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Social Business vs. Knowledge Management – Part 2

by Guy Alvarez • September 18th, 2013 • Social Business | Blog

social business versus knowledge managementWe started discussing a new topic last week – exploring the differences between social business and knowledge management.  Are they fundamentally different approaches to solving the same set of organizational problems?  Or is this just a case of new rhetoric and business jargon being used to sell a new generation of software products?

In the course of researching this topic, I came across an interesting blog post that was published on October 2011 on the Harvard Business Review blog by Anthony J Bradley and Mark P McDonald entitled Social Media vs Knowledge Management.  As I read the post, I felt increasingly confident in my view that social business does entail a radical departure from the traditional approach of KM.

Bradley and McDonald summarize the difference between KM and Social Media as follows:

  • Knowledge management is what company management tells me I need to know, based on what they think is important.
  • Social media is what my peers tell me they think is important, based on their experience and in a way that I can judge for myself.

This is basically consistent with my own pre-existing views, which were formed by my experience over the last 10 years in designing, building and maintaining both KM and social business networks on an enterprise basis.  KM is more about documents, taxonomy and rigidity, while social business is more about people and the tacit knowledge they posses. Bradley and McDonald expand on this concept, “KM, in practice, reflects a hierarchical view of knowledge to match the hierarchical view of the organization. Yes, knowledge may originate anywhere in the organization, but it is channeled and gathered into a knowledge base (cistern) where it is distributed through a predefined set of channels, processes and protocols.”

“Social media looks downright chaotic by comparison. There is no predefined index, no prequalified knowledge creators, no knowledge managers and ostensibly little to no structure. Where an organization has a roof, gutters and cistern to capture knowledge, a social media organization has no roof, allowing the “rain” to fall directly into the house, collecting in puddles wherever they happen to form. That can be quite messy. And organizations abhor a mess.

It’s worth pointing out that Bradley and McDonald are both Gartner consultants with an expertise in social media so no doubt their views reflect something of a bias – that KM represents an outdated business concept that largely failed to solve the problem of information silos in large organizations.  This certainly may help explain the storm of controversy they generated, which you can see for yourself reading through the extensive comments at the end of their article.   Bradley and McDonald had ignited a holy war with seasoned KM practitioners taking deep offense at the way KM had been characterized in the original post.


The back and forth in the commentary makes for fascinating reading and I found myself gaining a newfound respect for KM practitioners and their continuing efforts to refine the tools and techniques in their arsenal.   I now realize just how much KM has evolved since my involvement at KPMG building a first generation KM platform in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  These advances seem to have produced an ever-increasing number of KM projects that have achieved a meaningful level of success.  And furthermore, over the past few years KM practitioners also seem to have begun actively integrating social technologies into their own efforts to help spread knowledge more successfully across the organization.  In other words, the differences between KM and social business are beginning to blur as social technologies are integrated into KM platforms and deployed across the enterprise.

My take-away from reading the Bradley and McDonald article, and the extensive commentary it spawned, is that there doesn’t need to be a choice between knowledge management and social business. They can co-exist and both have an important role to play in the organization.  Yes, KM is apparently in the process of becoming more social, however, it’s important to remember that social business has a broader mandate in an organization, since it has the potential to facilitate both internal and external collaboration, fostering innovation and enhanced responsiveness to the market and client requirements.

What are your thoughts on the difference between social business and knowledge management? Have the lines been blurred in your firm? Please join us and others in our LinkedIn Group The Social Law Firm as we continue to discuss the differences and similarities of social business and KM. Next week we will present part three of this series as we discuss how the law firm environment is different from the large corporate environment. Law firms tend to be smaller than large corporations, therefore there may be less of a perceived need for social business/tech and more perceived need for KM since law firms tend to be overwhelmed by documents. The critical issue being: what is the right way to bring social technology into the law firm.  KM specialists are clearly going to be important players – but it is also critical to get other people involved. Stay tuned…

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