What's your idea worth? Building a social knowledge market with Barter

Barter is a social networking platform developed to use market-based incentives to promote internal knowledge sharing in organisation

Social media and social networking for internal collaboration and knowledge sharing can raise the productivity of some employees by up to 25 per cent according to a McKinsey report released last month.

However, internal deployment of social technologies by businesses often involves a spike in engagement followed by a drop-off in participation as the novelty wears off, according to McKinsey. This can be a product of failing to integrate social technologies into work processes and a lack of attention to changing workforce culture to maintain internal social networking adoption rates.

To promote the kind of knowledge sharing that will actually increase productivity requires developing users as ongoing participants, not merely passive consumers. It’s tackling this problem that led to the development of Barter: A social networking platform created at MIT’s Media Lab.

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“All social media services, especially knowledge-related platforms that rely on users' participation, sharing, and contribution all face the challenge of building incentives for users,” says Dawei Shen, the MIT PhD candidate who developed the platform.

One problem faced by organisations with a fixed employee incentive for contributing knowledge, for example $100 per article, is it leads to an “oversupply of garbage information, and undersupply of really valuable information,” Shen says. “A ‘market’ is a term that's the opposite — let the market decide how to allocate resources and what knowledge should be built, and how it should be priced.”

Using Barter, people buy and sell ideas, documents, questions and answers using virtual points, and virtual currency in a decentralised way. But building a knowledge market has its own set of problems owing to the nature of knowledge products, Shen says. “Knowledge products are peculiar — non-rivalrous, non-excludable, and repetition cost is zero. Information asymmetry is severe, and knowledge has spillover effects that are not captured by transactions. My research is to devise mechanism that addresses these problems.”

“We are applying innovative market mechanisms and established economic theories and practice to the domain of social collaboration/knowledge management software, especially trying to optimise incentive design,” he says.

“In short, we are building a ‘knowledge economy’ with currency, market dynamics, and sophisticated economic tools optimising both social and material incentives, instead of simply building another social media website.”

The platform consists of three components: Knowledge currency, knowledge markets, and economic policies, which consist of monetary policies and fiscal policies.

The user facing aspect of Barter is multiple knowledge markets. “A Q&A market, document exchange, idea market, design market, prediction market. Each of them is addressing a different type of organizational challenge,” Shen says.

“Users exchange different types of knowledge objects on these markets, buying and selling answers, documents, ideas, and so on.”

On the management side, a module monitors the network and provides key indicators of the knowledge economy and advises on possible policies to stimulate or moderate the economy.

The core aims are to build a network that embeds incentives for user participation and contribution, identify experts in different fields and deliver tools to manage the platform

Barter can be used to create a secure ‘knowledge currency’ and banking system. “We work with organisations to back up the value of currency through creative ways, so that users do care about earning currency,” Shen says. Knowledge is shared among users using decentralised peer-to-peer market exchanges. This market-based approach means there are not fixed rewards for contributing.

“Users get fairly rewarded through earning currency, which tracks their reputation and expertise, and can be used to exchange [for] material awards,” Shen says.

The system also has two special entitles: A central bank and ‘the planner’, Shen says. “The central bank is the policy maker on monetary policies, which stimulate knowledge activities through currency control. The planner is similar to the government: It uses fiscal policies to fill the gaps created by a decentralised market. Fiscal policies include rewarding information reuse, and rewarding good behaviour.”

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