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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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.

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.

Did Steve Jobs worry about ROI?

What did the ROI calculation for the iPhone development look like? For the iPad? Or for iPod?

I never met Steve Jobs. I never worked at Apple. Still, based on what I’ve read about him I doubt that there ever was an ROI calculation for the investments made in any of Apple’s and Steve Jobs’ breakthrough innovations. He believed and he dared. His compass knew it was the right thing to do.
Yet he was the most acclaimed business innovator in the past decade.

Next time I’m asked about the ROI of social intranets I will counter with this question: Would Steve Jobs have bothered calculating it?
I hope it will go down better than my current standard question of: when did you last see an ROI calculation for implementing SAP?

Comparing the investment needed to unchain the potential of the company staff with making an investment in production equipment that can produce faster or more efficiently is nothing short of an insult to the people working for you.

Innovations can be classified into two categories: Enabling or Improving. Either they make something possible that was not before – like the automobile once made it possible to travel long distances fast and with a flexible route. Or something currently possible to do easier, more efficient or with better quality – like more fuel efficient cars, safer cars or innovative service programmes. Improvement innovations are suitable for ROI-calculations, enabling are not.

So, if you allow the social intranet-train pass you by and wonder:

  • why all talented people work for the competition
  • why your customers keep telling you that your competition are faster at getting up to speed and at solving problems
  • why people keep working in silos
  • why you keep reinventing the wheel
  • why your competition is more innovative than you are
  • why customers tell you that you’re old fashioned

– then go back to your archive, pull out that ROI-calculation run it through the shredder and realize that inspiration, collaboration and staff commitment is not to be reduced to numbers.

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