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.


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.

For what do we get paid in a social business?

John had worked four weeks on the proposal.

Days, evenings, some weekends and even two nights. Finally, John and the team heard the words they had been fighting for so hard: We have decided to award you our business. And then – even better – …the solution you have suggested is more complete and smarter than your competitors and you have also done a better job of presenting the benefits our company will reap by choosing you and your solution.
Time to celebrate!

A week later, after the first turmoil of getting things started, John thought it could be a good idea to share the winning proposal with his colleagues through the social intranet. First, he hoped that such a strong proposal could help colleagues elsewhere win even more business. Second, John, who was a nice and empathic fella, wanted to save colleagues some trouble and hardship in creating proposals for similar deals from scratch. After all, he knew very well how unhappy he and his family had been with his workload during those four weeks. Finally, he realized that sharing the proposal would build his reputation as an expert in this field and as a good salesguy. Win – win – win!

But, first he needed to cleanse it from confidential information, client identifiers, financial details etc. It took him two hours to do so. But then he shared the file and posted about it in a couple of forums and – of course – in a status update on his profile page. (He added a couple of relevant tags to his profile too, while he was at it, by the way).

Over the following weeks and months, colleagues around the world re-used John’s shared proposal, tailored it to their needs and managed to win several deals around the world, spending only half the time and much less weekends and evenings in doing so. How many millions was it worth for the company?

What did John get out of this? Indeed, his reputation got a boost and people from near and far asked him for supplementary information. Flattering, but time consuming. He probably spent another day’s worth of time on answering such supplementary questions over that period. Still, John thought of the good business he helped the company to make and the gratefulness from colleagues who could work so much smarter than he had been forced to do.

But apart from some thanks a million in mails, chats and over the phone, what did he get out of it? Did it show on his pay slip or in the appraisal by his manager? Not at all. On the contrary. His manager said John, you winning that deal for us was great. But since then, you seem to have lost focus and keep chatting away with colleagues across the world. But out business is here. Our department is measured on the profits we generate from our clients in our local market. Not on some deal in Farawayland. We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball, you know.

Social Business brings fundamental changes to the way we reward our employees

For ages, workers’ pay has been based on what they produced. Number of widgets produced, seams welded, kilos of produce, hours worked etc. Our pay has been in direct relation to what came out of our hands or our time worked. Only very few people have been paid for what came out of their heads: artists, writers and maybe a few others.

But Social Business breaks this direct relationship between our effort and the benefit to the company we work for. Our shared knowledge and experience can mean so very much more to the entire company than our original effort actually did. But – and this is the tricky part – we are unlikely to know where or when those benefits are generated and there is no good way of tracking the benefit to the company from what an individual has shared. At least I haven’t seen any, yet.

So, HR folks will have to work out new formulas to reward us for what we bring to the table.

And suppliers of social intranet software or other software manufacturers will need to come up with ways of identifying re-use and benefits reaped from shared knowledge

If they don’t, luddites will keep coming up with the same excuse for not collaborating and sharing: What’s in it for me really?

It will be most interesting to see what they come up with.

Social is something you are, not a tool you use

We’ve got all the tools implemented, but people don’t use them! What’s wrong?

Unfortunately, this is not too uncommon a statement. Organizations buy and install software for internal collaboration, pay the bill and then pray that staff will find them and use them just because they are there.

Sure, some curious enthusiasts may find the new “cool tools” but you will not reach widespread adoption for a very long time unless you supplement the social enablement with changes to the way the organization works and with communication and motivation for the employees.

Watching several sessions from IBM Connect in January on Livestream triggered me to summarize some input from there and adding some of my own.

The mindset you should encourage carries a set of characteristics:

Show trust in others to earn trust by others (and be worthy of trusting, of course) – Guy Kawasaki

All positive, productive relations and social interactions are based on mutual trust. The fastest way to gain the trust by others is to start displaying trust in them. This goes for companies trusting their customers (generous return policies to encourage trying of products as in Guy Kawasaki’s examples) as well as executives trusting their associates with not misusing the openness of social intranets.

Default to openness  – Chris from Lowe’s (sorry, I didn’t get his family name)

Is there a good reason to keep “it” under wraps? No? Then work “out loud” as Lowe’s called it. Let others see what you’re working on and what you have achieved. Save your documents as public files, make your bookmarks public, update your status frequently. If there is no reason to keep it to yourself, you may just as well let your work speak for you. And, you never know who may stumble over it and be able to help you improve it or get unstuck. At the same time, your work may be useful to someone else, increasing efficiency and maybe inspiring to new and better ways of doing things.

Default to “yes”Guy Kawasaki

Being positive pays back. If you respond positively when others ask you for help or favours (within your capacity of course – because not delivering on promises is not good for building trust). If you help out when you can, your network will help you out when you need it. Maybe not exactly the same person you helped out the other day, but since your positive attitude has been on public display, your “karma-account” will be positive.

Dialogue, not monologue

Monologues may communicate your experience or view to others, but they aren’t great for building relations. Just how popular is the guy at parties who keeps talking about himself and listens to nobody else? Just like offline social life, being social online is a matter of listening and responding. It’s a new medium for behaviours man has cultivated for centuries.

I love my network

It’s strange. I live my working life in the midst of what might be the world’s richest enclosed source of knowledge – the IBM social intranet. I don’t know for sure if it is the richest, but if anyone is ahead it cannot be that many. And yes, I wrote enclosed to exclude the public internet.

Yet, I find myself not looking for information as much as before. It’s there allright. I can search it and I get suggestions for interesting information based on my actions, tags I have used and that have been used to categorize me, communities I’m a member of and knowledge I have shared myself. I can even reduce the “content noise” using my friends as a filter (although we don’t use the expression friends, but the more neutral network contacts).

But in many cases I just ask.

I have actively and generously invited people to my network. Maybe even because we don’t claim to be friends but just contacts, we can be more generous in connecting. Currently I have built a network of 933 colleagues around the world, in all sorts of professions and at various levels of the hierarchy. Varying levels of activity too. The more the merrier is my parole. I have written it before, and I keep repeating my mantra: You never know who you can help or who can help you.

Well, last week I gave a keynote speech at a client workshop on Knowledge Management and went on to listen to their presentations and participating in discussions and breakout sessions for the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day, I was asked a technical question about if IBM Connections, the star of IBM collaboration software, could be implemented in a certain way. I didn’t know the answer.

At 18:45 (6:45 PM for you Americans 😉 I wrote the question on my board on the social intranet and then we went for a delicious dinner supplemented by a very nice Amarone (thank you very much, guys). Back to my room after dinner, I found that a colleague in Canada had written that he didn’t know the answer, but recommended me to ask another, named, colleague in USA (unknown to me). So I asked my question again – on this third person’s board – and did some other work in my hotel room. A short while later I checked and found that a fourth person (unknown to me too) had responded to my question on the board of person #3. I added a follow up question, got a swift reply by #4 that was followed after a while by a confirmation by #3 of what #4 had responded.

Within 4 hrs 10 minutes, my question was answered thanks to two, completely unknown helpful colleagues and a third who knew who to ask. (I did notice, though, that we shared some network contacts). The next morning I could supply an answer to the client and hopefully moved us closer to an interesting deal.

Referring back to my post on ROI for social intranets I just wonder, how do you calculate  the value of helpful colleagues like these?

Today I had a similar experience where I let this image speak for itself

Volunteers offering practical help within two hours
Thanks to Keigo and Jonny

So what’s the morale of my story?

We can talk forever about documents, repositories, structures, software and features. The bottom line is: It takes people to collaborate. You can never predict what people might need, nor what people may know. And even if you have access to the most magnificent technology imaginable, collaboration is a matter of corporate culture. It’s a mindset.