging through the business world, knowledge workers may spend up to 30% of their working day looking for people and relevant information to do their job. A waste of precious time and human resources that can be dramatically reduced by providing employees with appropriate structures, practices and ICT technology —putting mobility, collaboration and knowledge sharing on the foreplan.

When an organization has a clear purpose, collaborative tools can help incubate and develop healthy, knowledge-sharing communities. This makes investing in applications like videoconferencing and social collaboration platforms worthwhile. According to research by Alcatel-Lucent, almost 70% of high-performing companies equip employees with innovative tools, services, or capabilities.  And with an ever-growing mobile workforce, the challenges in creating collaborative environments will only intensify [2].

With the exponential growth of consumer social networks like Facebook and Twitter, social technologies are making their entry into the enterprise environment too, as they unleash new models for in-company communication and collaboration.

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A recent survey by Avanade [3] revealed that the majority of large companies are still leveraging consumer-driven social networking technologies. Many decision-makers, however, plan to adopt true enterprise social collaboration tools like Yammer, Jive, SharePoint or Salesforce Chatter in the near future.

Social technologies promise to unlock value in major sectors of the economy and across a range of functional areas. Particularly in those companies that are heavily relying on knowledge. Most commonly cited measurable results of social collaboration are speed to access knowledge and experts, and reduction of communication and travel costs [4] . More qualitative benefits can be found in the domain of HRM (employee retention, empowerment, and engagement) and business culture (information sharing, better communication, and cross-organization collaboration).

A 2012 McKinsey study reveals that social technologies could actually raise productivity of knowledge workers by 20% to 25% [5], and a Kellogg School of Management case study reports on a company that has improved its employees ability to find information by 31%, and to find people who knew the person with information by 71% [6].

Alcatel-Lucent In-House Experience

In 2009, Alcatel-Lucent –in the middle of its global transformation program after the 2006 merger of Alcatel and Lucent– ran a project named “Reconnect People” [7]. The objective of this initiative, in which both HR and IT departments played a role, was to collect requirements for a new way of working (supported by appropriate IT tools) to:

  • Help the company move from a “product culture” to a “service culture”;
  • Better deal with the complexity of a global distributed organization;
  • Get access to knowledge and content that is locally stored at different locations.

An employee survey pointed out that workers considered communities as a powerful means to support them in their daily business, and that dedicated collaboration tools could help them to manage knowledge, locate experts, foster cross-company collaboration, limit the number of meetings and conference calls, and reduce the use of e-mail. It has to be noted however that only a mere fraction of respondents thought that those objectives could be reached with the company’s current ICT tools. Qualitative interviews with a number of stakeholders throughout the organization finally led to a set of functional requirements as listed in below.

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A thorough analysis of tools that were already used in-house (SharePoint, DocuShare, Joomla, proprietary developments), of platforms used by other companies running similar programs (Schlumberger, IBM, CapGemini, …) and of commercially available solutions (SamePage, Yammer, …)  finally led to the selection of Jive Social Business Software (SBS) as the platform to host Alcatel-Lucent’s social collaboration environment – baptized “Engage”, and taglined “connect, collaborate, contribute”.

Towards the end of 2009, an internal trial was set-up, and Engage was beta-launched globally on April 6th, 2010. Although this beta-launch was targeting a very small audience —only about a hundred people were invited by an email to join the community— Engage’s internal popularity spread very fast, and by the time of the platform’s “official” launch in June, it had already 12,000 registered members on board!

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Up till today, the popularity of the platform has continued to grow, and over 95% of Alcatel-Lucent employees have a profile on Engage now. Engage facilitates employee communication and collaboration through more than 4,000 formal and informal communities. Usage beats the “90-9-1” rule (that is often cited in consumer social media), with 38% active users, of which 29% participate to community discussions and 8% contribute with content.  These figures are even more impressive when activity is analyzed on a daily basis: 252 new content items, 4,497 searches, 16,746 views and 49,143 notifications sent to (subscribed) users per day in April 2013.

And, even more important, the roll out of Engage has also fulfilled the 2009 “Reconnect People” requirements: in a survey conducted one year after launch, 71% of Alcatel-Lucent employees said the new tool made them aware of what was going on in other parts of business, more than half of them found it easier to find information and expertise, and two-third used the tool to reach out, ask, share, advertize, …

Towards The Digital Workplace

In the mean time, Engage has become a cornerstone of Alcatel-Lucent employee collaboration, a proof point of the evolving company culture, and a scholarly example of Enterprise 2.0 adoption.

Still this is no endpoint. Engage is an important step towards –as well an essential component of– the company’s Digital Workplace, in which traditional managed intranet, enterprise Document Management Systems and Wikis, and the new social platform will co-exist and work together [9], [10], [11].

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As such, the introduction of social collaboration through Engage and the creation of Alcatel-Lucent’s Digital Workplace is a great example of how HR and IT departments in knowledge companies can work together, and create an environment that supports a new way of working — with tangible improvements in the areas of in-company communication, organizational performance, and employee satisfaction.

References

  1. The Knowledge-Creating Company” by Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi; Oxford University Press, 1995; ISBN: 978-0195092691
  2. Transforming Business: Big Data, Mobility, and Globalization” by  Allison Cerra, Kevin Easterwood and Jerry Power; John Wiley & Sons, 2012; ISBN: 978-1-118-51968-4
  3. Global Survey: Is enterprise social collaboration living up to its promise?” by Avanade inc.; May 2013
  4. Evolution of the networked enterprise” by McKinsey & Company, 2013
  5. The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies” by the McKinsey Global Institute; McKinsey & Company, 2012
  6. The Coworker Network” based on the research of prof. Paul Leonardi; Kellogg Insight, June 2013
  7. “Reconnect People – Final Report” by Alcatel-Lucent; Internal document, July 2009
  8. Enterprise 2.0 Success: Alcatel-Lucent” by Dion Hinchcliffe; ZDnet blog, January 2012
  9. Snapshot of the Digital Workplace” by Jane McConnell; netjmc.com blog, February 2011
  10. Social intranet unlocks knowledge and creates value” by Guy Van Leemput; J. Boye blog, March 2013
  11. Social collaboration: when knowledge meets community” by Marc Jadoul; June 2013

Discuss This Article

Comments: 5

  • Koushik Radhakrishnan says:

    Marc – Wonderful article, great read. Quick question – what do you see as the gain for an individual that motivates to accelerate tacit to external? The need to help/share with the tacit within one’s brain.

    • Koushik – some incentives for people/employees participating to a (social) community are: expressing themselves, supporting others, learning and sharing (an acquired habit in the era of content marketing and social media), getting recognition and/or (perceived) power, the need to change the culture of the organization…

  • Andrea Francis says:

    Fantastic article with solid research behind it. In the startup world they always say it’s the team and not the idea that matters – absolutely true. Knowledge combination and exchange are crucial to being useful and productive. If you are into collaboration tools, we’re developing a tool that might be of interest – we’d be delighted with any feedback you have: http://bit.ly/1cY4gEW

  • Brian Meek says:

    Marc, thank you for this article! I found it today via a Google search while trying to juxtapose Nonaka and modern enterprise social technology offerings. It seems to me that enterprise social collaboration implementations tend to fall short when it comes to codifying explicit knowledge from tacit discussions. Did you implement any specific processes for generating tangible “knowledge assets”, potentially useful for external-facing content marketing activities, from the COIs and COPs created in your Engage solution?

    Thanks again!

    • Marc Jadoul says:

      Brian, the system is mainly being used as a “digital watercooler”, and so far no formal processes have been implemented around it.

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