Online collaboration in the workplace – thoughts and concerns

I had a mixed day yesterday at the Online Information conference, which is excellently led by Steve Dale. The good bits were the sessions I attended and the chance to meet up with good friends, old and new. The less good bit was the panel I was chairing, which was a little challenging to say the least!

Having said that, one of the participants was truly excellent – Andrew Walsh from the University of Huddersfield, who spoke about their efforts to use competitive gaming ideas to encourage greater use of the library with a project called Lemon Tree.

Now, I’m not all that convinced about the use of ‘gamification’ to drive engagement, but there’s no doubt that it really works for many people. I do rather fear for those that get left behind though.

Anyway, one of the more interesting sessions at the conference was on ‘enterprise 2.0’ or the use of social technology in the workplace to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing. Now, I love this stuff, and honestly believe that making social tools available to people to help them do their jobs can have a positive impact on effectiveness and efficiency.

I do have concerns though, particularly based on what a couple of the speakers were talking about (I ought to point out now that I am definitely not referring to Jemima Gibbons whose talk on open leadership was great). I worry that the wrong emphasis is being made when people discuss this issue, in terms of focusing in on organisational objectives and needs and ignoring what is surely central to making this work – the users themselves.

Much is made of the fact that due to the consumerisation of technology, workers are more likely to expect that social tools are available to them at work. I’d agree with this, but I think it is more likely that they expect and desire to use tools of their own choosing and not some corporately imposed knowledge management solution.

In other words, I suspect in this area employees would want to use the tools they like using, for their own purposes. There’s nothing wrong with this – I’m not suggesting that people just want to waste time, or spend their working day expanding their LinkedIn network – but I do think it more important that organisations allow staff access to the tools they want to do their jobs, and then find a way of  managing it all – as opposed to procuring a big system to do ‘social’ and assuming people will want to use it.

Another thing that was mentioned was the idea that making social tools available to employees makes them more creative. Does it? I’d have thought it more likely that these tools merely enhance what an employee was like in the first place. After all, a lot of those early adopters who started using social tools will have been creative, innovative types in the first place. The dullards wouldn’t have considered it in the first place, I wouldn’t have thought.

So the key for me with the implementation and adoption  of social technology in the workplace is getting people to be bothered to use it. Organisations shouldn’t, in my view, waste their time trying to get everyone on board, but instead focus on the innovative types who care enough about their work to want to share and pool knowledge and intelligence. After all, one great example of cross sector collaboration is the Communities of Practice in local government (and beyond) in the UK, but even with the hundred-odd thousand users on that platform, it’s still a tiny fraction of the overall potential audience.

The fundamental problem with knowledge sharing at work, whether using social technology or not, is convincing people it is in their interests to do it. After all, the stuff one knows is what makes us useful and in a world of rising unemployment, it would take a brave soul to give that away.

I realise I have raised a lot of problems here and not provided many answers. I’ll chew it over and maybe come up with some more positive stuff in a later post. I’d be interested in your views though, of course.

Edit: and as if by magic, Headshift’s James Dellow has blogged today on Does Viral Adoption of Enterprise Social Business Software work?

The Read/Write Organisation

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m just putting the finishing touches to a handbook on the topic of using social technology behind the firewall to make an organisation more interactive, collaborative, better at learning, and that sort of thing.

I’m quite proud of the first line in it:

Has there ever been an intranet that didn’t suck?

We haven’t decided yet just how it is going to be published, other than giving it to customers as part of projects we are working on, but I’m sure it will be available in some form to everyone in the near future.

As a taster for what’s included, here’s a brief outline of the contents. If you’re interested in finding out more, or would like to get hold of it once it is finished, do let me know in the comments or by email.

  1. Introduction
  2. Why this matters
    • Talking about change
    • Learning and knowledge
    • Managing talent
    • Working smarter
    • Innovating
  3. The toolkit
    • Networking
    • Status updates
    • Discussion
    • Collaborative authoring
    • Blogging
    • Resource sharing
    • Idea sharing
    • Note taking
    • Mashing up data
    • Project collaboration
  4. Approaches to implementation
    • Cobbling free stuff
    • Off the shelf
    • Roll your own
    • Use what you have
  5. Culture and the invisible architecture
    • People, process and technology
    • The importance of workflow
    • Wide and shallow, or narrow and deep?
  6. Governance and risk
    • Strategy and policy
    • Training
    • What are the risks?
    • Mitigation
  7. Summary and next steps
  8. Further reading and resources

The death of crowd control

James Gardner:

The point,  of course, is that if the central thinking is that communications are about crowd control, then organisations are really forcing the many-to-many communication outside their organisation. Although I don’t think we are about crowd control at the department, the fact that we don’t have our new communications channels yet has already resulted in crowds forming beyond the firewall. Imagine the circumstance when new channels, far being lacking, aren’t even allowed.

My conclusion, based on this, is that crowd control is pretty much dead. And that centralised command-and-control will soon follow.

Technology, learning and knowledge

I had a good time up in Scotland last week, and enjoyed putting together and delivering my talk at the Learning Pool event we ran – which saw a great turnout.

My discussion focused on the use of technology in a time of immense change and budget pressures, focusing on not just the use of social media in communicating and engaging outside the organisation but also how such tools can be used internally to improve the way everyone works.

Not exactly ground breaking stuff, but I think it is certainly an area that few organisations in the public sector have right and also one where genuine benefits, cashable and otherwise could be realised.

Think about it. With talk of budget cuts of up to 40% we are going to be seeing huge amounts of change in terms of personnel, with early retirements, redundancies etc. The issues as I see them are around:

  • Knowledge and learning – how do you record and share what the people working in the organisation know? How to capture what’s in the heads of all those staff likely to leave?
  • Change – how to keep staff engaged with large scale change programmes?
  • Talent – how to make the most of the people that are left. Where are the hidden gems in your organisation, and how much money might finding them save you?
  • Innovation – how are ideas shared and assessed in the organisation?
  • Collaboration – how much duplication of effort is going on? How can communications be improved within teams, departments, the whole organisation, even multiple organisations?

Effective use of social software is no panacea and won’t see all the problems of government disappear. However, current usage is so limited I believe it could have a genuinely substantial transformative effect. I’m hoping to be writing a bit more about this in the future.

One other thing I covered in the presentation is around the development of technology from mainframes to today’s smartphones. Two things are apparent:

  1. Technology is getting smaller and more personal
  2. As it does so, the ability for a central authority to control it diminishes.

How does this affect what I was talking about, in terms of organisations using social tools to work better? I think the key is to focus on the personal aspect of this. Don’t try to force people into using specific workflows to achieve what are generally pretty personal tasks. The way people like to record their learning and knowledge differs, so don’t assume the same tool will work the same for everyone.

Rather, be as flexible as you can, and ensure that as an organisation you can loosely join the small pieces of your employees’ shared knowledge and learning.

Here are the slides – ignore the title on the first slide, I moved on pretty quickly from that.

Opportunities for serendipity

Excellent stuff from Andrew McAfee:

I think serendipity is part of what underlies Metcalfe’s Law and a big part of the explanation for Eric Raymond’s insight that ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.’ Knowledge workers and their organizations should be doing everything possible to increase opportunities for serendipity. This means searching broadly for information, narrating work so that others can become aware of it, asking questions to the biggest possible audience without presupposing who might have the answers, and generally contributing to and drawing from the biggest possible digital commons. This is what Enterprise 2.0 should be all about.

Enterprise mashups

Quite a few people – at least those that read this blog and others like it – are comfortable with the idea of mashups, the activity of taking data from one source, and combining it with one or more others to create something useful and interesting.

Often this happens on maps, but of course it doesn’t have to.

One potential application of this sort of technology which doesn’t get discussed much, certainly in the public services context, is enterprise mashups, in other words applying these techniques within the organisation, behind the firewall. So, taking a set of data or statistics from one department and mashing it up with another.

I’d read about enterprise mashups before, but the idea didn’t really catch on until I saw Bill Ive’s post about JackBe, a vendor providing a platform for organisations to do this stuff. Here’s a video giving an example of how JackBe can be used:

I certainly remember my days as a Business Analyst at a county council where I spent days taking information from one source and having to reformat it to make it play nicely with another, usually in Excel. Having a tool like this available would have made life much easier.

Here’s a whitepaper explaining all this in more detail (PDF warning).

(Obviously, there are other providers of enterprise mashup platforms and not just JackBe, it’s just that I wasn’t looking at their websites when I was writing this post.)

Big conference

Social Media World Forum Europe

On Monday (14th) I will be attending the Social Media World Forum Europe conference, at London’s Olympia venue. It looks like quite a big do.

I’m also going to appear on a couple of panels, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

The morning’s panel – at 10:30 – is a workshop on ‘What are Politicians doing in Web 2.0?’ focusing in on:

  • What tools Obama and his team used to gain success in social media space
  • Who’s tweeting?
  • Number 10 – how the prime minister’s office are embracing social media

I’ll be sharing a stage with Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes), Scott Redding of the Green Party and my good pal Simon Dickson off of Puffbox.

In the afternoon – at about 5pm –  I’ll be discussing the use of social tools behind the firewall as part of the Enterprise Social Media Forum, in a session called ‘The integration of social business software with Social Media feedback to building your business and brand’.

With me on the panel will be luminaries of the enterprise 2.0 scene David Terrar, Andy McLoughlin and Per Rombouts.

Other sessions I’ve spotted featuring friends of DavePress are Ingrid Koehler, who will be on a workshop panel discussing the impact of social media on elections, at about 11am, and Jemima Gibbons, who is discussing how to write the case for using online communities in business, sometime in the morning (it’s not quite clear on the agenda – PDF warning).

Buzzin’ enterprise

Two interesting viewpoints on Google Buzz and its potential application behind the firewall, within organisations.

Firstly, Larry Dignan on ZDNet’s Between the Lines blog points out that perhaps Google has Sharepoint, not Twitter, in its sights:

The Google Buzz playbook will resemble the current Apps and Docs strategy. Aim Buzz at the smaller companies first since they are the low-hanging fruit. Large enterprises will stick with SharePoint for now until Google makes the ROI case over time like the company currently does with Exchange.

If Google Buzz becomes Google corporate Buzz it could be disruptive. Enterprises could potentially use it to save on Sharepoint licenses. It’s all about the collaboration.

But ReadWriteEnterprise questions how suitable Buzz will be in big organisations:

Google Apps has it own faults to work out, before Google Buzz can even be considered a viable service for the enterprise. The Google Buzz open architecture may be the difference though, creating real opportunities for customers to pull external data into its real-time environment.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out.

Meeting with Microsoft

Microsoft public sector uk

I had a very interesting hour today, chatting with James Brown and Dave Coplin at Microsoft. James works with the public sector all over the world, while Dave concentrates his effort on the UK. Dave also came along to last weekend’s govcamp – good man!

We had a great discussion about the state of public sector IT and the big issues, like open data, innovation and collaboration in government.

No one once claimed that Windows 7 was their idea.

I think it’s important that big vendors like Microsoft – and Google, IBM, SAP and others – are involved in these discussions. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • These guys know a lot of stuff, and they aren’t afraid to share it
  • Like it or not, a lot of public sector organisations buy their IT from bigco. If we – by which I mean the community of people interested in open and effective government – want real change to happen, these guys need to be involved in the conversations
  • Further, for long term technology enabled change to be sustainable within the huge – and not so huge – organisations that make up the public sector, the big boys have to be involved
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the issues we are all talking about are platform neutral. It’s in everyone’s interest that government becomes more innovative and collaborative, whether you are a civil servant, a one man govweb revolution, or a multinational supplier

Both James and Dave are keen to be a part of the conversation and the discussion around open government and the use of technology in organisations to drive improvement and efficiency. Dave even volunteered to write something for this blog in the near future – and now I’ve written it here, it looks like he’ll have to.