Amsterdam Center for Social Media

If you build it, will they come?

photo posted on www.post-gazette.com



Photo posted on http://www. post-gazette.com

By Bart van den Hooff

One of the core characteristics of social media is user generated content – i.e., the content offered via these media is not provided by a center, a publisher, editors or anything like that, but by the end users themselves. One interesting issue that organizations are faced with when they want to use social media for internal collaboration and knowledge sharing, is that they are thus dependent on employees’ willingness to contribute, to generate content. The experience that many organizations have with such social business tools (such as Jive, Blue Kiwi, Lotus Connections, Microsoft Sharepoint (well, the 2013 version) , Yammer, etc.) seems to indicate that a major challenge here is to translate the enthusiasm that people have when it comes to posting Facebook updates, entries to their personal blogs, or comments in the online community about their hobbies (running, biking, cooking, whatever), to the professional environment.

Granted, this enthusiasm may initially be there, but it tends to decrease quite sharply unless the organization actively intervenes. So while user generated content implies a high degree of voluntariness, practice often shows that these volunteers need some “guidance” (at the least) to step forward. As a noteworthy illustration: I am currently writing this blog entry because ACSM has a schedule of who is expected to contribute to the site at a certain point in time. So even though I’m enjoying sharing my thoughts about this issue, I’m only a volunteer (i.e., generating content) because I was told to be a volunteer. So I’m an appointed volunteer at best, one who needs to be explicitly instructed to generate content.

The rise of “social” tools for communication and knowledge sharing within organizations seems to have given new life to the good old technological determinism: many discussions about these tools focus more on the richness of their functionalities and the flashy look and feel that they have, than the actual mechanisms that would make users generate content, contribute their knowledge. These mechanisms are no different than they are in any other setting: people need to have the motivation to contribute, they need to have the ability to do so and  they need to be facilitated in contributing. Motivation is strongly related to the value of contributing, both in terms of content (the relevance of what is being shared to people’s daily practices) and connections (establishing and maintaining links with colleagues and other social groups). Ability primarily concerns one’s cognitive capabilities: the extent to which you are able to formulate your thoughts, to explicate your knowledge in a way that makes it understandable to a larger audience (and not only your fellow experts). Ability also relates to awareness – awareness of what is relevant and what is not, awareness of where relevant knowledge is located and needed, and awareness of how and where to share relevant knowledge. Facilitation concerns the structures, processes, tools and methods that are provided to enable people to share their knowledge: whether time is explicitly allocated for contributing, for instance, whether it is easy to find relevant knowledge and contacts, whether there is explicit management support and priority for contributing, and whether the tools or instruments that are available for sharing are broadly available, easy to use, reliable and accessible.

Now let’s apply these factors to my writing this blog entry. Quite honestly, I was primarily motivated to do this because I was scheduled to. But when this extrinsic motivation made me think about the things I could write about, a broad array of subjects presented itself that I not only could, but really wanted to write about. The content is directly relevant to my own research, not only in academic terms but certainly also in terms of the stories I hear in practice. Connecting with my fellow researchers in ACSM and everybody interested in these subjects is definitely relevant to me, and is a strong motivation behind this contribution. I will not judge my own ability here, although I can say that I feel confident writing about this subject because I did quite some research on it. In terms of facilitation, the tooling behind these blog entries is extremely simple and user friendly, and it is clear that this is a priority for ACSM (as is clearly communicated within the center). We don’t officially get time allocated to contribute, but that wouldn’t really be necessary. It may seem strange that we have a schedule for contributions, but I actually think that the fact that we are appointed volunteers may just be that little “push” we need to mobilize our intrinsic motivation to contribute our knowledge, to generate content about a field we are very explicitly involved in and want to share our thoughts about.

So it basically comes down to the good old dilemma between the bottom-up nature of the focal process of users generating content, and the top-down interventions that are required to actually get this process going. Just providing a flashy looking “social” tool is usually insufficient to actually get content created via these tools. The motivation to contribute is not something that automatically emerges once an environment is created for such contributions. “If you build it, they will come” may have been true for Kevin Costner in the movie “Field of Dreams”, where building a baseball field was enough for Shoeless Joe Jackson and other deceased baseball stars to re-emerge and start playing baseball in Costner’s former corn field. It is not true, however, when you want to truly mobilize the collective intelligence in your organization and get users to generate content on social business tools. Then, a little more guidance and top-down intervention is required to get the game going.



Category: Knowledge sharing, Social business tools


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