The Authority of Perspectives

Posted Feb 04, 2010 by Anthony in Blogs, Social Media, Strategy

Image courtesy of Ryan Ashton (blog.ryanashton.org)This post is based on a response I made to a Knowledge Management listserv several months ago. Since that time the notion of authoritative data sources and validity of information has continued to surface in the course of my work.  My view on the subject has been refined by discussions with Dr. Andres Sousa-Poza and Sam Kovacic at the National Center for System of Systems Engineering at Old Dominion University.  The content of my original post was as follows:

I believe that too often, particularly in the Federal government, there is too much emphasis placed on SMEs and authoritative sources of information.  I believe a culture shift is in order that will go from “authoritative” to “value-added”.  You won’t find many people who consider themselves experts in a given category, but that does not mean they do not have valuable viewpoints on a topic.  Out of the 700 or so people on this listserv, there are probably a large number that could add value to this subject, but will not because they do not feel they can offer expert advice.

This is akin to offering Consumer Reports to the community as the authoritative source of information on products and providing access to the people that actually performed the reviews.  Certainly, their insight is valuable and they can tell you that the battery life on the portable DVD player is actually only an hour as opposed to the 2 hours listed in the technical specifications.  However, I find the most value by going to Amazon.com and reading regular user reviews on a product.  There I might find that another parent bought the product for their child on long car drives, but the buttons were left exposed so the child constantly turned the DVD player off (based on this I bought a Sony that had a Hold button :) ).  You will also discover issues like how customer support responds to problems and be able to surmise the true value of a product based on finding trends in the comment threads.  The great majority of these people would not consider themselves experts, but do feel they have a perspective that may add value.  Sites like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble encourage this type of user participation.  I have not seen the same encouragement from the Federal government.

I have modified my view on the subject, although the sentiment of my original post remains the same.  The key remains capturing the perspectives that contribute valuable information.  However, it was inaccurate for me to make a one to one correlation between authoritative sources and SMEs.  Expertise can be localized such that the authoritative source on an issue is not a SME.

For instance, a solider that has been on the ground in Afghanistan for a year may have more knowledge of the prevailing conditions than a PhD who has studied the society.  I consider both perspectives to fall within the “expert” category.  Both individuals have relevant perspectives and should be considered as capable of providing valuable information. However, it must be recognized that these two views will be more appropriate in different situations.

A SME point of view will be most effective in situations that require strategy based on broad generalities that are valid over some defined segment.  The local perspective is much more effective in providing context specific advice.  For instance, a SME could best advise on how the US Military should approach civilians in Afghanistan given their culture, while a local figure would be more knowledgeable on the most likely hideouts for terrorists in a region.  To facilitate informed decision-making it is vital to understand when to shift between these perspectives as most problems have an element of both.

An additional issue arises when trying to identify a local perspective.  SMEs can usually be identified by a number of factors to include experience, education, speaking engagements, and published works. Locating an individual that has “lived-in” a related situation or within a target environment and has a viewpoint that is in line with an overarching strategy is much more difficult.  A local perspective may also extend beyond the views of a single individual, but rather be composed of a group of individuals that exhibit certain patterns.  As local perspectives are either solicited or derived from a crowd, there is a massive amount of information that must be filtered.

Social Media is largely responsible for bringing many of these issues to the forefront. The crowd now has a voice that extends as far or beyond traditional communication outlets, which are more accessible to SMEs.  Also, the volume of user-generated content enabled by this technology far exceeds that which was previously available.  As a result, organizations within the public and private sector along with private citizens are engaged in processes to aggregate, search and analyze the flow of information to reveal interesting patterns and drive decision-making in near real-time.

While Social Media has enormous potential to drive business, the success of any organization at making informed decisions in the future will be limited by the credibility they assign to the local perspective.   The technology to filter relevant content and identify reliable patterns has and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace.  The greater challenge for most organizations will be the cultural shift required to embrace and rely on this new type of “authoritative” information.

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One Response to “The Authority of Perspectives”

  1. Michael Rollins

    04. Feb, 2010

    One thing that jumps out at me is the power of the network to bring out the truly useful “local” viewpoint. It’s almost like listening to “old adages”. The more that something is quoted, the more it ingrains itself in a population.

    The same is true of things like Social Media. The more that someone is retweeted, the more their local perspective will filter into the “mainstream” as a whole. In this way, local perspectives can permeate a network and become common knowledge.

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