David Weinberger
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The BBC's low-tech KM

01 September 2005

Euan Semple heads up knowledge management for a little organization you may not only have heard of but have actually heard: The British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC runs on knowledge, and Semple has a piece of advice for other large organizations: Social computing isn't a fad and it isn't an adjunct to a KM system. It is where knowledge lives.

When the BBC gave Semple the job, they expected him to spec out a big, expensive IT-based KM system. "But," he says, "my view is that we're a network-based, conversational type of business. I realized the best way to go was beneath the radar." Because he was in charge of the BBC's intranet, he was able to set up his own servers without asking anyone. Perhaps most important, he says, "I didn't feel like I was running it. I was just letting people get together."

The first tool that he installed was a bulletin board called "Talk.Gateway." "We used word of mouth instead of internal marketing," Semple says. The site currently gets 450,000 page views a month from 8,000 unique users--startling in an organization of 25,000. "It's primarily there to ask questions and get answers," he says. "There's probably someone who's already done what you're trying to do."

But the board wouldn't have taken off if it were restricted to the dry discussions of pure business. "It's great fun," he says. "It ranges from day-to-day stuff--‘I'm trying to do this, does anyone know how to?'--to where the best curries are served, to a debate about whether the BBC should have aired 'Jerry Springer the Opera'." The Springer topic got 350 messages. Aren't such uses trivial and distracting? "I've deliberately taken a hands-off position," Semple says. "They can talk about what they want, so long as they stay away from slander and other legal pitfalls." The board has entered the daily life of BBC employees because it's fun and interesting as well as useful. That's a good thing to remember when your own company is worrying that its e-mail or bulletin board or blogs may sometimes go "off topic." Good! Then maybe someone will read them.

In addition to moving knowledge around rapidly--Semple stresses that velocity is the key to a successful KM system--the board also generates knowledge. "A lot of senior people watch because it's a great early warning system," he says. For example, in January 2004, the BBC's director general, Greg Dyke, resigned because of errors in reporting the death of an Iraq arms expert. "A lot of our people went out onto the street to express their support for Dyke, and quite a lot of the coordination happened on our Gateway." With a chuckle he adds, "It's a great internal flash mob tool."

Semple's next project was a "people finder" called Connect that lets people state their skills, background and interests. "Someone on the bulletin board asked for someone to translate some Dutch, and I was able to e-mail him the names of 25 people I'd found through Connect," he says.

But Connect isn't just an expert finder; it also enables people to form interest groups. "We have over 200 groups, some reflecting interests not expressed in the organization chart," he says. For example, there's a group of 200 people interested in Adobe software that is a powerful resource for getting maximum value from that software. It's also cut down on internal spam: "The Finance Department used to send out lots of e-mail to everyone. Now they've set up interest groups that are opt-in and much more granular. They're only reaching people who want to hear from them."

Then about two years ago, Semple put in a blogging server. "We have about 70 blogs with 150 people writing for them," he says. Some are individual, some are linked into communities and a couple of engineering groups are using them for passing information between shifts. Richard Sambrook, head of the BBC World Service, writes one of the most popular, combining reflections on work with observations about his life and the world. "He's very authentic," says Semple. "No corporate-speak."

Semple is also getting the BBC used to wikis. About 500 people are using them, with controlled access, to do things such as write procedural documentation. "There's no way people would write that sort of stuff on a wiki without being able to control who gets to see them while they're being developed," he says. He isn't out to break the BBC of its habits. Rather he wants those habits to have the right tools.

The result is that Semple is enabling the BBC to be as smart as it can be. As he's learned, it doesn't require a lot of tech or a huge budget. Mainly it requires letting people find one another and talk.