As a preface, I was inaccurate in my previous post’s opening statement. This topic will be split into two posts, the first of which will deal with the ways in which social media, the internet, and related technologies enable new forms of knowledge transmission from a social standpoint–that is, how people use them generally, and why they are different from older methods for transmitting and receiving knowledge; the functional applications, in other words. The second, to come shortly, will focus on the theoretical implications, greater detail regarding specific technologies, and potential future developments.
Now, then. Many of the hallmarks of social media are common knowledge, readily observable to any individual capable of basic critical thought. They allow private individuals with ordinary means to express, disseminate, and receive feedback on their thoughts on a scale which was previously only possible for larger organizations, governments, and individuals with professional connections to the same–to transmit knowledge beyond small groups gathered in a physical location or to a single other individual at a distance (via telephone, telegraph, or paper mail) required access to substantial communications infrastructure, which was itself a relatively recent development. Scarcely a century ago, this sort of broad communication was so novel that FDR’s nationwide radio broadcasts were one of the defining features of a generation.
Today it is possible for a completely ordinary person to transmit knowledge to millions as readily as a U.S. President with the support of multiple major companies did eighty-three years past. Moreover, each and every one of the individuals to receive the knowledge or information being transmitted can retransmit it in turn. Major stories can break in a matter of minutes or hours with little or no attention from traditional media. Groups of individuals around the globe can collaborate on complex projects with little difficulty. Equally as important, despite efforts to the contrary, most digital communication is relatively unfiltered–with no central authority controlling transmissions, the only discretion or censorship is that applied by individual transmitters. Moreover, given that every person with access to digital communications can transmit knowledge, it is exceptionally difficult to successfully suppress knowledge, barring situations in which all knowledge of an event or piece of information stems from a single source.
This new, highly interconnected digital infrastructure is in many respects beyond the scope of traditional perspectives on knowledge management.
In our case, we believe that many of the dominant KM paradigms and models need revisiting, as we believe they are “ill-suited” for the knowledge environment facilitated by the increasing opportunities presented by social media. (Hemsley & Mason 2012)
Hemsley & Mason go on to describe three key functions of social media’s digital infrastructure: self-organization of individual users into communities; ease of interaction and feedback between users to the end of fostering the development of in-group trust and reputation; and as noted above, the ease with which users can transmit and retransmit knowledge and information (2012).
In other words, social media effects the organic replication of the sort of knowledge management environment which organizations actively pursue. Communities of users form around areas of mutual interest for wholly personal reasons, where communities of co-workers would form or be established within the context of their work. The question of interpersonal trust and reputation is one we have touched upon before, when discussing Lucas’ (2005) work, as key components of the effective and efficient transmission of knowledge within organizations. Finally, the technology itself, which builds upon the conglomerate or ad-hoc user organization by facilitating the other two functions.
The phenomenon of social media actually has little to do with social media as such, and more to do with how humans adapt to new methods of communication so readily. To describe the social effects of social media as a product of it is something akin to describing tide pool microcosms as products of the orbital mechanics of the Earth-Moon system; they are technically related insofar as that each is enabled by the existence of their second, but in practical terms those respective enablers do not generate the components of the system, instead simply allowing them to interact in a productive manner. That is to say, the interactions of social media users occur through that medium, but are not caused by it. The introduction of Twitter did not suddenly compel millions of people to share thoughts in 140-character bites.
Social media, simply, put, allow groups of disparate individuals to organize and communicate knowledge more effectively and efficiently than actual organizations attempting to facilitate the same sort of knowledge transfer through older processes. However, it is important to note that that does not imply that the content of such transmissions are of the same quality. Social media networks are highly effective for the rapid transmission of simple ideas and stories–as Hemsley & Mason imply with their focus on viral stories.
Interestingly, Tremblay outlined in his 1995 talk a pair of general predictions which proved to be quite apt.
There is another characteristic generally attributed to the information society, its place of honour due to progress in digitalization, the modernization and expansion of telecommunications networks (via satellite, cable, and airwaves), and the advent of multimedia products: interactivity. With the most advanced technologies now capable of interactivity, the information society will become much more interactive, which is, of course, presented as constituting considerable progress.
Lastly, the information society, predicated on the generalization of informatics, would involve a major cultural revolution, comparable to those which followed the invention of the printing press and writing itself. These two points merit closer attention.
He did not pinpoint specific details with any more accuracy than other would-be technological oracles casting the obvious darts at the board of development–indeed, the three fundamental questions he raised proved in hindsight to be somewhat misguided.
The potentialities of interactive multimedia are indeed fabulous, if still poorly defined. But is this enough to infer the coming of a profound social and cultural change? Upon what is this prediction based? On three a priori: (1) that these technological potentialities will necessarily become concrete features of social reality, (2) that the media have until now kept audiences in a passive state, and (3) that interactivity is necessarily a good thing, and, as a corollary, that all that is not interactive is uninteresting. (Tremblay 1995)
I think that there is little room to question that post-social media society has been radically altered in many respects, and that such digital technologies are already firmly embedded in the worldviews of a generation. The second seems equally self-evident; a viewer or listener could not interrupt a newscaster with questions or make their own television or radio transmission to other members of the public in response to what they had all just received, for example.
The third, however, is of particular relevance, especially in the context of the prior selection. It is indeed true, as previously noted, that the simple potential for free interaction between users of social media does not guarantee quality of discourse. In fact, it often seems much the opposite, with such conversations quickly devolving into shallow, bitter arguments. Social media should therefore be viewed in the same light as any other tool for communication and knowledge management: as a tool, not some miraculous new paradigm.
One question of rather substantial import, then, should be: how can a traditional organization adapt the benefits of social media to knowledge management goals? Is such a change possible, or useful? Many have already reached the conclusion that is is both, and have implemented new strategies of knowledge management focusing on comprehensive and adaptive response to customer needs (Chua & Banerjee 2013).
Although those authors’ research is of relatively narrow scope, it nonetheless reveals much about the opportunities and difficulties of integrating the use of social media into traditional knowledge management systems and strategies. Social media and digital tools are exceptionally useful for collecting and transmitting knowledge from and to customers or clients, as well as monitoring communication between customers for potential opportunities or crises (as with the United viral story, where the failure to account for social media knowledge transmission left the airline unprepared for widespread backlash). Moreover, it allows large organizations to present a more human face via relatively casual, personal interactions with customers. Proper management of digital interactions allows organizations to engage customers as active participants in operations, rather than passive recipients of services, fostering increased investment in and loyalty toward that organization’s brand (2013).
Such cases as the Starbucks example explored by Chua & Banerjee is an ideal, in which an organization leverages digital communications appropriately and effectively, facilitating a greater quality and quantity of interactions between the company and customers, and within groups of customers. As they note in a set of citations from prior work, however, it is often the case that customers are unwilling to engage in this sort of interaction, and that social media are used to transmit false information, often disseminating it more quickly than the organization can spread corrections.
Put simply, although social media and digital communication tools have drastically increased the ease with which individuals can communicate, they have done nothing to ensure any sort of standard of quality or accuracy in said communication. Often, the lack of oversight results in a much lower reliability of the knowledge thus transmitted. Furthermore, like any other tool for knowledge management, social media are not a cure-all to customer-communication woes, but rather have an effectiveness rooted in the finesse and consideration with which they are applied, though with even more drastic consequences should they be employed crudely or without thought. In a phrase, social media in organizational knowledge management are as a whole a hiltless sword: best grasped with great care or not at all. Unfortunately for such organizations, the latter is all too commonly removed as an option, given the speed with which an unaware company or government can fall afoul of negative attention left unmanaged.
Chua, A. Y. K., & Banerjee, S. (2013). Customer knowledge management via social media: The case of Starbucks. Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(2), 237-249. ProQuest. Accessed 27 February 2016.
Hemsley, J., & Mason, R. M. (2013). Knowledge and knowledge management in the social media age. Journal of Organizatational Computing and Electronic Commerce, 23(1), 138-167.Taylor Francis. Accessed 27 February 2016.
Tremblay, G. (1995). The information society: From Fordism to Gatesism. Canadian Journal of Communication, 20(4), 461-482. URL: http://cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/891/797 (Links to an external site.) Accessed 27 February 2016.