Notes on making collaborative technology successful

I spent an interesting morning at the Online Information conference on Tuesday – ably chaired by my pal Steve Dale – and the session I enjoyed most was about implementing collaborative technology in organisations – one example was from a big media and communications provider, the other a government department.

Here are some of the thoughts that the session inspired me to write down…

1. There’s always a disconnect between what the organisation wants and what the user wants.

This doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail – but it means you are if you don’t think about how to balance these competing elements.

Knowledge management is a classic example of this problem – the organisation wants its people to share their know-how so they won’t be missed so much when they leave. But maintaining their indispensability is a pretty important thing for employees who want to stay in work.

The answer here is, I think, not to pretend that the disconnect doesn’t exist – just manage it. Don’t try selling organisational benefits to staff – instead focus that on what’s in it for them. Find a way of aligning what the organisation wants and what makes the users’ lives easier and better.

2. Calling it something new is a bad idea. Just make it ‘work’.

Imagine you’re sat at your desk and someone approaches you, beaming, and announces that from now on we’re all going to start managing our knowledge! Or sharing our collective wisdom! Or collaborating!

My eyes are rolling just thinking about it. By giving an activity a name you separate it from other, existing activity. It becomes more work rather than just a new, better way of doing the existing work.

If people see something as a new responsibility or an additional task, they are unlikely to want to do it. Instead frame these tools as more efficient ways of getting the job done better.

3. Getting good engagement requires skills that not many organisations have.

One of the key ones is community management, which I have banged on about quite a bit before. Encouraging people to an online space and to get involved is exactly a community management activity and anyone trying to do it really ought to spend some time learning about it (which might be going on a course, but could just be spending some time reading about it).

There’s other stuff too like curation, social reporting, writing for the web, networking and so on… none of which are full time jobs but skills that are needed and roles which should be performed if you are going to engage users with your platform. Assuming the skills exist or that they aren’t needed will result in failure, I’m afraid.

4. If you find yourself in the position where you’re having to convince people to collaborate or share, you’ve probably already failed.

I do wonder sometimes whether allowing people to discover social tools in the workplace for themselves might make them more likely to take them up. It might make for slightly slower levels of engagement but I dare say they will be more sustainable in the long term.

There’s something here to learn from the success of Yammer in many organisations, which is often started up under the radar by individual staff members with no strategy or management buy-in. Because it belongs to the people using it, and it isn’t being imposed, it feels like a space people actually want to use, and there’s no need to convince people.

What I am saying here might sound a bit like ‘if you build it, they will come’. That’s not what I’m saying.

Maybe I’m saying ‘if you plead with people to come to something you’ve built, they will regard you and your thing with contempt’.

5. Don’t prescribe what people can do. Let them surprise you.

This ties in a bit with my first and second points but is more focused on activity and features. What I mean here is that if you launch a social system with the intention of it being a knowledge management tool, and people end up using it to manage their projects, then let them.

If instead of correctly managing the versions of various official documents within the strictures of your beautifully designed taxonomy, people end up discussing the ramifications of the latest restructure, then let them.

Telling people they aren’t doing things right is unlikely to endear them to you or your platform. Of course step in if people are behaving anti-socially or whatever, but by and large they them do what they want to do, and just be glad that they want to do it on your system. Once they begin to trust it and like it, they might just start doing some of the things you originally hoped they would.

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?

Being good at work

Lovely post from Stephen Hale:

I think the culture and tools of social networking can go a long way to improve how people manage and share knowledge inside an organisation, and increase individuals’ productivity at work. Lots of people could be a little bit more productive if they used more of behaviours and the tools of social networking routinely at work.

Personally, I am much better at my job because of social tools. I’m better informed, often helped by others, better connected, more grateful, and more ready to share my own thoughts than I would be without tools like Yammer, Twitter and blogs.

Learning, knowledge and the ‘net

I had the pleasure earlier today to speak at a meeting of the Scottish Knowledge Management Network (link requires sign-in) in Aberdeen, hosted by the very generous SubSea7.

My slides are embedded below. If you can’t see them, there’s a PDF here.

My main points were:

  • The internet has knowledge sharing and learning in its DNA. Any approach to knowledge management that doesn’t involve the ‘net deserves to fail
  • People share and learn in their own ways. Give them the freedom to find the tools and techniques that work for them, and ensure the organisation can aggregate
  • Turning activity like recording and sharing knowledge into a standard corporate process is unlikely to make it popular. Fit it into everyday workflow, not extra work

A brief tour of Scotland…

I’m looking forward to my quick tour of Scotland this week, visiting Edinburgh tomorrow, to deliver a seminar on social media strategy for public services; and then Aberdeen to talk to the Scottish Knowledge Management Network about how technology makes sharing and storing knowledge a wonderful thing.

Both these events are in partnership with the Improvement Service.

Social media strategy

The seminar tomorrow is going to be quite interesting, as it is the first of its kind that I have delivered, and so it might be worth covering in a bit more detail.

As Joanne Jacobs expressed very eloquently in this post, strategy is vital for an organisation wanting to get digital engagement right. I’ve tried to design this seminar around the process of writing a strategy.

So, the agenda looks a bit like this:

  1. Background
  2. Objectives
  3. Implementation
  4. Evaluation
  5. Risk management
  6. Operational guidance

Each section will feature a short presentation from me, introducing the topic, and then a discussion on tables. Then all the delegates fill in the relevant section of the workbook we have created for them, with a page for each section, where notes can be jotted down.

Then after the event all delegates will be sent an electronic version of the workbook so they can type it all up, make any changes to the format they want to and that kind of thing, so that – wahey! – they have a draft strategy ready to go.

I’ll share the slides and workbook on this blog – assuming the seminar works! – next week.

I’m interested in making this seminar available to others as well, which could take the form of running more face to face sessions, for which a charge may well be necessary; or online as a webinar, which is likely to be free.

I’d appreciate any feedback on which of these people might prefer!

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

Importance of workflow in social technology

From Gartner’s Mark McDonald:

Too many people think of a wiki as another knowledge management tool. Knowledge management tools are something that is separate from your day to day workflow. That attitude will need to change along with the technology that integrates wiki technology into the workflow in order to have people say ‘put it up on the wiki’ rather than inventing an ad hoc process that takes time, resources and puts bottlenecks in the flow of information.

As I found myself writing over and over again when describing the social tools I use, it’s all about workflow.

The best software keeps out the way and just lets you do stuff. There shouldn’t be anything new to learn, and the process should be completed within one or two clicks of a mouse.

It’s also individual, of course. What fits in my workflow might not fit in yours, and learning and knowledge technology needs to be able to fit in seamlessly, nonetheless.

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.

Making learning work for you

Great post from IBM’s Luis Suarez on personal knowledge management:

Well, indeed, it’s impossible to manage knowledge, even your own knowledge. However, knowledge workers can have a good chance to self manage some of that knowledge so that they can re-find and reuse it effectively and efficiently at a later time. There are a whole bunch of processes and traditional technologies that have been helping people try to figure out how they can have their own PKM strategy. And, lately, over the last few years, with the emergence of social software tools, that job of managing one’s own knowledge seems to have become much easier. Although perhaps still with plenty of room for improvement.

Wikipedia explains Personal Knowledge Management to be:

a collection of processes that an individual carries out to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in his/her daily activities and how these processes support work activities.

Luis’ post points to some resources from the excellent Harold Jarche about PKM, including some slides and an audio presentation that are well worth taking the time to look through.

Cheesey stock photo image of someone learning something

Picking up on James Gardner’s point, that I blogged about a while ago, knowledge management – and therefore our own learning – isn’t perhaps the job of our employers but is something we must take care of ourselves. What employers do have to do, though, is to provide access to the tools that work for people to actually get this done.

I’m constantly battling to find the right toolkit that works for me. This blog is where I record a lot of the stuff I think about and where I try to tease out some of the stuff I have learnt from elsewhere and to put it into the context that I, and the readers of the blog, operate in.

I save links that are of interest to me in Delicious and that provides a great method of keeping track of resources around the web. I also share items in Google Reader which are of passing interest but not necessarily worth the bother of bookmarking, and I keep a record of interesting videos on another blog.

This sounds like a lot of activity, but actually it fits in well with the way I work, through familiarity and the tech solution of good integration with my web browser.

Evernote

A tool that is becoming increasingly important to me though is Evernote, which I blogged about here. With Evernote, I can just throw stuff into it without really even thinking about it. So, if I spot an interesting quote, I can just copy and paste it into a note, add the URL where I spotted it, if it was on the web, and maybe tag the note with some keywords so it appears in searches later on.

Or if there is a whole article that interests me, like Luis’ blog post above, I can with a click of a button drag the whole thing into Evernote for later reading and reflection, adding notes and annotations as necessary.

Increasingly, everything I produce starts out in Evernote. Blog posts are drafted there, project ideas are dumped in there, even emails start life as snippets I jot down before putting them together into a more coherent form.

Even better, Evernote exists as an application on my laptop and desktop computers, and on my phone, other devices like the iPad, and of course the website too, so I can access my stuff from any connected machine. Everything is synchronised and it means I can get at it anywhere, anytime.

What about everyone else?

Anyway, enough about Evernote. The point is that I am lucky enough to work in an environment where I can be responsible for the tools I use to do my job, including my own learning activity.

Cheesey stock photo that is supposed to mean research or somethingA lot of people who work in government do not have that luxury. Many probably don’t have any easy to use tools to help them record knowledge and learning – and those that do probably don’t have the flexibility to customise them to their needs.

So what can they do? If internet access policies are reasonably enlightened at their place of work, people can try using web based tools, such as Delicious and, yes, Evernote (though I should perhaps point out that the web version of Evernote is not as fully-featured as the native applications). Indeed there are advantages to this approach as by using public sites the opportunity is there for people to connect across organisational boundaries and to share information, resources and learning increasing the likelihood of serendipitous discovery.

It may well be that your organisation does offer tools that could help you in your personal knowledge management, though – you just don’t know about them! One example is Learning Pool’s dynamic learning environment (DLE), which is used by well over a hundred public sector organisations in the UK. As well as being the place to access e-learning content, our DLE features a whole host of social learning technologies – forums, wikis, blogs, chat etc – which could be utilised as part of someone’s personal knowledge management approach.

Knowledge Hub

It’s difficult to write any post that includes the word ‘knowledge’ without mentioning the KHub. As I described in this post, the KHub promises to be the flexible, open publishing platform that can make the recording and sharing of knowledge and learning as easy as it needs to be.

The open API approach that the KHub will take should also make it easier for organisations to pull knowledge and learning back into the workplace. Workers could use the KHub as their main knowledge management platform, sharing what they find with the rest of the sector, and then also have that stuff automatically republished on their organisation’s intranet, say, meaning that even people who don’t use the KHub can still make use of the content within it.

Summing up

This has been a bit of a rambly wander around personal knowledge management and some of the issues it raises. What’s clear though is that:

  • It’s down to individuals to progress their own learning and to ensure it is recorded in a useful way
  • Systems and tools available at a consumer level are more often than not more sophisticated and easy to use than those made available by organisations
  • Organisations can ensure staff make the most of the benefits of PKM by ensuring they have access to the tools that work for them, and that benefit can be fed back into the rest of the organisation
  • The Knowledge Hub presents an interesting potential outsourcing of PKM for the public sector – if organisations and individuals are awake to the benefits

I’d be interested in others’ views. How do you manage your own learning and knowledge – is this supported by your organisation?