Social goal-setting, the key to turning middle managers in favour of collaboration and knowledge sharing?

Social business transformation is usually driven from the top or bottom of the organization hierarchy (or both in combination). Visionary leaders who lead from the front, by example, or skunk work initiatives from desperate people in the front line who see the potential of solving their hard-felt personal and business pains through working more efficiently together and through ease of sharing and communicating online.

Too frequently, middle management turns into a stumbling block, either by simply being passive or by even actively working against the change. Usually, it’s attibuted to lack of time, to being squeezed from both above and below, from being buried in administrative routines and systems or to the majority of middle managers being somewhat older and hard to teach new tricks.

There might be some truth to these claims, but behind them I see another reason: goals.

In December, I published a series of posts regarding setting social goals and this is where I believe we find the core of this challenge. As I state in Investing in social business, a key contributor to widespread change in the way work is done, is to change the way work is defined, and a major part of that definition is goal setting. What do the goals of middle management typically look like?

  • Increase sales by your team by x%
  • Reduce costs in your department by y%
  • Produce z units of whatsits
  • Develop q new products with a sales potential of ö money

Looking through the lens of the benefits of social intranets, where’s the broad sharing of experience, where’s the helping of colleagues, where’s the investing in the future of the entire organization

A substantial portion of the management of corporations happens through splitting up measurable goals into increasingly granular segments down the hierarchy. But, somewhere along the way, the shared goals that may be less easy to quantify are lost. And, you usually get what you measure. We have to reintroduce the common good into managerial and departmental goal-setting, through embedding collaboration, knowledge sharing and helping of colleagues near and far.

Fine, you may think, let’s include things like: Network size or growth in the goals for managers and employees alike. Or sharing of documents (or downloads and other signs of appreciation of shared documents – much better since it rewards quality or usefulness of contributions made). Or intensity of dialogue generated by contributions made or similar signs of impact). A very interesting approach is the engagement dashboard from IBM Research. (Of course, the ultimate move would be to automatically track re-use and economic impact of shared documents and contributions, maybe even single components like slides or text paragraphs. But that might be a bit of overkill.)

But, that would still not be good enough in my view. When it comes to conventional goals, managers aren’t measured on their personal contributions, but on the contributions of the team they manage, right? Why should social goals be any different? Let’s take goals like the ones in the previous paragraph, aggregate or average them for the entire team. Now, we’re talking! That would be a great step towards establishing social goals for managers to supplement their traditional ones.

Next, we should start analyzing those results for correlation with business results. Then we could start doing more useful work than repeatedly having to explain the business benefits of working as a social business.

Collecting “best practices” isn’t best practice

“We’re wasting the experience and time of our employees. We keep reinventing the wheel. Let’s start collecting best practices from our experts and distribute them to our employees.”

Sounds familiar, does it? Sounds like a good idea, does it?

I’d say that it’s not a bad idea, but there are much better ways to reduce reinvention of the wheel.

But before describing the better way and the reasons why it’s better, let’s just establish one thing:

There’s much more to it than efficient use of time only

The usual arguments for collecting and distributing best practices are about cutting waste of time and establishing a uniform, good standard of doing things. Cutting waste of time and making it available for better use is indeed a good reason, but there are other benefits that are even more valuable in my book, like cutting response times and shortening time to market. Those are usually easy to translate into hard currency. Quality is another key. Not necessarily as in “everybody doing things in the same way” but rather thinking of the inevitable fumbles you make each time you invent the wheel all over. If you re-use what others have done, the risk of re-making the same mistakes is drastically reduced. Then there’s the motivational aspect; spending time and effort on doing something you are convinced of has been done before is hardly good motivation. So there are good reasons to re-use experience and documents.

That said, what’s wrong with collecting and distributing best practices?

“Best practice”, says who?

A typical Best Practice initiative goes like this: A campaign, competition or decree is launched to get employees, often designated experts, to document and deliver their experience to a committee. The committee typically consists of some managers, some subject matter experts and the occasional token executive. They then go through the materials, agree on which should be shared, have someone from communications tidy them up and publish them on the intranet. Plus a communications campaign, of course, to create awareness of them being available. Maybe some system to track their use too.

Let me tell you what’s wrong with this:

  • It’s a batch process, not a continuum, meaning that it will all need to be repeated in a while when circumstances change which practices actually are the most useful
  • It’s a lengthy process, decoupling submitting from seeing your submissions being reused, thereby missing out on motivational aspects for the contributors
  • A considerable portion of the committee left the field for managerial positions a while back and their experience of what is needed out there is no longer up to date. Are they really best suited to know which practice is best?
  • What’s “best” in one context for one person may not be what is “best” for another in a different context. Very few events and projects are carbon copies of other. Similar, but not the same
  • Asking for submissions from established authorities misses out on discovering and motivating budding experts in the field

Many useful examples is much better than a few best practices

Instead, make it dead easy for anyone to upload and share their documents or to tell their story and share their experience online for others to re-use as they need it. The motivation of contributors will come from visible re-use, ratings, likes and positive comments from peers and experts. It might even be close to instant! After a while, the wisdom of crowds will help separate the useful stuff from the less useful. You are likely to find that the experience of the many is much richer and adds much more value than the expertise of the few.

What you think of sharing is only half the wisdom, if even that

Few of us are aware of the richness of our knowledge and experience. So when we share it, we are sure not to tell it all. There will always be gaps in our story. To surface that remaining knowledge, to fill the cracks in the stories we tell, please make it as easy as you possibly can to ask questions and to get answers. But channel the dialogue to transparent and persistent media and provide a powerful search function so the dialogue is there to find for the next person facing the same challenge. Use forums, build communities, encourage dialogue and reward those who help. Provide tagging and tag search to help categorize contributions in ways that feel relevant to the people on the ground, not only by a structure or taxonomy designed by those experts (and usually updated too infrequently).

It should not be about publishing best practices contributed by a few and vetted by even fewer, but of motivating staff to share as much knowledge and experience as possible, and to engage in transparent dialogue to help each other. Feedback and usage metrics will help tell what is the most useful – as seen by the people who need it. It’s not about managing knowledge, but about releasing it from heads, harddrives and enclosed mail conversations for the availability and benefit of the entire organization.

 

From “social switchboard” to “direct dial”

In his recent blog post “How to avoid having your social media team becoming a “social switchboard”, my good colleague @AndrewGrill makes a good case on the dangers of adding a filtering (switching) layer of social media people between employees and the world around them – similar to the phone switchboards of days gone by.

So far so good.

But, extending the switchboard analogy, for direct dial to work well, everybody needs to have a phone that can be reached directly, they have to know how to use it, how to speak and call in a professional way and to know what they may or may not say as representatives of the organization.

Bypassing the switchboard without enabling the employees to handle direct dialing may result in substandard responses or maybe even in some major commercial or reputational hazards.

“Direct dial” translates, in our digitally connected world of today, into “Enabled and Empowered Employees”

Many times, I have compared social media marketing with the way rock bands tend to work. Traditional marketing is all about companies communicating with non-customers to turn them into customers. Rock bands play for their fans and leave it to them to communicate with non-fans to turn them into new fans. This is also the fundamental formula for successful social media marketing. But, to extend that analogy too, when the fans approach, they don’t want to speak with the band manager. They want the band members. Just like customers approaching your company don’t want to be “switchboarded” by your social media team. They want to get in touch with the folks who know things for real, from experience, the experts.

Jon Iwata said it very well already in 2010:

Your best social media marketing is made by engaged customers and engaged, enabled and empowered employees.

So, to make it work well, you need:
  • A social communications policy coupled with thorough training of employees (include online security and respect for copyright while you’re at it)
  • Communications professionals who coach the experts instead of insisting of themselves being the voice of the company
  • For your foremost experts, it doesn’t hurt with some analytical support to help them improve their communications, to be made aware of which influencers to engage with and where there are relevant discussions going on
  • And, as usual when I’m involved, a social intranet where they can get backed up by shared knowledge and easy-to-reach experts is of great help too. It sure will speed up answering the tricky questions.

Replacing the old telephone switchboard with a social media filtering and forwarding team is no good. Automatically channeling them to identified experts who aren’t on board is not much better (but a little). You need to attend to both sides of this equation to get the full value.

Investing in social business

In my most recent blog posts, I have focused on the topic of goals and social intranet adoption, in general and for managers. Including a social dimension in personal goals is the key to adoption by the bulk of employees, the late adopters.

Why? Because for many, personal goals are the definition of what they are paid to do, Goals = Work. As long as goals have no social dimension, nothing about knowledge sharing, nothing about collaboration, about creation of intellectual capital, why would you do it. It’s not your job!

But, as I have pointed out before, using the social intranet doesn’t produce benefits that are easy to measure and attribute to actions by individuals, that are sure to benefit your own organizational unit or that can be predicted to occur within a specific time frame – the type of goals we have all been trained to set. These types of goals are rather production oriented, don’t you think? But working out loud, developing intellectual capital or sharing it generously are not about production. It is rather an investment. Something that may pay off, some day and maybe not for your unit.

So, the key to including social aspects into goal setting is to supplement the traditional goals:

You are supposed to produce for your unit for this quarter AND to invest in shared knowledge, relations and transparency for the benefit of the entire organization, some day.

Goals. The challenge to managers getting into social business ways of working?

In my experience, managers are often a stumbling block for adoption of the transparent and collaborative ways of working enabled by social intranets.

Do you have the same experience?

I have tried to wrap my head around why this is so.

  • I’m too busy
  • It’s a waste of time
  • I don’t have the time to re-learn

I have heard those arguments from many, but rarely louder or with more emphasis than from managers. Usually, we find the enthusiasts among the grass-roots or at the executive level. Well, if executives aren’t too busy, have time and have the time to re-learn, why aren’t the managers? The people between those executives and guys like me?

I have thought that they might be the busiest people in the organization, squeezed between pressure from above and demands from below. I have thought that they tend to have a higher average age than the grass root folks. But on the other hand, the executives are usually even older. Finally, it all boils down into one thing for me: Social business is not in line with their goals.

What do the goals of managers usually look like?

  1. They are finite an measurable
  2. They are usually focused on their own department
  3. They are often set by quarter

So what characterizes the benefits of using a social intranet?

  1. They are hard to measure and make tangible
  2. Collaboration increases efficiency of people and work groups
  3. But Working out Loud, transparently may benefit any employee, anywhere anytime (and rarely get tracked back to the origin)

To illustrate #2:

A team may reduce version confusion by sharing documents online instead of shuffling attachments around via email. They may communicate more efficiently etc. But how do you measure these benefits? And how do you measure the benefits of speedier onboarding from having all documents, conversations and discussions in an online community? And, by the way, that team might span several departments with several managers

To illustrate #3:

A successful proposal may be shared by a person in one country, found and re-used by someone in another country, bringing in loads of money (and saving both time in creation and benefiting from lessons learned the first time) but will the original creator get to know about it. Will her/his manager?

Executives supposedly have a focus which is both wider and more long term than the managers. Employees in general think of their professional development long term and may have a bit more wiggle room than their managers.

But, quite simply: The typical goals of managers are virtually incompatible with the benefits of social intranets.

  • Measurable < – > Vague
  • Department < – > Company/Individual
  • This Quarter < – > Some time

So, where is the motivation to change for managers?

Until we start changing the way we set their goals, that is.

Setting social goals, the key to changing the ways of working?

Social. Goals. Two concepts that we’re not used to bundling. Like combining lobster and mashed potatoes. “Social” sounds friendly and positive while “Goals” are square, constraining and pressing. But I think it’s time to rethink.

For years now, we have tried to convince people to break out of the email bog, to stop withholding hinted-at knowledge (since they believe it gives power), to quit hoarding information instead of releasing it and to dare to both ask and help colleagues they might not know already. The greater portion of the population we manage to see the light, the harder the resistance from those who remain. Quite naturally, of course. You advance where the resistance is the weakest.

Why care? you might say. Because the benefits to all of people working transparently, sharing and helping increase with the proportion of employees who are on board while, at the same time, having a major portion of employees sticking to their old habits, restrains the rest of us and force us to manage both the old and the new, all the time.

So which arguments do we get back from the opposition? Usually a version of “I don’t see the point to invest the time in learning new tools and to change my habits just to play around with this social stuff. I have work to do.” The key I see in this statement is in the italics at the end: For them, social isn’t work. It’s not even another (never mind better) way to get work done. It’s just frosting on the cake. Social isn’t work. Which brings me to the headline. If we are to get these late adopters to change their ways, we have to make working openly an integrated part of their work. And, for many of us, a major part of the definition of our work is in the goals we are told to work towards.

So, adding a social, collaborative or knowledge sharing dimension to the definition of personal and departmental goals, will lead to a change in the definition of the work that should be done.

Wasting time on the social intranet!

“Where do we draw the line? At what point are we becoming too social and therefore non-productive?”

This question was posted today on my board in our internal social intranet, in a discussion on the level of social presence by people with an ambition to present themselves as social business consultants. I guess you've heard it before, or similar questions implying that social equals non-productive and can only be tolerated in limited doses. “Social media and social intranets are a waste of time”

Last time your talkative friend phoned you and talked with you for a little less than an hour about nothing, did you blame the phone? Or maybe your friend? Or maybe yourself for not being able to cut them short?

Or the last time the neighbour caught you just outside your door and kept you busy listening to their complaints about the other neighbour's pet?

Chatterboxes waste our time if we let them. Whatever the medium and context.

I use our social intranet to communicate:

  • I ask and answer questions openly, to maximize the possibility of additional contributions as well as re-use of answers in the future by others with the same issue
  • I share knowledge and experience so others can build on mine instead of starting from scratch
  • I reuse knowledge and experience from others for the same reason
  • I scan the flow of updates on boards, blogs, wikis, bookmarks, activities to maximize the potential of stumbling over inspiration or discovering knowledge I didn't even know I could benefit from
  • I collaborate in communities and activities (task management) with efficiency and with the time zones, reducing the need for us to work off hours just because the people involved happen to be on another continent

Wasting time? Rather working efficiently and maybe investing some time for the good of both my colleagues and myself.