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Social business: enterprise knowledge goes retail

Outside our workplace, we became accustomed to easy access to information. If your kid becomes interested in Minecraft and you have no clue about what that is, you just Google the word, and in a few hours you may learn more than you ever wanted about that gaming platform. The same is true when you need to find a Japanese restaurant close to you, or check if the blockbuster movie opening this weekend is worth your time. You can even learn how to improve your breaststroke swimming technique or how to cook a lobster by watching a few videos online.

English: A grocery store in David, Panama
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then you come to the office Monday morning, and can’t find in which SharePoint site that PowerPoint presentation you wrote yourself was placed. You can’t figure out how to submit a travel expense. You can’t tell who’s the enterprise architect assigned to the project you just joined. And you can’t make sense of the new CRM system that was just deployed to your department. In essence, you can’t google your way through at your workplace. You learned the hard way that, when you need information at the workplace, you get it by interrupting other people: you ask the person sitting at the next cubicle, or call your colleague, or send an email to a few trusted teammates, or book a 1-hour meeting to find more about it. It will likely take a combination of all those interactions until you finally get what you need. Why does that happen? There are probably several culprits here, but one of the reasons is that your company is still treating common knowledge as if it was rocket science or brain surgery: it relies too heavily on experts for everything. It’s past time that enterprise knowledge goes retail.

The years I spent at university and in my early professional career were deeply influenced by the figure of experts. From professors with impressive resumes to IBM distinguished engineers, fellows, and Nobel laureates, I learned to admire the intellectual accomplishments of brilliant men and women who dedicate their lives to conquering knowledge and contributing to the ever-growing scientific patrimony of humanity.

In the early 2000’s there was a lot of coverage around a major scientific milestone: the completion of the DNA sequencing of the human genome. It was actually the DNA of only one person, a costly, long running project conducted by teams of scientists across the globe. Since 2001, the National Human Genome Research Institute has been tracking the cost of genome sequencing very closely, and the cost per raw megabase of DNA went from 10K to 10 cents in 12 years. The first human genome took 10 years to be completed, and it cost almost 200 million dollars. In 2014, sequencing a full human genome may take as little as 30 days and under $1,000 . Thus, predicting that in a few years DNA sequencing will go retail is not so far fetched: soon, you may be able to get your own DNA sequenced while you wait for less than 100 bucks at the corner drugstore.

The effects of the dramatic decreases in transaction costs to produce goods or services is well known across all consumer industries, as it’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution. It allows the average person to have access to complex items such as a state-of-art handheld phone, a high-quality printout of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or a Stanford University lecture. Sometimes, it creates situations that defy our common logic: a few years ago I took a 1-hour flight from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur for 9 dollars, when the train trip would take 8 hours and cost 60 dollars.

The Internet, with the likes of Google and Wikipedia, had a similar impact on the concept of knowledge. Today, if you are willing to spend hours of research on the web, you can go from a complete newbie to a reasonably knowledgeable person about almost anything: wine, curling, the country of Zimbabwe, the American Civil War, Alzheimer’s disease, you name it. Of course, you won’t become a Nobel laureate, nor will you be able to perform a heart transplant just by surfing the net. The so-called Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are still required and valued on all frontiers of knowledge. But it’s no longer a world where a few know everything and all the rest know nothing. You can expect to have a reasonably intelligent conversation with your doctor about a rare condition affecting a relative of yours without having spent even a minute at medical school. Information is just seconds away from you. Granted: some of it may not be good or reliable, but one can argue that some doctors are not good or reliable either. Furthermore, knowledge became so big that no SME knows everything about any subject area. Knowledge on any particular domain is now shared among several SME’s and average people.

Within many organizations, knowledge is still the privilege of a few. The lack of effective ways to move information from where it is created to where it is needed results in a poor knowledge exchange framework that resembles the world before the Internet became widely accessible. A side effect of that inefficiency is that corporate SME’s retain enormous power and a substantial burden. They hold the keys of specialized knowledge, as you often can’t “google” keywords to find more about internal matters. But they also are becoming overloaded with work: as the bottlenecks of knowledge, they have to handle hundreds of emails, meetings, and phone calls from people trying to get their perspective or approval about everything remotely related to what they know or do.

The major transformation that Social Business platforms bring to the workplace is the ability to create highways of information between people, content and places, making information flow in a way that it can serve supply and demand patterns more efficiently, playing the role of an eBay-of-sorts for enterprise knowledge. If well implemented, Social Business platforms can make enterprise knowledge “go retail.” Our workplace will be deeply transformed by it.

At first, this disruption may be perceived as negative by the SME’s affected by it: they may think this change will bring a loss in prestige and career progress. In reality, as information flow becomes more efficient and trivial knowledge is more evenly distributed, corporate SME’s should only benefit from it, as they can start focusing on the important issues that require their deep expertise, and stop worrying about peripheral concerns that could be easily resolved by others. When users can quickly find how to fix a trivial issue with their laptops or how a given policy works directly from their systems or colleagues, we can all spend less time dealing with minor things and focus on the ones that matter the most. Work becomes smarter, faster and more rewarding to all of us.

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Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim is the Head of Digital Social Collaboration at the Royal Bank of Canada, and led the efforts to bring social business and social collaboration to an organization of 79,000 employees. He’s also been a public speaker at several events across the globe, from the Web 2.0 Expo to JiveWorld, from Singapore to Barcelona. He has a passion for innovation and for making work smarter, more meaningful and rewarding to all. Born and raised in Brazil, to a Korean father and Japanese mother, he also volunteers in several diversity initiatives, inside and outside RBC. In the past, he worked as a consultant both at IBM Canada and Unisys Brazil, having played the roles of solutions architect, Basel II analyst, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator and environmental biologist. He holds an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a bachelor’s degree in Biology from the Universidade de São Paulo. He lives in Toronto, Canada, is married to Tania and have a son, Lucas.

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