Does Social Media Support KM?

Social media, for all its fashionable changeability, is inescapably part of the Knowledge Management landscape, so KMers have the challenge of making them work together. 

There are intuitive reasons to think social media has great potential to complement Knowledge Management. With the full array of social media options, there are so many new channels for communicating, which, accepting the view of Nonaka and Takeuci, will provide more virtual spaces for knowledge sharing, and therefore more spirals of knowledge creation.

Does that compute? I have been looking at two interesting new sources in the British Library that illustrate this theme. First, of course, there is the example of the ‘Arab Spring’ often quoted as showing how hidden knowledge – ideas, connections and techniques for opposing autocrats – could become visible and then powerful – with startling results in Egypt and Tunisia. For a very interesting analysis of how Twitter was used in this process, I can suggest a book recently arrived at the British Library: New Noise by S Lindgren, a book that takes meticulous research to Social media subjects. (See references below).

Of course, life usually has more than one dimension. Social media is certainly shown to be disruptive of settled power relationships, but this has the potential to destroy as well as create. The positive view of social media leading to the capacity to overthrow the hierarchies of the past can be countered by the controls and counter pressure other dictators will apply as they see the possible results of allowing open systems.

On a more local scale, will social media erode top down management and allow richer silo-busting communication or become co-opted to support the old hierarchies. Knowledge Management, it seems to me, is often the victim of positive verbal encouragement but with a  contrasting lack of actual support, so any potential to undermine power silos may simply result in more heavy handed controls.

Let’s look at a group of people struggling with just these issues.  A conference report has just been released focusing on the question of social media and the academic science community. This conference has produced four revealing papers showing the difficulties of making a response to social media. They sum up the complexity: ‘Do we herald the arrival of a new dawn as dictators fall and new knowledge is created.  Or fear the new vehicle for repression and destruction of privacy as we battle the sheer size and complexity of the new media availability.’

The papers set out what appear to them to be the positives: ‘The social media have given visibility to science and scientists to a degree unimaginable before. People in remote areas of the world have access to information and knowledge, and can even tap into scientific discourses’.  And there is a totemic story of success which suggests optimism is warranted. Specific scientific problems have been put out in the social media and solved through crowd intelligence’.

‘In 2007, a site called GalaxyZoo, launched using a dataset made up of millions of galaxies for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. The challenge was to classify the shapes of theses galaxies – were they elliptical, merger or spiral, with various possible sub-classifications?  Within 24 hours of launching, GalaxyZoo was receiving over 70 000 classifications per hour.  Over 150000 individual contributors completed more the 50 million classifications in the first year. It was shown that these amateur classifications were as good as those from professional astronomers and the site has generated over 20 peer reviewed papers.’

But they have fears too, linked to these positives: ‘Social media… may expose bad science more easily, while at the same time lacking a system of quality control. By the fact of engaging the scientific community in constant communication, the social media may suppress originality.’

They call for clear thinking and more research noting that: ‘it may well need a catch up time for, as the scientists confirm: Web 1.0 is now accepted as a Good Thing. In time, Web 2.0 will join it, but in the meanwhile, it is taking us out of the comfort zone and into uncharted waters.’

Their conclusion: ‘It maybe that we are moving towards a future where we will have to re-think our concepts of networking and of trust’. And they question whether they protect the core of their discipline – ‘a scientific world that is driven by the search for knowledge and truth.’


  • Nonaka, I. and Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Lindgren, S., (2013), New Noise: A Cultural Sociology of Digital Disruption, New York: Peter Lang
  • Schwarz H and Samwer K, (eds) 2013  Networks of Trust: Will the New Social Media Change Global Science? Procedings of the 6th Forum of the Internationalization of Sciences and Humanities,  Oct 21 – 22 2012, Berlin: Special Duz

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