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Towards A More Participatory Culture: Enterprise Q&A (Part 1)

January 27, 2012 - 0 Comments

In October of 2011, AIIM (the Association for Information & Imaging Management, a non-profit research, community and educational association), published a survey-based report that examined social business and Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0) trends. I had the good fortune to hear about the results first-hand when I co-presented with AIIM’s President, John Mancini, on a social networking panel at the Gilbane Conference held in Boston last November. John summarized the work and results of the study. One of the more interesting data points and trending analysis I found intriguing was a growing interest in a class of social application AIIM refers to as “Enterprise Q&A”.  Historically, when people ask what the common application use case scenarios are for E2.0, the most frequently cited examples have been: expertise location, online communities, and ideation (innovation).

Why the growing interest in Q&A applications? Perhaps because it’s a pain point all of us – from front-line worker to senior executive – can relate to in our everyday work experience. All of us can recall situations when we’ve had a question about something and have not been able to find an answer through the information and contacts at our disposal. We ask our colleagues. We send out e-mails. We might try discussion forums, knowledge-base applications, and of course – search engines.

“The question acts as a ‘social object’ that can mobilize networks, enable people to take on informal social roles, and help create social capital between participants in these answer networks.”

However, even if we are fortunate enough to find the content, the information may not be presented in a fashion that addresses our need. Sometimes the “question” is not easily resolved by locating content. Often, what people are asking for (indirectly) when they pose a question is to have a conversation with someone to “make sense” out of that issue (in addition to the content if it’s relevant).

Connecting co-workers via Enterprise Q&A enables people to reach consensus, collaborate on a response, and co-create a workaround. Beyond “answering the question”, this type of conversation allows participants to contribute personal experiences and share work practices that are not formally documented. Passing along the folklore, the unwritten context around a particular question can be a powerful means for people to learn in a social situation. The insight collectively gained can be more insightful to its participants than simply sending someone off to read a document or wiki.

Questions are powerful social constructs – more so when they are placed in a public sphere for broad audience participation. A question creates an invitation for co-workers to visibly participate. Such public interaction provides people with the opportunity to reinforce their identity as a subject matter expert, or expand their identity if they are not known for, or expected to have, that type of insight. Self-presentation in a public sphere can help employees become recognized beyond their job duties (which might be stereotyped by colleagues and management). If their contributions are valued, such community reinforcement can help employees gain a sense of “belonging” which in turn can influence how workers identify with the organization, its goals, and its values.

Questions and answers are also part of an iterative social process where the collaborative mass of contributions over time weaves together a network of people connected by a common interest even though they might have differing professional backgrounds and viewpoints. These types of “answer networks” can potentially create value in their own right. Participants in such Q&A exchanges now have access to social scaffolding they can leverage to form communities and share insight on issues beyond the Q&A connection that brought them together. From a design perspective, the question acts as a “social object” that can mobilize networks, enable people to take on informal social roles (e.g., subject matter expert, community leader), and help create social capital between participants in these answer networks.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll examine some of the design decisions that organizations should consider.

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