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Three Pluses, Three Minuses of Quora as a KM System

This question was posted on Quora, “In 10 words or less, what is Quora?” My answer:

Powerful application of crowdsourcing and social networking to knowledge management

Knowledge Management (aka “KM”) is a field that I don’t have personal experience in. It’s supposed to be practices, processes and systems where valuable knowledge of workers is collected and made available for others. KM continues to be an important topic for enterprises these days, but it also freighted with many failures and disappointments.

Without the benefit of a KM history, I wanted to look at Quora in the context of someone with an objective today: how do I make it easier for employees to find and share their knowledge?

In that cntext, I see three really good things about Quora, and three things that distort its value.

The Pluses

Purpose-Built: A premise of Enterprise 2.0 is that tools need to be lightweight and flexible for multiple purposes. That’s what you get with microblogging, wikis, blogs, forums. The problem there is that the flexibility undermines their value for delivering on specific needs. One must wade through a lot of other stuff to get to what you want.

Quora is purpose-built. It’s not a place for sharing links you find interesting or talking about the American Idol selection process. It’s a place where you know there will be relevant questions, and often good answers. Which means they can focus on delivering to the purpose, not try to be all-things to all people. Important for KM.

Crowdsourcing: Very, very important. Quora leverages the the principles of crowdsourcing to elicit knowledge. It’s not just a system for experts. Too often the focus of people is to get “the experts” on the record, assuming most others have little to add. That is a shame.

The ability to follow topics allows people to track areas of either interest (to find answers) or expertise (to provide answers). As Professor Scott Page notes in his book, The Difference, everyone has a unique set of cognitive skills. To assume there are the “masters” and then there’s the “riff raff” is to lose a significant percentage of knowledge. Crowdsourcing ensure broader opportunity to get at all relevant knowledge.

Social networking: We have people we like to follow. They may be friends, and we enjoy their takes on things. Or they may be people we admire, and who have demonstrated a capacity to provide valuable answers. The personal connection here, that we have an interest in a person as opposed to a topic is valuable.

By letting me follow people, I am exposed to things that have a higher likelihood of interest to me. We can’t all be on Quora, or a KM site. But some portion of our networks will be, and seeing what they’ve been up to keeps me interested and contributes to a serendipity in acquiring knowledge.

It’s also encouraging to know I have a set of people who are receptive to me questions and my answers. Much better than a cold system of questions and answers only.

The Minuses

Discerning the wheat from the chaff: Quora gets noisy. For some, too noisy. That happens in an open platform. There will be some great answers to questions, but some pretty bad ones too.  In terms of KM, some argue for restricting participation to only the known experts:

Few are blessed with serious, specifically relevant knowledge or know-how. Any system which facilitates overly broad participation will inextricably bury any expert knowledge under a pile of low value chatter. I am persuaded that for valuable ideas & thoughts to produce innovation there need to be a highly afferent and efferent system capable of synthesizing powerful multidimensional analytical databases with the know-how of subject matter experts, the imagination of visionaries and the creative mind of innovators who do not fret from the challenge of thinking.

The community culture needs to have a strict sense of what’s valuable, what’s not. And up-vote and down-vote accordingly.

Lots of followers means lots of up-votes: This is the downside of social networking. Some people have HUGE numbers of connections. Which means they have a built-in audience for their answers above and beyond the topic followers. An army of followers can come in and cause an answer to move to first position based on that alone, regardless of answer quality.

A good solution here is to employ a form of reputation to weight those votes. Don’t let just the volume of votes determine the top answer, look at the reputation of those who are voting.

You could also weight the answers themselves according to reputation, although I’m a little wary of that. Makes it harder for new voices with quality contributions to get traction.

Incentives to participate: I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all busy. Who has time to participate? This will always be an issue. With things like microblogging, there’s a core communication need they satisfy. So that more closely aligns with my day-in-, day-out work. But answering some distant colleague’s question?

There are a lot of ways to address this. Getting participation early on from enthusiasts goes a long way in terms of demonstrating value (something Quora has done). Getting kudos for good answers is a huge motivator. Obviously, getting a good answer just once is critical to seeing the value. And Q&A seems like a perfect activity for applying game mechanics.

All in all, I really like the KM potential for Quora. It doesn’t need to be as heavily active as Twitter, but benefits from a broader participation than what is seen in Wikipedia. The minuses are challenges to overcome, but they are not insurmountable.

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