Sunday 22 April 2007

What are the new dimensions of social software?

In the old days of knowledge management before social software became popular, we could divide the world of communication and information sharing technologies into a simple 2x2 grid - you might remember this:

Same place, same timeSame place, different time
Different place, same timeDifferent place, different time

Most of the focus then was actually on tools in the bottom half of the grid, what in fancy terms we described as synchronous versus asynchronous communication. In reality the choice available was fairly simple - in the case of asynchronous tools the menu of options consisted of:

  • Knowledgebases or document libraries (document centric);
  • Discussion forums or mailing lists (conversation centric); and
  • Project spaces (activity centric).

But Web 2.0 has blurred the lines between documents, conversation and activities by giving us tools that integrate them into network. We could also argue that Web 2.0 breaks down the silos between different tools such that the old 2x2 grid is meaningless anyway as open standards and APIs allow data to easily move between synchronous and asynchronous channels, while geotagging has made the concept of "place" something tangible in the virtual space.

Unfortunately the overall result is that understanding what technologies can enable knowledge management in a particular way has become more complex. Considering also the hype around Enterprise 2.0 and other misinformed debates, such as this one reported by Dave Snowden, about the value of new social software versus the old technologies, I think there is a real need for a new framework to help understand and discuss (if not completely answer) what is available and what it can do.

I thought about a new dimension of collaboration last year, serial and parallel, but I don't think this goes far enough to explain the differences. This is also different from a model I've suggested to help people select technologies for collaboration or to support knowledge management in this article (PDF, 108KB). No, these new dimensions need to address the key issues of what makes old and new technologies different, but also what makes them the same.

So here is my challenge to you - if we replace the old 2x2 matrix of time and place, what are the top 2 or 3 dimensions you would use to describe the knowledge management technology landscape today?

If I put my two cents worth in to get the ball rolling, here are my three new dimensions:

  • Boundedness - is the technology open to participation (a blog), or is it closed (an email mailing list);
  • Cohesiveness - will the tool create consensus or help groups of users, or is it designed for individuals.
  • Discoverability or dialogue - simply, does this technology help you find stuff or talk about stuff.

Now its your turn.

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