Re-visiting the challenge of networking civil society as Khub closes

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


  • May 25, 2013 - 9:27 pm | Permalink


    a useful post, and thanks for the mention. I’ve been reluctant, so far, to wade into the storm around the LGA announcement about closing down #khub because I still feel some residual pain about this whole project. The vision, design and strategy I developed for the LGA (or LGID as it then was) were never delivered and mostly misunderstood. It is clear from the press announcement that, even now, they consider this to be technical project, whereas it was always meant to be an organisational change project. The technology was a means to an end, i.e. to encourage innovation and sharing of best practice, and not the end itself.

    It’s good that you mention Michael Norton, because he and the team of facilitators who devoted so much time and energy in creating trusted spaces for engagement and collaboration did actually get the fact that it was all about the people, and building a safe haven for local authorities to share and innovate. The assumption that this will happen on other social networks once Knowledge Hub has gone is misguided to say the least. And if LGA actually do understand this it says something about what their priorities are.

    One thing is for sure, building a community from a standing start is no longer an option. I’m sure Dave Briggs can create an excellent environment, but the real problem will be getting people to migrate to this environment. It’s not as simple as porting content, as LGA discovered when trying to migrate the 100,000+ users from the legacy IDeA CoP platform to the Knowledge Hub (though the appalling UI/UX didn’t help). Looking at the current attrition rate of less than 20%, I doubt there will be more than 5000 users that want to go through the hassle of yet another migration.

    So, maybe the writing is on the wall for the free-to-access, non-commercial professional communities, and users will be faced with making the best of the wild-west social networks out there. The tragedy if this happens is that the real value of community managers and facilitators will only be recognised once they’ve gone.


  • david wilcox
    May 25, 2013 - 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Steve for engaging in what must be a difficult and, as you say, painful discussion. I do wonder if it would be possible to get a bunch of people together to consolidate and promote the lessons that you are surfacing … and hopefully find some routes forward.

  • Mark Braggins
    May 26, 2013 - 7:19 am | Permalink

    Steve’s original concepts were spot-on. I’ll bet that many members of the original Knowledge Hub Advisory Group would be happy to get together to discuss lessons learned and what can be salvaged. I know I would.

  • May 26, 2013 - 10:30 am | Permalink

    Hi David,

    yes, I think the time is right for a get-together, and seems that Mark is also up for it. I’d prefer F2F than trying to facilitate such a meeting on-line, though this does add to the logistics in finding a convenient time and space. We could try to bring together as many as the original KHub Advisory Group as possible. I’m away this weekend so let’s chat about this early in the week (Tuesday?)

  • Tom Phillips
    May 26, 2013 - 7:50 pm | Permalink

    “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot”
    (Joni Mitchell, from Big Yellow Taxi. Seems apt.)

    I second Mark’s praise for Steve’s original ideas, and sadness that Khub never met these as envisaged. Before those changes, the Communities of Practice were becoming vast. There seemed to be a community for everything you could think of, and, in the medical stuff, plenty of things you’d probably rather not think of.

    It might seem counter-intuitive to say that the bigger the environment, the harder sharing becomes, but thepat’s what Steve seems to be saying, and I agree. Maybe the way ahead is to reverse engineer some of this, and make building networks of networks the goal? That, or take the tough route, and somehow select a core of themes or issues that will be supported, and cut others adrift and leave the active sharers of those topics to formulate a future method that would be sustainable for them.


  • david wilcox
    May 27, 2013 - 9:03 am | Permalink

    Thanks Tom, you have expressed succinctly what has been at the back of my mind in writing earlier posts including this one about a “kit and caboodle”
    Maybe we need a different appoach which recognises:
    – the individual and their different roles and requirements
    – as part of that, the fact that people will be using different devices and getting and sharing content in lots of other ways too
    – that means they are part of many personal networks across different online systems
    – people have to develop the ability to seek, sense, share and build their personal networks, as Harold Jarche and indeed Steve have been saying
    – the added value then comes, as I think you indicate, from helping connect the networks and surface and strong storylines. Something I’m calling socialreporting as a mix of curating and more proactive storytelling.
    I think that ties in with the idea of social ecosystems that Steve is developing.
    The issue then is the viability of the ecosystem, rather than a one-size-fits-all platform. I hope we can get a group together to address the fascinating design issues.

  • Phil
    May 27, 2013 - 12:29 pm | Permalink

    It looks like the consultation into the proposed kHub closure is out this week:

    Perhaps those expressing their views here might like to contribute to it?

  • Lorna Prescott
    May 27, 2013 - 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi David

    Thanks for the links to Steve Dale’s great posts around social ecologies – I’ve just spend a good while reading through them 🙂

    Skills needed to helpfully facilitate interactions and learning in online hubs etc. is a discussion that I had earlier this weekend with my Mum, in relation to Open University courses (she works for the OU). It sounds as though this might be a challenge which people working in all sorts of different settings/contexts/organisations are facing. I think the direction which you are heading in re community enablers feels really useful, I wonder whether what/who we could learn from by finding out who else is thinking or doing stuff around this.

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