The discussion over Facebook and the enterprise over at confused of calcutta not only continues but has now moved into the domain of knowledge management. This could be a good thing to the extent that it would provide an opportunity to find something solid for anchoring down the concept of the sociology of knowledge. Unfortunately, I have already argued that, from the enterprise point of view, Facebook is hardly a good place to drop anchor. However, JP Rangaswamy has proposed "three simple examples" of Facebook attributes that purport to serve the objectives of knowledge management:
One, relationships. Facebook has a rich array of relationships, from Friend to Group Member to Network Member and even Cause Supporter, all the way to Event Participant. And they’re all non-hierarchical and nonexclusive. This is very powerful, since it mimics real-life relationships far better than organisation charts and hierarchies. Furthermore, it allows you to “subscribe” to your interests with reasonable precision.
Two, conversations. Facebook allows a wide range of conversation types, from Poke to Send Message to Write On Wall to Chuck Book to Hug to Give a Gift to Dedicate a Song. It also features a number of conversation styles, from text to video (and surely audio cannot be far behind) and a whole plethora of ways to attach stuff and comment on stuff, both bilaterally as well as multilaterally. Again, this mimics organisational real life far more than the straitjackets of email-only deprivation zones.
Three, transactions. Every event in Facebook is a transaction, and every transaction you do in Facebook can be an event. A news feed is nothing more than a transaction ticker. You get status updates on a number of things as well. And notifications. The entire alert process is promising and more flexible than traditional enterprise approaches.
For my part I see this is an opportunity to do what I do best, which is to unpack the text and see whether the stable actually contains a pony or is just filled with the pony's calling cards! This is basically did with the three words in "Customer Relationship Management," revealing that, in the reality of enterprise operations, all three were linguistically impoverished. This provides a useful context, since the first of the above three examples is, again, "relationships."
- My point is that there is just as much linguistic poverty in the Facebook approach to relationships as there is in CRM. A rich array of labels does not make for a rich array of relationships! Indeed, when you start to tease apart the nature of "real-life relationships" the way, for example, Erving Goffman has done, you quickly discover an amorphous mass that does not yield readily to perceptual categorization. This is not to say that "organization charts and hierarchies" are any closer to "real-life relationships." Rather it is to say that, when the social subtleties of human relationship are at stake, there is little to be gained from arguing over the lesser of two evils!
- The same goes for conversations, which is another one of Goffman's prime areas of study. As a matter of fact, one collection of his essays is entitled Forms of Talk. This is, by no means, an "easy read;" but I cannot imagine having anything intelligent to say about "knowledge sharing" without first having taken a whack at the first essay in the collection, "Replies and Responses." If nothing else, it is sure to change your thoughts about Google! Once again, it is not a matter of labeling things with type or attaching stuff. It is about multilateral exchanges, but the reader quickly sees that Goffman's take on multilateralism goes way beyond that of Facebook.
- The reason I can state that last sentence so definitively is that the whole point of "Replies and Responses" is that the events of such talk are not transactions. Goffman weaves a rather elaborate argumentative web to make this point; and I am not going to reproduce it (because I still do not understand it well enough to synopsize it). However, where the argument leads is that Goffman analyzes a conversation in terms of moves (in the metaphor of a chess game, which is basically the operative metaphor behind Wittgenstein's language-game concept); and moves are far more elaborate than the simpler give-and-take foundation of a transaction.
Needless to say, this analysis goes far beyond the limitations of Facebook. Rather, it is a wart-revealing lens that can be applied to examine just about anything out there that claims to be "social software." The moral of the story is that, once again, we should be looking at "real life," rather than at software. Every enterprise is rich with relationships and conversations. Rather than trying to impoverish it with a consumer toy like Facebook, we should be looking for software that recognizes the wealth that is already there, facilitates it, and ultimately enhances it.