Michael Kieran

Technology, imaging, and more.

Passion, Enterprise Collaboration, and World of Warcraft

Draenei Paladin, World of Warcraft

In A Better Way to Manage Knowledge, a recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog, John Hagel III and John Seely Brown share some interesting ideas on what they call “creation spaces — places where individuals and teams interact and collaborate within a broader learning ecology so that performance accelerates.”

This is a central concern, given my work in the Professional Services group at Socialtext, a vendor in the enterprise collaboration software market.

Hagel and Brown start by refuting the idea that enterprise collaboration tools are just knowledge management (KM) systems in another guise. The problem with traditional approaches to KM, they say, is that:

“The folks with the knowledge were often reluctant to put what they knew into the database. The folks seeking the knowledge often had trouble finding what they needed.”

What’s different about socially-based collaboration tools, they say, is that they’re generative:

“Creation spaces have the potential to generate increasing returns — the more participants that join, the faster new knowledge gets created and the more rapidly performance improves. They bring into play network effects in the generation of new knowledge. In contrast, traditional knowledge management systems are inherently diminishing returns propositions.”

But to benefit from network effects, you still need to get people to participate. From observing collaborative environments such as the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft, Hegel and Brown report that:

“new knowledge comes into being when people who share passions for a given endeavor interact and collaborate around difficult performance challenges.”

They’re right, of course. But the lessons of World of Warcraft are not so easily applied in business. In developing content for a corporate wiki, the best practice is to assign each section to someone who cares passionately about that area, whether it’s blueberries or basketball. That’s a different motivation than mining for gold so you can breed more orcs.

Personally, I’m still trying to understand the factors that motivate people to read, comment on, and initiate conversations in shared workspaces. In particular, what triggers the leap from observing to participating? Because the real value is in creating new knowledge, not just warehousing what you already know.

Image of Draenei Paladin: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chanchan222/ / CC BY 2.0

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  1. Scott Schnaars January 25, 2010

    Michael, as you point out, one of the key challenges that any enterprise collaboration system has to overcome is why would they choose to participate.

    In the early days of blogging, really up until Twitter launched, comments were key. They were key to establishing relationships with people, but they also served as an element of self promotion. If I leave a comment on your blog, I essentially get a plug to drive people to my site. I also get a link from your site to my site, thus giving me some Google juice. In order to build my brand, there was (and really still is) a clear, well defined incentive for me to interact with bloggers to help build my personal brand (By the way, this is GaryVee ‘Crush It 101’).

    Ultimately, if I leave enough comments and post enough posts and track enough trackbacks, I’ll drive a large amount of traffic to my site and build a brand. Unfortunately, enterprise social networks don’t have this idea of a trackback and very few corporate cultures are built in a way that they encourage personal brand building as an internal entity to the company. I can run around and I can comment on a bunch of things and I can create posts and I can send signals, but how do I become the Mike Arrington, the Gary Vee, the Dooce of my corporation? What is that track back that helps to establish my position as a discoverable thought leader in the company? And more importantly, why do I want to? More importantly than that, how many thought leaders can one company contain? 1? 1 per department? Everyone?

    The other issue, and this is something that we become blind to in this industry, is that if you talk to 100 random people, 99 of them won’t care enough to do the hard work to build that brand. 75 of them won’t want to blog or tweet because it isn’t interesting to them personally or professionally. They want to do their job and go home to their family. This is why, of the millions of individual tech bloggers, there are only a handful of Louis Gray, Mark Evans & Robert Scoble types that rose to the top. Everyone else, maybe does a post every couple of weeks and calls it a day.

    Social networks appeal to greed and ego. People tweet, blog, post and share in hopes of having more eyeballs come to their site and to keep their brand at the top of peoples minds.

    Enterprise social networks, like we sell at Socialtext, can appeal to this level of greed / ego, the question is how?

    One way, is to tie participation to a quarterly or annual bonus. If 50% of the company participates – Kegger!
    One way might be personal recognition. The person with the most posts / signals gets an award.

    Just two immediate ideas, but the idea of participation needs to become ingrained in the culture. That by doing this, employees are helping themselves and that they will be recognized as a thought leader and a brand, not just someone that contributes a lot.

  2. Scott Schnaars January 25, 2010

    BTW, Mark Evans has a really great post on the general state of the comment:

  3. Keith Weiss February 1, 2010

    Michael, I agree – it’s a definite leap to apply practices from the world of simulated warfare to the corporate environment. The human motivations in each context are quite distinct.

    But your provocative blog got me thinking about Hutch Carpenter’s recent post on Designing for Innovation through Competitive Collaboration (http://blog.spigit.com/Blog/View?blogid=-1&blogentryid=167) – specifically his Collaboration-Competition Spectrum to conceptualize different ways to create conditions that elicit stakeholders’ behaviors and mindsets in support of innovation objectives. He distinguishes among collaboration, soft competition, and hard competition as 3 modes of shaping community engagement. In his estimation – and I tend to agree with him – soft competition is the preferred approach; it motivates people in the system to contribute (which a straight-up collaborative environment might not do enough of), while at the same time avoiding putting the kibosh on information sharing (often a by-product of the hard competition approach). Healthy competition is a critical piece to channeling individual and collective energy. As such, your insight into successful wiki traction being achieved by assigning sections to evangelists/champions (essentially, “follow the energy”) is right on the mark.

    That said, I agree that it’s challenging to build a community through E2.0 infrastructure on its own. That’s not news to any of us. But in my observation, individual participation is always facilitated by a strong personal interest in a topic or real project work that binds people together (in keeping with the energy metaphor). I’ve also noticed that a mandate from a project lead – who generates communications exclusively from the wiki workspace or microblogs updates about a specific account – tends to draw others to use the platforms more.

    In thinking about the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that drive human behavior, it can get a bit tricky to pinpoint why people participate. Building on Scott’s comment about boosting one’s personal brand via lots of activity, one area where I’m a bit concerned about this is with firms that are beginning to adopt online, transparent, peer-based performance reviews (see sonar6.com, as one example). Within these organizations, there’s a lot of potential to ‘game’ one’s level of participation, with the sole intention of raising visibility among peers – just so that person appears to be an active participant at face-value. But are they adding real value and advancing knowledge & innovation? Time will tell, but that’s a question I sit with these days…

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