News that the Local Government Association is closing its Knowledge Hub as part of a £2 million savings plan provides a reminder of how difficult it is to maintain big one-stop-shop knowledge-sharing systems. And smaller ones too.
Dave Briggs has launched a rescue bid, and I’m sure Dave has the skills and helpers to develop a lighter version if he can persuade the LGA (and users) to collaborate in a handover, and can develop a new business model. There’s the rub.
It may be the Knowledge Hub, with 18,500 users (correction – apparently 150,000 registered but not clear how many active) could have continued if LGA hadn’t faced a big cut in support from Government, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Knowledge hubs take a lot of work not just to manage the technical system, but also to continue to recruit users and facilitate interactions. I know that Michael Norton and others at khub have been excellent in doing that, and have attracted many compliments amidst the news of closure. But it is a skilled business, and it costs. You can recruit some volunteers for different groups, but they need support too.
Steve Dale, who designed the Communities of Practice predecessor to Khub, and then conceived the new design, has recently been writing about Social Ecologies as a a different sort of architecture to tackle “the key challenges and opportunities for anyone who wants to survive and thrive in this emergent social ecosystem”:
- Social media is generating enormous amounts of unorganised content: how to make sense of that.
- Social networks enable a wider range of connections: how to find people and develop relationships.
- New forms of collaboration are made possible by social media and networks: how to organise and manage.
- There are a bewildering variety of methods and tools: how to choose and learn to use.
- The new ways of making sense, connecting, collaborating, and using technology throw up the need for new skills: what are the new roles and the new skills?
- The emphasis on open access and sharing changes where value may reside: so what are the new business models?
- Social capital is becoming increasingly important in establishing trust and credibility in the virtual world: how do we increase or measure our social capital?
Steve and I have discussed this a lot, and I drew on that for a paper with Nick Wilding last year for the Carnegie UK Trust, about the future for rural networking. Part of the challenge was how to develop new business models for smaller Communities of Practice, like the Ning-based Fiery Spirits system that had been supported by the Trust. Because of a change of emphasis in their work, they were looking for a new home for the system.
My conclusion was fairly blunt: it is difficult to see how that sort of system can be maintained independently without a lot of funding, or volunteer effort. I know the latter is difficult to maintain from my own experience with similar systems. The alternative, I suggested, is that it can be part of a bigger system of online networking associated with an organisation, if they are going down the route of becoming a Networked Nonprofit on the lines described so well by Beth Kanter and her co-authors.
The Plunkett Foundation has now taken on Fiery Spirits and I hope they are able to integrate it with their other ambitious developments. That would be a good demonstration of migration from old to a new organisation-based model.
I don’t know what model Dave in mind, but do know of his past work in online learning, where people are prepared to pay fees, so perhaps there’s an option for blending free and paid for.
I’m interested in looking at things from the other end – that of helping people become their own knowledge hubs within the wider knowledge ecologies Steve Dale explores in an excellent second post on the topic. As well as developing personal digital literacies, in the social ecology we’ll need digital curators to help make sense and join up conversations and people: what I’m calling social reporting. Digital curators are working “in the wild” rather than as online community managers on knowledge hubs, which of course raises another business model challenge. How do we earn a living? And how do the curators cooperate within a field to make things as easy as possible for others? That’s for another post.
Meanwhile I have been exploring alternatives to the knowledge hub model in recent posts, prompted by ideas for a sort of civic Facebook or similar system developed by the new Lobbi initiative. The original vision there has been for a system to connect politicians, officials and citizens to tackle local issues and revive local politics. I love the enthusiasm behind the idea … but if a big outfit like LGA can’t make a knowledge hub work with fairly digitally savvy professional users, with shared culture and practises, is it realistic to think it possible to do something big with a far more diverse set of users?
In any case, whether or not sustainable knowledge hubs can be maintained, they won’t do everything, and anyone aiming to use digital technology for social good will need a set of personal literacies and tools to do that: hence my exploration of Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change and What’s digital life like for a community enabler?
I did write in an earlier post that I thought whatever challenges Lobbi faced in developing a platform, it could have an important role in acting as a convenor and catalyst for a wider movement for social technology for social impact, linking politics and local social action. Maybe it’s time for a get-together around the new architectures, roles and skills needed to meet The Challenge of Networking Civil Society, as I wrote a year back. It’s not getting easier.
Update: I’ve just come across a post by Steve Dale, initially the lead consultant and architect on knowledge hub, setting out what it was meant to be. It looks a if cut-backs during development removed integration with other social media, and led to poor user experience.
Update 2 Steve Dale provides more background and a vision of what a user-controlled knowledge hub might be like here
- LGA plans to cut jobs to save nearly £2 million
- Help me save the Knowledge Hub (in some form)
- Social Ecology: Evolution or Revolution? Part 1
- Social Ecology: Evolution or Revolution? Part 2.
- The Future for Rural Networking?
- Introducing Lobbi – with bold aims to change politics locally and globally
- Developing a Lobbi kit for local agents of change
- Creating a whole kit (and caboodle) for community enablers and agents of change
- What’s digital life like for a community enabler?