- August
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Enterprise and Social Media: Ambient Knowledge, Hidden Knowledge

In the process of considering the differences between “regular” consumer social media, and social media in the enterprise, I’ve been turning over the idea of ambient intimacy vs ambient knowledge. I thought “knowledge” might not only capture the knowledge management trendline that continues to run through many internal enterprise software applications, but that it might also shift emphasis from social to organizational values. The idea of “ambient knowledge” came up around some webinars hosted by Ross Mayfield (@ross), Laura Fitton (@pistachio), and Marcia Conner (@marciamarcia). The term seemed to suit realtime social media in the enterprise well, namely twitter and, in this case, Socialtext and its Signals messaging platform.

But in the weeks since, the concept has been tumbling and turning over in my mind’s eye. The “knowledge” part of it works for me still, but the “ambient,” like an ill-fitting shirt drawn from the tumble drier too late, does not.

I went back to Leisa Reichelt’s (@leisa) first use of the term ambient intimacy.

“Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible. Flickr lets me see what friends are eating for lunch, how they’ve redecorated their bedroom, their latest haircut. Twitter tells me when they’re hungry, what technology is currently frustrating them, who they’re having drinks with tonight.” Leisa Reichelt

Leisa’s description is about awareness, access, visibility. These are provided by means of messaging and communication. “Ambient” here means a kind of passive connectedness and awareness; the metaphor is visual, specular, spatial. “Ambiance” refers to one’s surroundings and place. Here, ambient intimacy hints at Wim Wenders’ “Far Away, So Close,” a film that is about intimacy, video, vision.

But where “ambient” suggests connectedness where there would otherwise be none, people within the organization are often connected: if not in fact and by virtue of a shared building, company identity, purpose and so on, then also by means of in-house technologies. The issue, as often noted in the knowledge management literature, is less a connectedness problem and more a problem of silos. Awareness, not of what people are up to but of who may have an answer.

Relationships within the organization are structured. They serve functional organization. Communication, too, tends to serve tasks, jobs, projects: communication coordinates activities.

The “awareness” problem, in terms of knowing and having access to knowledge that others have, seems more one of transparency and disclosure. And in the organization, the relationships that could be helped by use of social technologies are the latent relationships: those that could be functionally productive, if the employees knew of one another.

So I have been going with “hidden knowledge” instead of “ambient knowledge” of late.

Lee Bryant, in his (old) post Ambient Knowledge describes a feed and flow-based view of organizational social media use. The fact that this dates to 2005 seems to me, in fact, prescient.

Lee describes three directions for KM (Knowledge Management) as suggested by David Snowden:

  • Techno-fetishism: where organisations focus on codification through technology solutions, which is little more than an advanced form of information management
  • HR solutions: where it becomes a servant of recruitment, retention and succession policy, owned by HR and run by IT
  • Sense making: where the focus is not on sharing knowledge but on enabling better decision making, creating the conditions for innovation and understanding the way we make sense of our world

Lee then reflects on the social interaction model, if you will, for a socialized KM:

“We need to let people organise their inputs by exposing all relevant information in granular feed form and then provide smart aggregation and tagging tools to create a personal eco-system of content, cues and links.

This is what we have been describing as a social interface to corporate information sources: create a layer of feeds and flows that reference content objects, and allow people to apply flexible personal meta-data within a social context to constantly reorganise the links into that content according to their day-to-day needs.

Second, we should help people develop the skills and confidence to move from linear processing mode, where they feel a need to respond to our acknowledge everything (e.g. memos and the email inbox) to peripheral vision mode, where people make better decisions and connections by assisted by ambient information feeds, and where information grabs our attention only when it needs to (e.g. “reading” in an RSS aggregator, sensing importance of links through number of references or recognised trust relationships).”

I think the passing emphasis on action, and on use of social tools to make what might be “ambient” (hidden) knowledge actionable (or connecting up latent relationships to make them actual) is important. Work is focused activity. Work done in part by talking uses talk to coordinate action and activity. Flow-based social media can supplement this kind of work: by routing, distributing, exposing and sharing communication differently. From email to a more transparent and visible kind of communication.

Transparency creates and opens possibilities: for reciprocity and recognition of shared goals and common purposes. It discloses bias and undermines (somewhat) structural tendencies (the schlerotic organizational body). It can work, using social media communication tools, in part because communication becomes more personal (in contrast to professional or employee role and position). And while this personalization may create risks for employees, it can produce coincidental and serendipitous openings. These are the benefits that accrue to activities not designed for their utility (productivity), but for their ability to weave and bind socially (social fabric).

This is where I’m at now with it. I’m still allowing the coincidence, serendipity, and social of social media to tumble about the cranium. I know that the “social” inside a company is not the social we normally mean by social media. But that’ll be a separate post.


  • Got me thinking… in the old days, you'd put in a new 'system' that had some workflow that was designed around the data that was needed at each part of the process and the work flow was an interaction path between the system and its users at each stage – much like passing a piece of paper around a workgroup – which is pretty much how those systems were traditionally designed. These formal definitions did not take account of how business really gets done – at the water cooler, outside the back door by the ashtray or over an after work beer.

    The “social interface to corporate information” that you speak of is a natural workflow that should be considered when new systems are conceived. So where in the systems design process do these peripheral vision systems get defined.

    Should the underlying infrastructure of transactional enterprise systems include some sort of social message bus or all plug into internal corporate social networks? Are tools like http://oratweet.com/ and https://www.yammer.com/ ready to take over from Yahoo IM and Skype messenger? Or is RSS the way forward – where tools like http://www.newsgator.com/ and http://www.attensa.com allow applications to consume RSS feeds. The question then becomes how do you deliver human and machine readable content via an RSS feed such that users get the peripheral view, but downstream systems can also pick up the data to classify, alert and trigger actions.

    There was an article last year on ReadWriteWeb (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/enterprise…) that quoted a Forrester forecast of a global market of $4.6 billion by the year 2013. The post contains quite a good section on the IT department barriers to adoption – 18 months on from this post, Web2.0 tools are probably still viewed as a security threat – and IMHO that will probably be the case until the enterprise vendors fully integrate them into their applications.

  • I would love to talk to you about this topic. It's something I'm working on..

  • good stuff here.

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