Nick Milton at Knoco Stories has a great post today on KM and the coffee machine metaphor. It’s a commonly used explanation of KM and it’s often used to justify Social Media adoption. The idea is that SM will facilitate the transfer of knowledge like the coffee machine does. People bump into each other serendipitously as they go to get coffee, they make nice, “How are you? Whatcha workin’ on? Oh really, I’m doing something along those lines, maybe we can collaborate.” Then they go off together arm in arm, having formed a new social bond that will propel their collective careers to new heights.
He’s right. The analogy doesn’t work. Most interactions at the coffee machine are stilted, formal, and forced by proximity and politeness. There is very little knowledge being transferred. Although, as a long time IT guy and a bit of a coffee addict, my experience at the coffee machine is somewhat different. I have always tried to help people with their computer problems whether they’re work related or personal and I think I’ve developed a reputation for being helpful and friendly. Getting to the coffee machine can be like running the gauntlet. It is rare that I get in and out of the coffee room without having someone say, “Let me ask you a question.” I shamefully admit that I have on occasion abruptly turned and bypassed the coffee machine if there are more than two people in the room. Not because I don’t want to help, but because invariably I’ll be there for 20 minutes explaining the benefits of one operating system over another, or the difference between virus protection and a firewall. I’m usually happy to do it, I just don’t always have the time.
Most of the interactions over coffee are short and polite because employees are generally isolated and focused. They’ve momentarily escaped from their veal cube to imbibe a mild stimulant. They don’t want to be bothered, and frankly, they simply don’t know many of their fellow co-workers well enough to sustain a longer conversation, let alone engage in actual knowledge transfer. However, in the event that two close co-workers find themselves at a coffee machine simultaneously, a lot of real knowledge transfer can take place. Similarly, if someone known to be knowledgeable on a particular issue or subject enters the room (like the IT guy), it can quickly become a feeding frenzy of knowledge.
Most of the people I meet at the coffee machine won’t call me directly to ask their particular question because they feel it isn’t that important, or if it is about their personal computer, they fear it isn’t appropriate to ask during company time. I suspect that when they see me, coffee mug in hand, standing in line, those questions become acceptable because I’m on a break and they’re not keeping me from my “real work”. Leaving aside for a moment the question of my personal break time, I am known to be knowledgeable on the subject of technology, and the perception is that I am available in that situation to be asked just about anything technology related. It seems to me that two things that Social Networking can do well are establish reputations and make people accessible. So can we change the metaphor from “KM and Social Media are like the coffee machine” to “KM and Social Media are like the IT guy entering the coffee room with an empty mug”?