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.

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Resilience – bouncing back from setbacks or daring to take on new challenges

Tougher together – How companies and their employees better can face setbacks and challenges through transparency and collaboration

Where should I stay and eat om my upcoming first visit to Madrid? How do I take a screen shot om my mobile phone? By which watering hole can I find animals to hunt? What did those poisonous berries look like, really? From the beginning of time, our best source of knowledge has been other people. We ask others for help or advice when our own knowledge, experience or skills fall short. Within the family, our village, our school, in Q&A columns of the papers, over the phone, on Facebook or on Twitter. But at work, who do we ask? And how?

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

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

Old style

In old style companies we tend to ask our colleagues we already know for help, or maybe some manager. Usually live at the office or via email. How many times haven’t we sent an email to someone only to get an automatic reply that they are on holidays or in training and will be back in a week or two. Or that they pass your question on to someone else who send it to yet another person who in turn passes it on to a fourth person who replies, four weeks later The answer is available on the intranet. Just follow this link.

Does it feel familiar? It was for me, too. But no more.

Sharing and caring

Nowadays, I ask my question in a status update on our social intranet. Maybe I mention a couple of persons who I guess may have the answer or if I guess that someone in their network has it (as mentioning them makes my question appear also on their board, for their network) or in a suitable online community. Usually, I get an answer within an hour or two. I rarely have to wait longer than until the next day. I even share half finished sketches of presentations and documents, stating “I know that this isn’t quite correct and will appreciate any help to improve or any other views”. Such an amazing response I have received! From the foremost experts in the field among my 400.000+ colleagues. Compare that with “Johnny is on vacation and will be back in two weeks”. Every time, it feels as amazing and empowering to be able to get help, without even knowing who to ask. There always seems to be someone who knows, who has sufficient time or willingness to reach out to help. Admittedly, it does help to have a pool of many colleagues at hand, but the positive effects show also in smaller organizations. An open and helpful culture is more important to have than an ocean of colleagues. As is a culture where it is accepted that everybody cannot know everything. Asking is nothing to be ashamed of. Just imagine being able to close a deal or solve a problem with the help of a colleague who you might not know, but who knows what you’re facing and how to resolve it..

It may not even be necessary to get hold of the actual colleague. Often it is sufficient to find the knowledge and the experience they have shared earlier. Either intentionally through working transparently, sharing their documents, presentation and other whatsits. Or unintentionally through answering questions from others in the transparent way I’ve described above. The more transparently everybody works, the easier it becomes to find what you need to overcome the challenges. And you can always ask the author for explanations or supplementary information. We do not realize how much we do know and can share with intention. The rest surfaces when we help others.

With such support it doesn’t only become much easier to bounce back after a setback, but also challenging your limits becomes much easier too.

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By Pingswept (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0] Helping a struggling runner at Boston Marathon

Enablers and obstacles

As mentioned earlier, a condition for this to work is that you have a culture of transparency, helpfulness and acceptance that everybody cannot know everything, of generously sharing your work products and of communicating transparently. And, as a fundamental enabler, that you have a collaboration and communication platform that makes all of this possible and that, through design, encourages and supports transparency rather than closing up.

The obstacles include, of course, a culture where you don’t dare to admit shortcomings, a culture of “withheld knowledge gives power” and without a sense of all working towards a common goal. But also technology can be an obstacle. Questions and answers via email benefits nobody except those involved in the correspondence (plus it takes much longer as I mentioned earlier, or results in an overload of many parallel conversations). The replies can’t be reused by others faced with the same challenge, but they have to search again for the people in the know who, in turn, have to answer the same questions all over again. Shared drives and closed team rooms do not create open collaboration either. They may be beneficial for those with access, but for no-one else. How many other team rooms with similar content do you think there may be in a large organizations, do you think?

Additional benefits for the company

The benefits for employees, described earlier, benefit their employers too, obviously. Employees being able to deal with challenges benefits the company too, of course.

But there’s even more in it for the companies:

  • As long as work is done in the old style, knowledge keeps being locked up with the individual employee. It’s locked up in their heads, on their hard drive or in their mail conversations. What happens if they disappear? The head disappears. The hard drive usually gets erased and the email on the server usually only resurfaces if it’s needed in a legal context. Remaining intellectual capital = 0. If employees work transparently, though, share their work and answer questions transparently, the knowledge stays within reach for all to use also after they have left. The dependency on the individual employee is reduced.
  • In addition, since the knowledge is easily available for re-use and you can Like what you have appreciated, since you can see the number of downloads and so on, you can easily see a de facto standard emerge, based on the benefits and appreciation of peers. Not bad, either, I’d say.

Do you have experience of your own of the difference of searching for help and knowledge in the old fashioned way and of doing it in a transparent organisation? Either inside your company or externally? Maybe in your personal life? I’d appreciate reading about it in a comment.

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 organization to work more transparently, “Best practices for establishing a new way to work”.

 

Agility – More sensitive feelers and faster reaction

or, as Charles Darwin wrote “…survival of the fittest”, not “…of the strongest”

development of man

The words of Darwin have proven to apply not only in nature, but also in business life. Examples abound of companies going down because they didn’t realize that the world around them was changing or because they were too slow or rigid to adapt even if they did realize that the map had been redrawn.

This blog post is the second in a series of six on the topic of benefits for companies and their employees of communicate transparently and to collaborate online. You find the initial post here in English and here in Swedish “As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before”. The rest of the series, including this post, focus on each of the five key factors listed in that blog post:

As I wrote and exemplified in the initial post, the speed of change today is scary… or thrilling, depending on who and how you are. Either way, it’s frantic! And unpredictable. Through the internet and globalization, you can never know what the next big thing will be or from where it will come. Who would have believed, only two years ago, that the possibility of sending self-erasing messages between mobile phones would be the hottest thing around and generate a business valued at 10-20 billion USD? I’m referring to Snapchat. Or that Sub-Saharan Africa would be a Global leader in mobile payments?

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Many scouts = More and more alert feelers

In such an environment, having lightning-fast intelligence can be the difference between survival and succumbing, or flourishing. The challenge of the traditional methods is that the trends are old already when the printed report arrives on your desk. No, it’s better to learn from flock animals, to use the “wisdom of crowds”. The greater the number of scouts, the greater the chance of one of them noticing something relevant. Through the internet and public networks, every associate, business partner or customer is a potential trend scout who can identify new possibilities, ideas or threats.

This can be amplified, of course, but using tools for social analytics. However, in spite of the speed and power of those tools, they still depend on a limited team asking the right questions. Using the wisdom of crowds, you get as many scouts and analysts, all of them with some understanding of the company and the business.

But how do the observations reach the right person? and generate response?

Scouting is not enough. How can the scouts communicate their findings? This is where platforms for open communications and collaboration make the difference. Unlike companies using traditional methods for communication, where employees are stuck with email and their existing network of contacts, the scouts in a company using modern tools can instantly write an update in a relevant community, on their profile, on a profile of someone else (or all of the above) for all to see, comment and pass on to the right audience. Relevant business intelligence can spread as fast internally as bloopers and cute cats do on the public internet.

Once the intelligence have reached the relevant audience and they have decided on a suitable response, this response can spread just as fast throughout the organization – unchanged.

A telling example is how the global HR function of IBM did a 180° policy change in less than 24 hours, due to the widespread and vocal support of a 26-year old associate who complained in public about his Uber expenses not getting covered due to an internal policy. (Business Insider UK: How a 26-year old caused IBM to abolish its ban on Uber)

Benefits of personal agility for employees

Transparent communications and online collaboration doesn’t improve agility for companies alone, but also for their employees. The ample access to knowledge and experience opens up possibilities like never before to build your competence in areas you’re interested in or curious about, without having to ask for approval or budget. If you want to invest you own time, or time between tasks, is up to you, and the information is there to grab.

Transparency opens the possibility of showing what you’re made of, preferably simply by helping colleagues in areas you happen to be good at or have experience of, thereby building your reputation as not only knowledgeable, but helpful too. Suddenly you can get recognition for the expertise you have always had, but only your closest colleagues was aware of. Who knows which doors it may open?

The benefits come with use, not just from deploying a system

Naturally, implementing an system for online collaboration doesn’t automatically make everybody change their way of working. It makes it possible and easier. To make it happen takes a transformation effort in the organization. If you’re curious about how to drive such a transformation project, I suggest you read this white paper: “Best practices for establishing a new way to work

If you have more examples of organisations or individuals reaping benefits of online collaboration or of working transparently? Questions or objections? I encourage you to comment below.

Originally published in Swedish here, on the Smarter Planet blog of IBM Sweden

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As the wheels turn faster, people are more important than ever before

The world around us changes at a pace we haven’t experienced before. It’s harder than ever to know where we are headed. Exciting and stimulating – and nothing any one of us can change. I talk about the digital transformation.

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Just imagine working as agile as a murmuration of starlings! Copyright: Walter Baxter Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the coming months, I will publish a number of blog entries, expanding on five important factors to succeed in this changing environment. Factors organizations can realize through changing their ways of working based on collaboration tools. I will touch on them one by one, both from the perspective of the organization and of the individual. The blog entries will be published at the Smarter Planet blog of IBM Sweden in Swedish and here in English. The five factors are:

You’ll find an overview in this white paper, “The only constant is change”

Technology, business models, market preferences, communication habits, power balances, you name it. They all change rapidly and simultaneously. You have to stay  alert, agile and always informed with many and sensitive tentacles. We don’t need much time or effort to come up with examples of drastic changes, for better and for worse: Air BnB, Über, Kodak, Nokia, video rentals…

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Photo credit: William Warby on Flickr

But for decades, companies and organizations have focused on structuring, standardizing, streamlining and, to a large extent, eliminate “the human factor”. The result? Shiny system and processes that work efficiently, but which are static, insensitive and uninspiring.

It’s time to reintroduce people and positive human factors like creativity, engagement, flexibility and relations. To show that talking about the employees as “our most important resource” was earnest, not just empty words. Listen to employees, customers and partners. Engage them through including them and give them opportunity to leverage their entire potential, not only what the standardized job description says. Not just leverage, by the way, but grow their potential. It’s time to engage and inspire! I want to give people possibilities to communicate, collaborate, learn, share and help, easier than ever before. To find the people and the knowledge you need and to be able to show what you’re really made of, with minimal extra effort. All to the benefit of both people and organizations.

I don’t think it’s enough to be able to produce and manage pretty documents and presentations. What is important is to enable people to fill them with the best possible content.

What do you think? What makes work interesting? What brings out the best in you?

Originally published here in Swedish on the Smarter Planet blog of IBM Sweden

 

 

 

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.