We need to talk about the Knowledge Hub

Or at least, about where people in public service can go to share ideas, ask questions and promote good practice.

Back in the summer of 2006, when I was working as a lowly Risk Management Officer (yes, you read that right) at a county council, I joined the nascent Communities of Practice platform, which was being developed by Steve Dale at the then Improvement and Development Agency.

I thought it was fantastic, and joined in with some gusto – so much so in fact that I did attract a little criticism from colleagues who thought – probably quite rightly – that I ought to have been concentrating on the day job.

One of the first things I did was to launch the Social Media and Online Collaboration community, which I ran until my circumstances changed and Ingrid took over. Under Ingrid’s watchful eye, the community grew into one of the biggest and most popular on the platform.

Over time though it became clear that the CoP platform wasn’t keeping up with the technological times: the interface was a little clunky and a few things didn’t really make sense in an age of hyper-sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

So the Knowledge Hub was born, to take things forward. Only, I’m not sure it has.

I’m not wanting to bash the hard work that people have put in. All I will do is describe my experience – that people aren’t using the Knowledge Hub, and activity appears to be way down compared to the CoPs.

On the rare occasions I log in, I find the site incredibly, almost unusably, slow – and the interface hard to find my way around. I mean, I spend my life on the internet, and I just don’t really know what I am meant to do on the Knowledge Hub.

I’ve been wanting to raise this topic for a while, but what made me do it was receiving a request for information on Twitter by a local government person.

I don’t mind it when this happens. In fact it’s rather nice, as it means people remember who I am, and I get a chance to be helpful. As the owner of a small business, I get that this sort of thing can be a useful marketing tool.

But I do think to myself that there really ought to be a place where good practice, case studies, stories, examples, discussions and helpful chat can take place.

Surely that should be the Knowledge Hub? But as I mention, it isn’t: hardly anyone is on there and people are using tools like Twitter to try and track down the information they need.

So what’s the answer? Given the investment so far, and the organisational backing of the Knowledge Hub, that platform ought to be the future of knowledge sharing and collaboration in the sector.

I’m sure there are a few tweaks on the technology, user interface and community engagement side that could push things forward massively on there, before the goodwill earned by the previous system is used up.

The other option is for something else to emerge to take its place. With a little time and energy, I’ve no doubt someone – maybe even me – could put the tech in place to make it happen. But the time and resources needed to engage an entire sector are huge – and if the LGA are struggling I dread to think what sort of a hash someone like me would make of it.

What are your views? Do you use the Knowledge Hub? How does it compare to the CoPs? Where do you go for your innovation knowledge, stories and chat?

Where do we go next?

12 thoughts on “We need to talk about the Knowledge Hub”

  1. For me the USP of CoP was the email updates. These came to you to let you know what’s going on in your communities (and linked straight to the discussion to let you join in). They came daily, if you were in busy enough communities.

    Email is a really under-rated way to keep people involved (IMHO).
    Some kind of alerts have been on their way from khub since launch, but I’m not sure they’ve been implemented. Would need to find a way in to find out (my computer was mended and I lost my password etc)

    Also -I wrote a blog post in Khub and had to ask some community administrators if they’d be kind enough to attach it to their communities. Why couldn’t I make this link?

    So, as above, I miss CoP and don’t use my khub account.

    1. Couldn’t agree more on the email UI point. We are looking more closely at this as a key mobile interface. The point was made some time ago on Khub that email was still king in councils and the most familiar interface.

      It sounds like setting up your email alerts is what’s needed.

      In addressing this there are a number of steps being taken this weekend as follows:
      – message notifications will be switched on so you will know immediately when you receive a message from another user
      – reply by email on forums will be enabled so you don’t even have to touch the web interface to take part in discussions
      – emailing of blogs enabled so you can use email to blog on the system

      There is more to do obviously. One suggestion being taken forward is a single immediate alert for an entire group.

      With regard to your blog, we changed how these are brought into groups to allow facilitators to determine what was displayed. On CoP there were a lot of complaints about people pushing content into groups which was unwanted. You are always free to post a link to your blog in a group but you can’t just put it there anymore. Sorry if it’s inconvenient but that is intentional and for the good of the whole community.

      If you’ve lost you password you can re-issue it from the front page of Knowledge Hub. Alternately, contact me and we will re-set it for you.

      Thanks for the feedback.


  2. Thanks for this, Dave. It is important to open up the discussion about different platforms and what people are using because there are so many different platforms- and so many different reasons people are looking to work and share collaboratively online.

    I’m currently seconded from Edinburgh Council to Improvement Service and one of my main duties is to introduce people in local government to using web based/digital tools for professional development and knowledge and information sharing. The Improvement Service is working with LGA to ensure a decent amount of space is available on the Knowledge Hub for people in Scottish local authorities -and their partners- to do business. Over the Knowledge Hub Scottish members are disproportionately active and this is something I’m proud of but it hasn’t come without some hard graft and a dedication to making sure people have a fair amount of guidance and information. Without the offer of support I don’t think a majority of people in the public sector would move to using the Knowledge Hub proactively but I don’t think this is because of the way the platform is presented or how it works (or doesn’t work as some might argue), I think it’s down to a long game of change.

    I’m an evangelist for better use of web and social media in local government, not just for business and engagement, but for professional development and increased digital literacy in the workforce. It’s only since working with Improvement Service promoting the Knowledge Hub and teaching people how to use it that I’ve realised how much staff over local authorities have a much lower understanding of web and social media than I had expected, not to mention a surprising lack of basic keyboarding skills, lack of understanding about what I consider simple tools like blogs and a real confusion about the benefit of working collaboratively online. Social media is only useful for telling people what you’re eating for lunch and websites are for uploading leaflets to, right?

    As much as I understand the gripes about the Knowledge Hub I feel they usually come from people who are very skilled at working online over various platforms. What isn’t being discussed outside the Knowledge Hub is how useful the platform is for the huge amount of public sector people who are just awakening to digital working and sharing. For these people I think the Knowledge Hub is useful. I call it ‘the gateway drug’ as hopefully people who start on KHub, however clunky it may be at the moment, they will grow to enjoy and understand web and social media better. Let’s help them along.

    We’ve got a lot of work to do to shift the balance in local government from huge confusing email chains, working largely with paper and pen, holding frequent two hour meetings and enormous anxieties around speaking openly and transparently online. If I can help people move in a way that is comfortable to them to using digital tools via the Knowledge Hub then I’m cool with the clunk. The clunk will smooth out over time but for now I can’t focus on that becausewhy focus on that when there are bigger issues at hand?

    One reason the KHub isn’t yet as active as CoP was is because it’s such a change so I’m not surprised there’s been a dip in activity. But the way to get increased activity is to promote it and help people understand how to use it (if they want to use it) and general reasons why they might want to work online at all. I’m the first to step up and say the KHub isn’t appropriate for everyone and every kind of team or project but it’s free, it’s not so fancy it turns newbies off, it’s not blocked by IT security and it allows you to find people doing common work all over the country. That’s a lot of boxes ticked.

    So that guy who contacted you on Twitter is at least on Twitter which is more than I can say for a vast majority of people I’ve been working with in local government since I started with Improvement Service in December. Maybe he didn’t know he could get what he needed from Knowledge Hub or maybe he feels the Knowledge Hub isn’t slick enough for him but I would argue it’s a good place to start to look for information. If you can’t find what you need there then move on to something else. No one tool or website should be used in isolation so why shouldn’t the KHub be in everyone’s toolbox?

    For the record I get information mostly via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, email subscriptions to blogs, RSS feeds, LinkedIn and face to face meetings. Oh, and the Knowledge Hub.

  3. This is interesting Dave because there is a not disimilar conversation taking place on the RSA Fellows on line ocmmunity about how we get people engaged, in particular, in the workings of the RSA.

    Yes, I use the K Hub , thought not as much as I should. I think the latest iteration is actually pretty good; it’s slick and it has a number of channels. It’s not the place I go for information however, not as a first port of call. Like Leah I get my information feeds via Twitter, subscrptions, RSS, Google + and blogs and by and large I don’t think I go anywhere as a particular information source unless all else is lost.

    First port of call is always one of the search engines; there is a lot of serendipity in my use of Social Media and following # tags plays a big part as well.

    So, what am I saying? Have we reached a point where knowledge repositories not longer need their own engagement interface? Possibly! The social space (and I use the word social to describe the matrix of interested parties here) has become, by its very nature, much more ubiquitous. We could just as easliy create a Google + Circle as set up a specific CoP on a specific site.

    So maybe it’s time to revisit the relationship between knowledge repositories, social spaces and CoPs.

    1. The interesting thing here Paul, I think, is that the LGA did a pretty poor job of marketing and engaging people with the original CoP platform. That managed to grow organically though and ended up with a pretty good regular user level.

      People are using social networks to share stuff and ask questions, which is great, and the words ‘knowledge repository’ do make me shudder.

      Yet, as one of those who often end up answering questions, which as I said I love to do, I do sometimes yearn for a place where I could just point people to, rather than repeating myself, or not knowing an answer.

      Hence why I started this page: http://kindofdigital.com/useful-stuff/ – but finding them time when you’re self employed to keep it updated is tough.

  4. From a tech point of view – I think it is definitely the sort of thing you could put together really well really easily! To my eyes it’s just screaming out for BuddyPress – I mean just look how well that’s worked for GCN.

    I was talking to somebody last night who at the time worked for the agency who built K Hub, but wasn’t on the project. His impression was that it was very much a stereotypical ‘big-fat-custom-CMS’ style project (probably with the invoice to match) – which is a shame, for all the usual reasons that these things are. Particularly that it can’t be picked up by one of many (for example WordPress) developers and tweaked to suit….

    But – as you say – the tech’s not the challenge – it’s the people. It would be tempting to have a go though. And I reckon you’ve got as good a chance as anyone of making it work – certainly don’t write it off.

  5. I’m not 100% sure the case still exists for a closed community, In the (admittedly limited) time I’ve used and interacted with both the CoP and Knowledge Hub I haven’t seen anything shared that wouldn’t have been OK for a wider (public) audience.

    With all the talk for open data, open government and transparency, why are we hiding this work behind a login? for me it just makes it more difficult to follow; limits the number of people involved in the conversation; and means I spend the first 5 minutes trying to remember my password.

    if the community was more open, what would be lost ? wouldn’t there be larger benefits from the wider exposure of the discussions?

    just asking really, because since the move from CoP to Knowledge Hub I don’t think I’ve contributed once.

    1. Hi Kevin

      In many ways, you’re spot on. In retrospect, nothing really in the CoPs, or the Knowledge Hub, needs to be hidden away.

      I think though, it’s more about confidence. The CoPs, coming when they did, needed to be behind that login while people across the sector got comfortable with a new way of sharing knowledge.

      Nowadays, I’m not so sure. I know Steve Dale’s original vision for the KHub was for a Google+ Circles style of sharing, where if the author wanted their stuff to be seen by the public at large, they could do so. Whether the current implementation actually does that, I’ve no idea.

  6. (The following response also posted at http://steve-dale.net/2012/07/09/knowledge-hub-a-response/ with additional links.)

    I wasn’t too sure whether or not I should contribute to the discussion, given that I probably have more insight on the history of this project than most people, and as the lead consultant and architect for the project over two years until October 2011, I’m party to some information that I can’t (or shouldn’t) make public.

    However, in the light of the comments and feedback I’ve seen on Dave’s original post, I feel compelled to correct a few assumptions.

    The original thinking and concept for the Knowledge Hub, which I articulated in a Knowledge Management Strategy paper I was commissioned to produce in 2008 for the Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA, now part of the LGA), was to leverage emerging social web technologies to provide better opportunities for collaboration across local government, encourage innovation and break down the silo’d working practices that were becoming prevalent on the legacy CoP platform.

    The fundamental design concept was to map every user’s social graph (people and relationships) against their interest graph (the topics and themes they followed, e.g. housing, environment, planning etc.). I wasn’t to know it at the time, but this is precisely the thinking behind Google+ and specifically Google+ Circles.

    Of course, each person’s social and information graph could span both internal (to Knowledge Hub) and external (the web) environments. Consequently the design incorporated facilities to link to conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, together with external blogs and RSS feeds. The aggregated feeds would be stitched together using a ‘filterable’ activity stream that included internal (Knowledge Hub) conversations. The user would then see relevant information (i.e. people and topics they had chosen to follow) coming to them rather than having to go out and find it.

    Since all content would be tagged (some automatically), aggregated streams would show topics that were trending (similar to what Twitter has recently released as Tailored Trends), thereby helping to manage the information torrent. The system would also support powerful semantic search across all of this content.

    The original specification also included support for the development of mobile and web apps, using tools that would enable non-technical users to create these apps, similar to the facilities provided by iBuildApp, but specific to local government data and services.

    I noted that one comment referred to local government still being wedded to long and confusing email chains. This was also a consideration in the original design specification, and a feature was included to enable blogging direct from email, i.e. the user didn’t have to learn to use any new tools to create a blog post – they could do it all from their email account.

    An important point to note was that the community of practice facilities (as currently being debated on Dave Briggs’ blog) were meant to be a step on the way, and not an end in itself, which is what I think the Knowledge Hub has become. The unfortunate conjunction of original concepts and vastly cut-down capabilities (per the original specification) has resulted in a just-about-adequate user interface (UI), but a fairly hostile user experience (UX). If you’re not sure about the difference between UI and UX, check this blog I posted a while back http://steve-dale.net/2011/01/31/the-knowledge-hub-and-user-experience-ux-3/

    To my mind, this is proving to be the biggest drag on user engagement and activity. Knowledge Hub is a complex system, but a good UX design will ensure this complexity is hidden, and that navigation and actions become intuitive. This can be achieved by being aware at all times about what a user is trying to achieve (e.g. filing a document, writing a blog) and ensuring that:

    • links and sign-posting are contextually relevant
    • each process has a logical flow
    • there are no dead ends
    • action links are defined by verbs (e.g. write a blog, file a document)

    If experienced social network/social media users like me, or Dave Briggs, find the environment a little confusing, I can only sympathise with users who are only just starting to embrace the world of the social web.

    Since I doubt there will be any major changes made to the UI or UX, the effort falls on the Knowledge Hub support team and community facilitators to ensure that users understand how to get the best out of the system. And this will be hard work.

    Going forward, I would encourage the LGA think about re-convening the Knowledge Hub Advisory Group. These were highly experienced knowledge, information and data professionals who helped me to shape the original specification and acted as critical friends throughout the procurement, architecture and design stages. They were disbanded when I left the project and all subsequent strategic design decisions were folded into a small in-house project team. A case of “none of us are as smart as all of us” perhaps!

    I hope I’ve gone some way to setting the record straight on what Knowledge Hub was meant to be. Community of practice facilities were just a small part of a much bigger idea, sadly not realised.

    Other blogs in this sequence:

    Knowledge Hub 1 http://steve-dale.net/2009/09/21/knowledge-hub-part-1/
    Knowledge Hub 2 http://steve-dale.net/2010/07/06/knowledge-hub-part-2/
    Knowledge Hub 3 http://steve-dale.net/2011/01/31/the-knowledge-hub-and-user-experience-ux-3/
    Knowledge Hub 4 http://steve-dale.net/2011/03/10/knowledge-hub-4-social-graph-and-activity-stream/

  7. Hi Dave / Steven

    Great to have that rehearsal of KHub Steven; many thanks, when you’re debating something here and now it’s easy to forget what has gone before. Plus, you raise a key principle, that of continual review and revision to which I say: hear, hear! You also note that you weren’t to know something at the time and that is an undeniable truth, especially given the current rate of change.

    The other element that strikes me as important is the UI/UX piece; while these are being driven by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest et al their impact on our behaviour spills over into our perception of other digital spaces.

    Why is all of this interesting? It’s a discussion I’m hearing more and more. At the moment participants are tending to focus on the technical aspect and, as you point out, looking at the UI or the unerlying technology. It’s a case of: “Why aren’t we more like “. I’m not so sure it’s that simple. I suspect that Kevin is probably a little closer in that he questions our expectations of what we will find and how we will find it.

    We are talking about a small(ish) group of people here: (call it: people who have an interest, professional or otherwise in government service delivery) so let’s keep that in mind but since I am being told that this is a phenomena being experienced in governments outside of Western Europe as well we have to assume that it’s something we hold in common.

    What commercial developments are doing is changing our perception of what constitutes relevant and valid knowledge. Once upn a time a community of practise appeared the obvious place to go for information about X. Today we ask “what if there’s something else out there?” or “can I really trust what the community says, is there a hidden agenda?” So first we seek a consensus. I heard it referred to the other day as a “rough consensus” not sure who framed the term. Having achieved our rough consensus then we seek to validate that by looking at knowledge sources which may, or may not, include a community of practise.

    The effect of this, at least amongst this small group of people whom we call practitioners is that established knowledge banks and exchanges are being used less and less and in turn people are asking why? Hence I don’t believe the solution lies particularly in a technology change to make something more Facebook like or Google like. The answer lies in understanding people’s perceptions of how knowledge works. As Kevin says, why do we still use closed groups? This seems to be about how we define “social” beyond the exchange of trivia – though exchange of trivia could be argued as an important protocol in the preparation for a meaningful exchange –

    I’ve rambled somewhat but I’m still trying to get a handle on this from my inclusion perspective but will be interested to hear what others think about the idea that this is a more universal issue not just one relating to KHub.

  8. Thanks, Steve. This background information is really useful to me. It is good to have a record of what the Knowledge Hub was planned to be and what hasn’t come to fruition because time is infinite and aspirations should not be lost. Right now the Knowledge Hub is what it is. Speaking as someone coming in fresh to your information and as someone who has had nothing to do with building the platform I can see where the frustrations are but I’m helping a lot of basic web users address immediate needs and dwelling on the past isn’t helpful to me in that endeavour.

    I still believe strongly there are two camps when it comes to the Knowledge Hub- the digitally literate and those who are new to digital platforms and therefore largely new to the idea of openly sharing information. I personally get what Kevin is saying here about openness and transparency but in my experience when I’m talking to people about the KHub one of the most frequent questions/anxieties is whether or not people outside their group will be able to see what they are writing (for interest the other FAQs are whether or not KHub is free, if it will be blocked by IT and how to convince managers using the platform is indeed appropriate during work time as it’s a social and live platform.) If the KHub didn’t offer a level of privacy in groups that would definitely be a deal breaker for a lot of people I’m meeting. I’m obviously not meeting everyone who is using KHub but I’m frequently called on by people who need help understanding the platform and way of working or need support convincing their management about it all.

    Again, I think the ideas for advanced functionality in KHub are fantastic and I look forward to the time it’s all in place, however, what’s being discussed here would be very advanced for the people I’m meeting and would either go unused or would turn folk off all together. I’m serious when I say the concepts of blogs, microblogging and sharing in open groups is brand new to some and somewhat scary to more people than I think us digital natives are considering. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I wasn’t coming across it so much. We should put our energy toward doing what we can to help newbies learn about digital.

    All this said, however, doesn’t mean my personal opinion is that we should not be exploring these more advanced options. I think we should be but I also know we need to take baby steps with a lot of our colleagues.

    So for me the trick for the future of the platform is how to strike a balance between servicing people new to working online and gradually introducing them to more advanced things and servicing those of us who are already working online and understand openness and functionality? This conversation gets deeper when taking into account Paul’s stack of excellent points above. Loving your work, Paul.

  9. Lots of good points being made in the discussion thread – open vs. closed, digital natives vs. newbies, and Paul’s deep and philosophical points about knowledge. I doubt I have answers to all of these points, but speaking as an information and knowledge professional with more years behind me than I care to admit, and (unfortunately) a bit opinionated, I would only note the following.

    1. Knowledge repositories are places where knowledge goes to die. They may still be relevant to researchers but are a place of last resort for knowledge workers. Knowledge workers want instant access to information and knowledge, and increasingly rely on search engines to find it.
    2. It’s never been easier to connect with people with same/similar interests, or to find answers from “experts”. Anyone who is not yet fully engaged with the social web is at a distinct disadvantage.
    3. The days of expensive enterprise social software systems (such as Knowledge Hub) are numbered. More and more work can be done using (mainly free) Web2.0 tools. Private/closed environments are becoming niche and specialised, driven mainly by organisations who have compliance and regulatory requirements.
    4. There is a growing market for products and services that help us manage the information torrent. All of the key social networks now provide aggregation, trending and personalisation capabilities. (This had a downside in that by limiting what we want to see we’re all becoming far more parochial).
    5. There’s no such thing as privacy on the web – get over it!
    6. The web has been with us for almost 20 years; social networks for over 10 years. Any workers (managers, staff) who still claim to be digital technophobes in 2012 are a lost cause. Focus effort on those who see the benefits of on-line interaction.
    7. The future is mobile and ‘appified’ (meaning, less and less use of the web, and more and more use of mobile apps).

    Perhaps this has strayed onto wider issues than just the Knowledge Hub, but it does pick up on my earlier point about user experience. We come back to those products and services that are easy to use and provide some value. If the Knowledge Hub meets your needs, then great. If not, you need to question why and/or look for alternatives.

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