Social Networking: Sharing Knowledge is Power

(Originally published October 7, 2009 in MLS E-nnounce.

Dawne Tortorella is owner and founder of BellCow, Inc., a technology consulting firm providing services to libraries, non-profits, and academic institutions. There is only one thing she enjoys more than learning and that is sharing what she learns. Thanks to incredible parents, her life has been filled with teachable moments.

The groundswell of libraries and library professionals engaged in social networking is largely attributed to the maturation of the toolset. The real opportunity comes in our ability to leverage these tools, and the connections they enable, into meaningful dialogue, knowledge growth and exchange, and personal and organizational development.

“It’s not what you know but who you know” – For success, and especially to obtain employment, one’s knowledge and skills are less useful and less important than one’s network of personal contacts”

Wikidictionary [’s_not_what_you_know_but_who_you_know]

We’ve all heard and witnessed the truth in that adage, but social networking takes it a bit further. As I’ve grown older and found myself in the role of parent, mentor and coach, the importance of connectedness with others and the principle of emergence – where the whole is somehow bigger than the sum of its parts – looms large in understanding the intricate relationships critical to sustain information based industries and organizations.

Perhaps a better motto to model is:  it isn’t who you know, but who you share what you know with. This defines the true essence of social networking. Social networking tools that are commonplace in our networked lives only magnify the value of sharing in a connected world. Without the sharing, the connections are meaningless. This realization has enormous implications in how we utilize social networks to nurture relationships – whether between library and patron or amongst colleagues and acquaintances. 

I refuse to use the term “Web x.y” in this discussion or to provide a laundry list of social networking tools because Arthur C. Clarke just would not consider them magic.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)

The magic lies in what we do with these tools. How do we filter the noise these tools tend to magnify while distinguishing the perfect pitch of a pivotal idea? Does microblogging really spell the demise of literacy? (It Was the Most Literate of Times, It Was the Most Illiterate of Times, Hared Gardner, Huffington Post, Sept. 1, 2009)

Practice Positive Participation
Three years ago I wrote an article about Wikipedia citing an example how teachers used Wikipedia to illustrate the value of checking sources by having students enter erroneous content (IMHO, not cool). This past spring I interviewed university professors on their use of information and library resources. They cited Wikipedia as the most useful reference tool. Again illustrating, information is power and we generally find a way to use it wisely, despite initial stumbles.

If we follow the principal of “primum non nocere” – First, do no harm – in our social networking activities, it seems apparent the result will be better than the mere compilation of our independent contributions. Failure tends to cluster around lack of participation or vitriolic exchange [note to reader: insert your own commentary on health care reform here]. Learning any new form of communication – speaking a foreign language, reading, and writing – takes practice. For many of us blogging, chatting, texting, microblogging, tweeting (sorry, I promised not to do this…) just does not come easily or naturally. Force yourself; learning a new method of communicating is always worth the effort.

Capture Experience and Knowledge
The tools of social networking have evolved to a usable state for advancing our collective knowledge and expanding its impact. It is an exciting time for our profession and also bittersweet. Bittersweet in the sense that so many of our library leaders are ready for the next phase of their lives – joining the peace corps, laboring on an organic farm, tending to their own and loved ones’ health needs, baking every single cupcake recipe in Martha Stewart’s cupcake cookbook…

Like bittersweet chocolate, the richness comes from quality, not quantity. The contribution of our peers does not have to be diminished by their retirement, but instead may be enhanced. Keeping this group tightly coupled within our social networks, supports knowledge acquisition and sharing as it sustains the colony – mirroring the emergent behavior of ants, on a larger and wiser scale.

Facilitate Organizational Evolution
As John H. Holland discusses in Emergence: From Chaos to Order, “’getting more out than you put in’ goes against intuition in the sciences.”  But, that is precisely what we get when we build on the experience, anecdotes, creativity, and discourse of others.  Julliette Powell in 33 Million People in the Room stresses the value of highly networked employees. The more connected the employees are, the better the chance the organization is at the center of its network – be that between peer institutions or within the community served.

Jay Liebowitz, in Social Networking: The Essence of Innovation, links social networking to human capital strategy. Social networking 1) allows an individual’s knowledge to be shared more broadly with people they are connected to or through the organization, 2) helps bridge knowledge and skills gaps, and 3) facilitates plugging knowledge gaps where structural holes limit knowledge flow. He calls for a paradigm shift in education to “facilitate and develop knowledge-sharing principles.” Luckily as he points out, most knowledge workers enjoy reaching out to others, so we have a good start in successfully applying these principles.

Pay It Forward
One of the best books I’ve read in a very long time is “The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life While Corresponding about Math” by Steven Strogatz. Dr. Strogatz is a distinguished professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University and has done extensive research in spontaneous order (think fireflies blinking in unison, cardiac pacemaker cells, social phenomena of herd behavior). Given his background and the title of the book, you may think you need to dust off your TI58 calculator. Instead it is a story based on the ultimate social network – letter writing. Steve Strogatz shares letters between himself and his high school math teacher, Mr. Joffray. It illustrates the importance of an interested, positive, passionate, and proud person who lights the spark, sometimes without us even knowing until years later. No doubt, Dr. Strogatz has provided that same spark to his students, including several renowned scholars in their own right. These people are the ultimate connectors who “pay it forward” as a natural act of being engaged and enthusiastic about learning and helping.

Strogatz and a student, Duncan J. Watts, started the revolution in network theory and small-world networks with “Collective dynamics of ‘small-world’ networks”, Nature, 1998. Using the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) data and working with The Oracle of Bacon they developed a mathematical model illustrating the “six degrees of separation.” They also applied the model to the western US power grid and the neural network of C. elegans. A mathematical model which explains the organization of social encounter, man-made infrastructure, and biology is pretty amazing.

“The world is more highly, more globally, and more unexpectedly connected than we ever thought.”
-Steven Strogatz

In 1984 John Gage of Sun Microsystems quipped “the network is the computer.” Two and half decades later it is still true, but now we know people are the network. The network is still the highway, application tools have evolved into nice hybrid cars, but the journey comes to life from our collective map reading skill and sense of adventure.

Embrace the social networking tools, not for the sake of being current or demonstrating Web x.yishness, but to achieve the goals you set for yourself personally and professionally, for your library or organization, and for the greater community.

While social networks are designed to evolve, targeting these actionable objectives can help model behavior that will ensure their value:

  1. Practice positive participation
  2. Capture experience and knowledge
  3. Facilitate organizational evolution
  4. Pay it forward

As research on social networks and organizations shows, sharing knowledge is power. Onward fellow power rangers!

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Recommended Reading:

Holland, J. H. (1998). Emergence: from chaos to order. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Kilduff, M., & Tsai, W. (2003). Social networks and organizations. London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Liebowitz, J. (2007). Social networking: the essence of innovation. Lanham, MD: The Rowmand & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.

Powell, J. (2009). 33 million people in the room. Upper Sadle River, NJ: FT Press.

Strogatz, S. (2003). Sync: how order emerges from chaos in the universe, nature, and daily life. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Strogatz, S. (2009). The calculus of friendship: what a teacher and a student learned about life while corresponding about math. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Watts, D. J., & Strogatz S. (1998). Collective dynamics of ‘small world’ networks. Nature, (393), 440-442.

Published October 7, 2009 in vol. 3, iss. 19 [View]

©2010 BellCow Inc.