Persistent Team Chat, Merely a Gilded Reincarnation of Reply-to-All Email?

 

Persistent team chat has been the darling of the collaboration scene for a while now. The most prominent one being Slack, but also Atlassian HipChat, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams and now Watson Workspace from my employer. Cool, fast, flexible are words often used to describe the greatness of most of those products. There’s been an increase in complaints that they add to the communication overload we already suffered from, but I leave to others to voice their concerns over that. I have no intention to compare their features, characteristics and target audiences.

I want to discuss them conceptually.

For about a decade, I’ve been working devoted to the space of internal collaboration and networking tools and practices. From having had to, more times than I can remember, explain the business benefits of this new way to work* I have come to realise that those business advantages boil down to different aspects of either efficiency or effectiveness.

Efficiency

More efficient co-production of content (documents, spreadsheets and presentations typically, or for online publication in blogs or wikis) through sharing, commenting and collaborating instead of shuffling attachments around, leaving some poor sod to consolidate and redistribute, is usually a key element in generating efficiency. Reduction in version confusion and conflict is a great by-product.

Simplified communication is another. Typically from getting rid of Email Trees

Reduced reinvention of the wheel and shorter runway from building on shared work of others is another. It also reduces the frustration of being convinced that what you create is a waste of time, but you know that you won’t find what’s already “out there”.

These different flavours of efficiency are generated primarily from working towards a given goal with people you know already. The last one, a bit less.

Effectiveness

The different flavours of effectiveness generally result from greater transparency, people working out loud and from open dialogue. You don’t only collaborate with your team on producing something, you make it available for all your colleagues to re-use, to feedback on and to improve upon.

Instead of restricting your dialogue to people you know, you post on boards – your own or those of colleagues, in forums, in open communities of interest and so on, making it possible for anyone to answer, to help you or to pull someone into the dialogue who they might know have the answer.

This way, communication flows more freely, knowledge and experience is shared more widely, ideas and people meet by coincidence to inspire, engage and build new relations.

It also makes it more easy to find expertise, either through what has been shared or through ease of finding the people who has it, who can help.

All this results in increased agility, in better resilience (since knowledge is no longer hoarded but released from heads, hard drives and email files). Communication flows more freely, with reduced distortion and misinterpretation and employees become more connected, engaged and inspired – all key factors for innovation.

Persistent team chats are good for efficiency, but do little to improve effectiveness

An inherent characteristic is obvious in the name: “team” i.e. people you already know, usually with a defined goal.

Another characteristic comes from “chat”. In other words, a continuous flow of conversation, admittedly often with capabilities of adding attachments or links or to integrate with other services, but still in that continuous flow. With that continuous flow comes, automatically, a challenge to find stuff from the chat history. You might overcome it by a strong search engine. Microsoft have tried to approach this by creating a Sharepoint space for the team in the background, still is only for the team. IBM approaches it by adding cognitive computing to help identify highlights and action items. But still, the concept in itself generates a challenge to be solved.

Looking back at those two characteristics, persistent team chats aren’t that different from a long chain of reply-to-all emails, are they? At least not conceptually. You might add integration of bots and cool apps, cognitive capabilities or a file repository. You still restrict your collaborative effort to a limited group of people you already know. You still create a challenge to find stuff in the chat history, a challenge you need to solve. Where’s the wide sharing of knowledge and experience? Where are the inspiring “knowledge accidents”? Where’s the clarity of communications in all directions, up and down, across organisational boundaries, forming new relations between people with shared interest but otherwise unrelated?

Does this mean that persistent team chats are bad?

That is not at all the point I want to make. They definitely can add value and facilitate the way teams work. But

  • Persistent team chats are not enough on their own. They should be just one part of an entire collaborative landscape
  • They need to be supplemented by other capabilities offering structure and ease of finding both files and online content
  • and other capabilities enabling and encouraging working transparently, to the benefit of the entire organisation, not teams only
  • One stream of updates! We don’t want one more stream of updates. It only aggravates stress, confusion and distraction. The updates from the team chat must be possible to consolidate with all others.

What’s your experience from working with persistent team chats? From working and networking transparently? Do you agree? or not? and why?

*The new way to work really isn’t that new, is it? In many ways, this is how we used to work when companies were smaller and usually located in few places. The “new” is about being able to work so, via the internet, across borders – both national and organisational, great distances and time zones.

Why you shouldn’t subcontract social media communications

Hardly any organisation can get by nowadays without a presence in social channels, but many still feel uncomfortable about how to do it. Luckily, most have realised that it’s not just like pushing your marketing messages onto some audience, as in traditional marketing (but some still do, unfortunately). So what’s the big difference? And what are the consequences?

Social media marketing works like a rock band

  • Traditional marketing speaks to non-customers, trying to turn them into new customers
  • Marketing in social media speaks to existing customers, caring and enthusing them, leaving to them to recruit new customers – like a rock band tending to their fans

But how’s that relevant for subcontracting your social media communications or not?

Putting it very simply, when the fans reach out, who do they want to reach? The promotor or the members of the band? Your professional tweeters/facebookers or your genuine experts? The hard currency in social media is trust. Go-betweens like band promotors or social media subcontractors don’t have the same credibility, expertise or authenticity as the members of a band or your own staff. When it will show through, not if, it risks eroding trust in your brand rather than the opposite.

You may well use social media subcontractors, but not as spokespersons

Instead, there are two very useful areas where you can leverage social media specialists:

Train your experts to communicate in social networks

Instead of speaking on behalf of your experts, have social media specialists train those experts to speak for themselves. Writing skills, tools and practices, do’s and don’ts. Plus some coaching on demand. Much better bang for your buck. Helps your experts gather market intelligence and do some brand building for your company and themselves too.

Get help scanning the buzz, identifying influencers and interesting content or discussions

The online networks are so vast and fast moving that it might be too much for your experts to both improve their communication skills and keep tabs on the networks. If so, you could hire someone with good tools and methods to scan and apply analytics to identify who to reach out to and build relations with – maybe also how best to succeed in doing it – and to identify relevant hotspots of content or discussions, passing the tips on to your experts to action, explore and respond to.

What’s your experience of social media go-betweens, training of spokespersons and social media analytics and scanning?

Photo: Pendulum 2007 by www.flickr.com/photos/wonker

Why Knowledge Isn’t Sufficient

Almost ten years ago I came to talk with a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while. I think it was in October or November. She asked me what kind of project I was working on and I told her: I’m bailing out of the project I’ve been working on for almost two years, before my CV goes stale. As a consultant in a fast-moving area of expertise, I have to ensure a constant flow of new experience and professional growth. What will you do next? She said. I have no idea what the new year will bring. It’s exciting! I replied. What about you? We’ve just lost the contract I’ve been working on for many years and I have no clue what to do after New Year. I’m devastated!

There we were, in very similar situations with opposite reactions. How could that be? It was too big a difference to be explained only by me being a stubborn optimist. We ended up talking for the better part of an hour.

After a while we started to realise that it was about Knowledge vs. Skills.

Her professional standing was (apparently) founded on Knowledge, at least in her own mind. On her expertise in a specific field – a technology used only in parts of the retail business and where she had always worked with one client, her ex-employer. She was afraid that her knowledge wouldn’t easily be applied to other customers or other types of business.

My professional standing was founded in Skills: Structured problem solving, planning and facilitating workshops, requirements elicitation and management, communication orally and in writing etc. All capacities that can easily be transferred from one context to another. From one client to another. In any business. The hallmarks of a Jack of all trades (let’s forget about the second part of the expression for now, will we?).

Recently, I discussed the episode with a couple of bright and eager students and I decided to put letters on screen (or whatever “pen to paper” should be nowadays).

It is obvious to most of us that skills and knowledge are different, but how often do we think of just how they are different? And of what the consequences are?

  • Skills are less dependent on context than knowledge is, and therefore easier to transfer – as shown in my story.
  • Knowledge can be learned, through reading and courses. Skills are different. You may be borne with them but they need practicing to reach perfection.  They are not found in any book, for sure.
  • The half-life, the “best before”, of knowledge is shorter than for skills. New circumstances, new technologies, new business practices can quickly make your knowledge obsolete, while skills more easily can be applied in new contexts

So what are the consequences of these differences?

  1. Most of us have realised that we need to be learning constantly to stay ahead in our times of frantic change, but if we only learn new knowledge, the need for learning is greater and more pressing
  2. As skills take practicing, they are usually slower to develop. They take time and patience. And allowing for imperfection along the way
  3. Skills training doesn’t transfer as easily to e-learning as knowledge learning does. It takes more interaction to perfect, maybe remotely, but hardly with a system dialogue
  4. If you’re really fed up with your job but have a hard time imagining what to do instead, you are probably focusing too much on where you can apply your knowledge. Stop for a while to identify your strong skills and try to imagine where they can serve you well instead.

What do you think? Do you agree? Any similar experience? What if we add abilities to the mix, how do they differentiate from knowledge and skills (remember that English is only my second language  😉 )

Social Change Communications

Seriously, I should rebrand this blog a “splog”, a sporadic blog! It’s been two and a half months since my latest blog post. Shame on me! I have to change my habits.

change-aheadTalking about change, let’s continue where I left off late August; changing change management. I promised then to expand on how an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) can facilitate your change management efforts.

Obviously, the inner circle can leverage a wide range of tools to make their work more efficient. They can develop and manage their plans in a community, share, comment and co-edit files to minimise confusion and effort duplication, they can discuss in a forum or in status updates and so on. But those things are a given. Let’s look instead at how the ESN can help the work outside of the change team and decision makers.

Let’s have a look at what you need for reasonably smooth, lasting change:

  • Understand the terrain – Face it. You will never understand the situation as-is as well as the people “out there”. Nor will you ever understand what their pains are or their aspirations. You need to get input from the field.
    • An ideation blog lends itself as well to gathering input – requirements – as it does to collect and evaluate ideas. Let people post their input, encourage others to comment to develop and refine. Ask them to vote to help you in your prioritisation
  • Clarity is key – Times of change are usually times of worry (at least by the people expecting to get impacted by the change). The main remedy is early, clear and frequent communications.
    • A blog (maybe a video blog) – is a perfect way to spread the word without risk for it getting lost in translation. Use blogs, early and continuously, to communicate the rationale, milestones and progress of the change programme
    • Wikis are great to post plans, new policies and procedures. The entire team can edit and they can be changed over time. As questions start to flow in, it’s easy for the team to create and maintain an FAQ in a wiki
    • If you happen to miss out on something in your blog or wiki, anyone can be allowed to comment, giving you a chance to fill the gaps, clear misunderstandings and kill rumours. Nice, ey?
  • Manage questions, manage worry – As I stated above, many get worried as soon as they hear a rumour of change coming. And worries is fertile ground for rumours.
    • Open forums allow people to air their worry and allows you to respond before they grow into rumours in email chains, at lunch tables or by the water coolers. As I mentioned above, the most frequent or most important questions could easily be turned into an FAQ, to simplify your response management.

Finally, if the change at hand involves acquiring or creating new units or teams, try to compare the effort of just pushing a button to create a community for that team or unit with restructuring and changing the navigation of your old fashioned top-down intranet with or asking an administrator to build a team site in clumsier tools than my favourite one.

Changing change management

In times of change, change management needs to change too.

I think we can all agree that we have never experienced such frantic change as we currently experience, at least not at such a world-wide scale. There may have been periods of rapid change before, but not spread widely across the globe in the way we currently see. Revolutionary ideas, technologies and trends seem to crop up wherever. And, through internet and our physical mobility, they can spread like wildfire across the globe.dust-1158884_1920

In this environment, if you stand still, you will soon be left in the dust, perhaps even reduced to a memory from days gone by.

That goes for change management consulting and consultants too.

Historically, change management has been about moving client organisations from an obsolete steady state….. to a new state, improved but still steady. That approach won’t fly any longer.

In todays environment of rapid and constant change, change management has to be about moving a client organisation from an obsolete steady state to a state of agility, a state of constant change readiness and development.

This is a much more fundamental change. Designing and implementing process changes, reskilling and reshuffling people just won’t do. Agility has to get engrained in the DNA of the organisation. Running a change programme without improving the capability of the organisation to change by itself is to short change your client. Honest consultants don’t manoeuvre to make clients dependent on them. They help clients to solve their own issues and to continuously improve.

If you’re familiar with me and my blog, you know what will follow and can stop reading here  😉

As improved collaboration and peer-to-peer communications of employees is a key factor to improve agility, enterprise social networks (ESN) should be leveraged or a be introduced in any modern change management effort; building bridges between silos, improving transparency and understanding of the organisation and of colleagues, boosting the capacity of catching signals of change or threat and the speed of relaying them to the right people, even if you don’t happen to know who they are, and ensuring that the leader’s messages on strategy and “state of the organisation” can be communicated without distortion throughout the organisation.

But there’s more. Not only do ESN enable the organisation to be more agile and resilient in the long run, they can also be leveraged to facilitate the change management effort. But more about that in an upcoming blog post.

Do you agree with me about changing from state A to state B is yesterday’s news? Any experience or difference of opinion to share? Please do, in the name of transparency and knowledge sharing.

Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation – Bringing lasting value for both customers and employees

engaged_saleI started this series of blog posts by stating that as the wheels turn faster, people more important than ever before. Then people had better be more engaged than the souvenir lady in this picture. A person who merely “goes through the motions”, mindlessly, without engagement and whose mind is anywhere else than in the present, is unlikely make any positively significant difference. And without engagement, there will hardly be much innovation either.

This is the last blog post of six on the theme of the advantages for companies and their employees of collaborating and working transparently. The previous are:

  • Overview – As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before
  • Agility – More sensitive feelers and faster reaction
  • Resilience – Bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges
  • Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience
  • Effectiveness – Through more direct communication channels
  • Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation

These blog posts have been published in parallel in Swedish on the Smarter Planet blog of IBM Sweden

Spend some thought on this video by Steven Johnson about where good ideas come from (I’m sure he will appreciate you buying his book, btw)

Isn’t it exactly environments like these we want to create and support in our organisations? Like the coffee houses of the age of enlightenment and the Parisian salons during the Modernism era. Environments where people and ideas meet, both on purpose and by chance and where you can find both likeminded to collaborate with and different-minded to get inspired by. Since long, farsighted architects have created office environments to generate random meetings, but how do we do when associates are spread across great distances? How do we do to involve both customers, partners and suppliers?

My answer is not surprising: Through a transparent work culture and tools for online collaboration

In online communities, discussions and through following updates by colleagues, maybe especially those a bit on the fringe, your understanding of what the company and your colleagues actually do, as does the understanding of how you can impact on results. The probability of random meetings with ideas, knowledge and interesting people is multiplied. The foundation for both engagement and innovation gets much more fertile.

If you have special interests or ideas you want to build on, but lack resources or have knowledge gaps, it becomes incredibly much easier to find likeminded to grow those interests with or to put together a team of volunteers with supplementing knowledge and skills to develop those ideas further. A paradise for intrapreneurs.

Just think of something as simple but inspirational as feedback (potentially simple and inspirational, that is). Usually it something that employees get rarely, usually from their manager in a strictly orchestrated appraisal ceremony. Not very simple and definitely not inspirational. How inspirational isn’t it instead to suddenly get a Like from a distant colleague who you might be acquainted with, but not necessarily, on that presentation you just shared or on your blog post? Or when you see how many have downloaded that Excel-thingy of yours? Or receiving a suggestion on how to improve what you are currently working on – from someone “who’s done it” before? How much more inspiring and motivating won’t it get to develop and share your knowledge and experience?

Most companies who introduce online collaboration platforms do it aiming at efficiency, aa I wrote about in the blog post, Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience. I am certain that the long range boost in innovation and employee engagement is much more important, though.

If you want to read more about how we at IBM look at online collaboration tools and transparency, I recommend you to read “The only constant is change”.  And if you want to read more about how to transform your organisation to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.

What do you think of the value of employee engagement, innovation and what organisations can do to boost them?

Effectiveness – through more direct communication channels

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“Whisper” by ElizaC3

Do you remember when you played Chinese Whispers as a kid? One person whispers a message to a second person who whispers it on to a third who….until the last person tells everybody what he or she heard. The message used to be complete gobbledygook and you all had a great laugh. (What’s Chinese in that game, by the way?)

What was a fun game as a kid, is the default way of communicating in most organisations, at least in one direction. If it’s not the words of the leadership that get interpreted and distorted on their path to the employees, it’s the questions or attempts at communicating up the hierarchy.

This is the fifth blog post of six on the topic of benefits for companies and their employees to communicate transparently and collaborate online.

  • Overview – As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before
  • Agility – More sensitive feelers and faster reaction
  • Resilience – Bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges
  • Efficiency – Easier to find and leverage experts and experience
  • Effectiveness
  • Engagement, Inspiration and Innovation – bringing lasting value for both customers and employees

These blog posts are published in parallel in Swedish on the Smarter Planet blog of IBM Sweden

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Is this how employees see the future? Photo by Broin under Creative Commons CCo

In times of rapid change, you can’t afford doing Chinese Whispers for the leadership team to communicate to the employees where you’re heading, why and how to get there. You can’t afford, neither the time, nor because of the risk of the message getting filtered or distorted along the way. Adding to that, surveys done by the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute show that “Leadership Future Vision” is the prime driver of employee engagement – for each and every year researched (2008-2012). You can’t afford to waste that potential either by not leveraging the possibilities available for clear and direct communications.

Current volatility and the frantic pace of change make communications in the other direction more important than ever. Partly to enable the leadership team to verify that their message has been received and understood,  partly for the employees to be able to ask for clarifications and supplementary information to make sure that they really have understood. But also to help the leadership to catch what’s happening “out there”, as I described in the third post in this series, about Agility. Having a whole lot of scouts out there is of little value if they cannot pass their observations on to the hub.

A good collaboration and networking platform provides all this, and more

By using blogs – text or video – leaders can broadcast their message to all employees directly and without any middlemen. Through commenting, employees can respond and ask questions if anything still was unclear to them. Since commenting is transparent, you can easily see if someone else has written what you had in mind and save time both for yourself and others by voting/liking on their comment, instead of repeating it. In this context, it is important that the leaders actually read and respond to comments. Anything else would be a waste of valuable feedback and jeopardise trust in that the leaders actually do care about their employees.

For simple grass root publishing, collaboratively, of more structured and lasting information, wikis are a splendid tool. Perfect for FAQ, policies, instructions and the like. Wiki pages can be commented on too. Upward communications has more facets but is made easier by the transparency achieved in a good collaboration and networking platform. For the leadership team to know what the employees think, which challenges they experience and need help with, which opportunities they spot and which trends they have spotted on the horizon… all they need to do is to listen. Maybe even by using social analytics software which are more common on external social networks. Listen to status updates, listen to forum discussions, listen to blogs, gather ideas and get them evaluated in ideation blogs. The possibilities are close to innumerable.

What do you think? Isn’t it upon time for employees not to have to fumble in the mists of insecurity and for leaders to get a chance to leverage all the information and experience that employees amass, instead of it getting stuck in mail chains or discussions around the water cooler? Do you have experience of your own to share?

If you want to read more about how we at IBM look at online collaboration tools and transparency, I recommend you to read “The only constant is change”.  And if you want to read more about how to transform your organisation to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.