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.

Boston_marathon_mile_25_helper_050418

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”.

 

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So what’s so great about social intranets?

If there is one thing almost all intranets have in common, it is that people complain about them. The appreciation of traditional intranets generally is somewhere on a scale between neutral and abysmal.

If you ask employees who have access to social intranets, they would rather be somewhere on the scale between neutral and extatic (at least on occasions).

Communalities of most traditional intranets are:

  • Information is spread down- or outwards in the organization
  • Content is created by a cadre of communication professionals
  • The editors constantly debate structure and editor access
  • Users have difficulties to find their way in the structure
  • And just as much difficultyto find stuff when searching
  • Much of the content is out of date
  • An ever-present question for the company is “How do we make people use the intranet?”. (The response usually is to make it the default start page for all browser installations)

So what about social intranets?

  • Content is spread in all directions by the people who know the topics, not by the people who know how to write about them
  • The creators of collaborative content don’t care too much about the big structure. Only about the substance. And everybody have access to create content (but not everywhere, though)
  • Structure is secondary, since content is found through searching, and by association with similar content and with people you trust
  • Search works much better since it is based not only on search engine “mechanics” but is boosted by peer recommendations and social bookmarks
  • Social intranets apply “Content Darwinism”. Almost all presentation is based on “recency of updating”. Hot topics and communities therefore float to the surface while inactive communities and stuff people aren’t interested in slowly sinks to the bottom. (It can still be found through searching for it though)
  • As the intranet is seen as valuable and relevant, people will want to use it. There is no more need to make them go there.

Of course, it cannot be ALL social. The most powerful tool is blending the traditional with social. The communications folks may give some screen real estate away, but increased exposure of what remains is likely to compensate with a healthy margin for the lost real estate.

But, won’t the staff waste valuable time socializing via the intranet? No way! I’m constantly amazed by how the same kind of features result in such different uses on each side of the firewall. Or would you consider it a waste if:

  • people find experts to help them solve problems fast and with proven solutions
  • instead of re-inventing the wheel for the umpteenth time, people find documents from others that they can adapt to their current needs
  • employees band together in communities to share and build common knowledge on topics of professional and corporate value
  • knowledge is unlocked from employees hard drives, brains and desk drawers, shared and made available for the common good of the company… and for the future – an aspect to take into account in these days of retiring babyboomers and shortening average tenure
  • and – much needed in many a company – the ability of employees to network and communicate in all directions bridge geographic and organizational boundaries helping to overcome the frequent suboptimization stemming from organizational protectionism.
  • the criss-crossing of networks and communication generates chance meetings of people with other people or with unexpected information, a well known, proven and sought for environment for creativity and invention.

For me, it is very simple: the ability of implementing social intranets is the possibility for companies and organizations to show that “Our Employees are our Most Valuable Resource” weren’t just empty words.