How an organization turned its internal communications upside-down

I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

Recently I had the opportunity to present one of our case studies at the Social Media for Business Meetup Group in NYC. It was the inaugural meetup, which I am co-organizing together with Daniel Leslie from Reflexions Data. At the heart of the group is, besides networking, the idea to talk about concrete business needs and showcase how organizations have addressed those using social tools. At our first session we looked at internal communications and employee engagement. Presentation below:

The way organizations perceive their ‘human capital’ has apparently changed as well. Most organizations state that they value their employees and welcome active participation. All too often this is in stark contrast to reality. To understand an organization’s true corporate culture it is sometimes best to simply look at the office layouts and technology provided to employees. How can you honestly believe in employee engagement and participation if you lock people into cubicle farms and give them tools that severely restrict them from communicating and connecting freely with each other?

The cafeteria, hallway or watercooler are the only true social spaces in most organizations. That’s where people meet, discuss, learn. If the early KM era has taught us anything at all, then it’s that knowledge can’t be extracted, stored and archived. It was a flawed and in the end a very costly belief. Knowledge is inherently attached to people. Thus, instead of connecting people with documents, we need to connect people with people. And that’s why chatter in cafeterias, hallways and at watercoolers are so important. Check out Gil Yehuda’s observation why smokers seem to know everything and everyone.

Obviously, these offline social spaces don’t scale very well. Social tools reflect better than traditional IT systems how humans really communicate and connect. With those kind of tools organizations do have the possibility to create the digital watercooler and thus take advantage of its benefits enterprise-wide.

Installing social tools is not a challenge. The challenge are people and their perceived risks associated with the usage of those kind of tools. One of those risks for example is gossiping. Well, gossiping is actually an important social activity. It separates the insiders from the outsiders and by that creates a stronger social bond between insiders (thus all employees + management). But apart from that, will people gossip in front of the CEO? No? So, why would they gossip in an open space, where every word is attributable? People might gossip in the hallway, where they can have private conversations, but not on the company’s forum, blog, wiki or what have you. Another perceived risk is that the free flow of communication can be used for creating movements among employees against unfavorable decisions taken by the management.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that internal systems are not the World Wild Web. It’s a controlled environment, and as such comes already with underlying norms and principles. Still, organizations seem to highly distrust their employees and prefer locking them into cubicles and systems willingly accepting the deficiencies of this approach. But the growing discrepancy between the open communication people enjoy on the Internet and the highly restrictive environment people are faced with at work is becoming a major headache for organization.

In my presentation I talked about the case of the law firm Heller Ehrman. The firm got into very rough waters last year and subsequently dissolved. The dissolution did not happen over night. It was a long and painstaking process full of anxiety, fears but also glimmers of hope. Naturally, employees wanted to connect with each other, but most importantly ask for and provide help and support. But the firm did not provide a platform to address these needs. Consequently, one employee set up a WordPress blog on the Internet, which soon became a refuge for his co-workers and probably a nightmare for the firm. If you have time you should read the blog’s Dos and Don’ts – they show in a very plain and honest way that employees are not evil but passionate and caring individuals. If people really want to bad-mouth and spread rumor they will do so using highly visible websites and blogs like ‘Above the Law‘.

Learning from this and other negative examples, progressive organizations are starting to embrace social tools to give people a true platform for engagement, communication and support. I presented the work that we did for the Barnet Council in London. The Council went through a major change management program to meet new needs and challenges. Rather than pushing it down from top to bottom, the Council felt that anyone in the organization should have the possibility to become a change agent and turned the communication upside-down. We installed a system which allows the Council to publish news, but at the same time have an open conversation about new developments. A forum provided the employees with a tool to drive their own agenda and points of interest. Interestingly, the system did allow for anonymity, but that functionality was very rarely used. Included in the platform was the ability to create ad-hoc project spaces to allow the collaboration on specific programs, issues etc.

The technology aspect of the project was not a big challenge, but it did require a bold step by the Barnet Council, trust in its employees and understanding the changing tides in internal communications.

Web X.0 and counting

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

This week I attended the Web 3.0 Conference in New York thanks to a ticket I won from Centernetworks.

Even though I work in fields that are named Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Government 2.0 and what not, it is always good to know where development goes. Besides, at university I took classes in computer linguistic, natural language processing and retrieval, intelligent computer agents. While I was never capable of diving into the technical matters, I was always very excited by the opportunities that those technologies would bring us one day. Looking for example at Wolfram|Alpha we are starting to get a taste of what machines will be capable of doing in the future.

So, ignore the nomenclature of Web X.0 and imagine the Web as an ever evolving ecosystem, where players appear, change roles and vanish. In the mid and end 90s people were merely consumers of content that was thrown at them by media outlets and corporates. With the advent of social tools people changed roles and became content producers. Over the past seven years a massive amount of content has been created and is now dispersed around the Web. For example, people share reviews of books and movies on Facebook but that information is not available when they buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Nobles. People rate restaurants etc. on Yelp but that information is not at people’s fingertips when they accesse a restaurant’s website. Journalists produce content and have to manually link to resources on the Web. Thus, we have massive piles of data, but most of it is disconnected, tucked away in various services and applications that don’t talk to each other.

And so I think Thomas Tague, Calais Initiative Lead from Thomson Reuters, and keynote speaker at Web 3.0 sums it up quite nicely by saying that the next development will be ‘cleaning up the mess we made and harnessing the value we created with Web 2.0′. Of course, this era of social computing (aka Web 2.0)  will not cease to exist with the advent of new technologies, but it will be enhanced it in quite dramatic ways. Greg Boutin, founder of Growthroute Ventures, has written a great 3-part series of posts about new and exciting developments of the Web. He defines it as “the Web of Openness. A web that breaks the old siloes, links everyone everything everywhere, and makes the whole thing potentially smarter.”

Theory is great but what about practical examples? How can these technologies help to solve real-world business problems? Thomas Tague hit exactly on that point in his keynote. Technologists go nowhere if they don’t address business problems. Especially during these difficult economic times, businesses are forced to cut costs, increase revenue and competitiveness. He used the publishing industry as an example, which he sees as a zero-sum game and consequently businesses that adopt new (semantic) technologies can gain a decisive first-mover advantage. For example, the editorial workflow can be considerably reduced if the editor is automatically suggested links to bits & pieces mentioned in the text. Zemanta is a great example for providing that kind of technology. Another would be Apture, which allows editors to embed content from around the web and keep readers on their own website rather than sending them to Wikipedia, Flickr etc. Easily embedding 3rd party content will not only reduce time and cost but will also enhance the presented content and can therefore help to attract and keep audience. Another development is auatomatically enriching data with semantic metadata to improve findability and linking (e.g. Open Calais). Since the Web has become a platform we have come to understand that we need to make it dead simple to let other people use and interact with our content no matter where and when.

Other examples? In the beginning I mentioned that it is not possible to see reviews of a book that your network shared with you on Facebook at the point of purchase, e.g. Amazon. That’s not entirely true, because Adaptive Blue offers a browser plugin called ‘Glue’ which achieves exactly that. In this case every book is an object with a uniqe identifier and can therefore be querried from every corner of the Web. In the future you can imagine, that for example advertisers and brands can much better link the mentioning of a product by someone to the purchase of it by someone else leveraging the social graph. If you are in NYC on June 4, you should check out the next Semantic Web Meetup which looks at Semantic Advertising.

Another example: Recently, Google introduced Rich Snippets. It enhances the summary text of the results after a user performed a search. If the users searches for a specific restaurant Rich Snippets will show the restaurant on a map, reviews from other users etc.

Eventually the data that we have been creating around the web for the past years will come together and enhance our experience in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Mozilla calls it ‘the contextual web’ and I think it’s a great name. Objects and people will have more context and thus more value. There will be new possibilities, new business models and, yes, losers. I should dig out my old study notes, because the things that seemed to me science-fiction a couple of years ago, could become reality sooner rather than later.

Second-wave adopters are coming! Are you prepared? Part III

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

This is the 3rd part of a blog post looking at user adoption.

  1. Overview of barriers to introducing Enterprise 2.0 and user adoption
  2. Scrutinizing barriers to user adoption
  3. Thoughts on how to attract second-wave adopters

In the previous post we looked in more detail at barriers to user adoption and identified the following as key to be addressed to get second-wave adopters on board:

  1. applications not part of user’s workflow
  2. time effort > personal value
  3. complex applications

Letting people engage with social tools using what they are already familiar with, seems to be paramount. If you are too prescriptive about the tools they need to use to interact with others or the tools themselves demand a certain type of interaction, you will lose a lot of people on the fence.

Since a lot of people live in their inbox, we should be looking at ways to interact with a company’s wiki, blogs, forums, social network and even microblogging engine using an email client. I specifically say ‘email client’, by which I mean not the ‘email inbox’. The inbox should be for private information only. All other content (e.g. updates from blogs, wikis, newsletters, RSS feeds) should be received in different folders within the email client.

There have been some interesting developments, but I would expect to see more in the near future:

1) Blogs

Users should be able to post content to a blog using email. Products like Telligent, Movable Type cater for it already.  The latest version of WordPress also allows to reply to comments via email. Three days ago Posterous, the ultra-simple blogging platform, announced a new feature which lets users interact with the platform without ever having to leave their email client. I would expect enterprise vendors to implement similar functionality in the future.

2) Wikis

Pretty much all wiki products allow users to subscribe to updates via email. But very few products allow users to post content to a wiki and even create wiki pages via email. Socialtext is one of them. However, as far as I am aware, Socialtext and other products do not allow users to directly edit content in an email client and sending it back to the wiki.

3) RSS

A lot has been said about the use of RSS. While RSS for plumbing purposes has been widely accepted, standalone RSS feed readers are having difficulties to find their way into the enterprise. Primarily because most feed readers are fairly complex and expensive, but also because users don’t understand the difference between receiving their newsletters, updates in their email inbox and in a reader. For them it’s an additional destination they need to go to. Newsgator for example offers a plugin, which enables users to consume feeds in their email client. Since feeds are completely different than private conversations, they are displayed in separate folders and not in the inbox.

4) Internal / External Social Network 

Email is used to connect with other people, but so far most email clients don’t show context information about the recipients or senders of an email. It would be interesting to automatically have profile information, status updates, last actions from a sender or recipient of an email. This could work for a company’s internal social network but also with external networks like LinkedIn, Facebook using XOBNI or Gist or services like Jigsaw, Zoominfo, especially for sales people.

5) CRM

CRM set out with the best motives but many CRM initiatives fail because of low user adoption, significant amounts of inaccurate data and a poor match between processes and technology. In the end, CRM is a top-down tool that works for managers who can get their salespeople to play the role of a data entry clerk in addition to selling and managing customer relationships. Companies should look at possibilities of exchanging data between email client and CRM systems. For example, scheduled meetings or to-do items are automatically transferred into the CRM system. Team members can view that information inside their email client before sending emails to clients.

5) Microblogging

Twitter is all the rage at the moment and we are seeing very promising products appear in the enterprise space, e.g. Socialtext Signals, Yammer, Socialcast. For most people however, it is yet another application and destination they need to go to. Yammer allows to post and receive messages via email.

6) Instant Messeging 

Sometimes it is desirable to initiate an IM chat right after having received an email. For example, IBM’s Sametime IM technology plugs into MS Outlook indicating if a person is available for a chat/call and allowing the user to directly contact another person within the email client.

7) Email distribution list

As mentioned before, people use email to have conversations about non-confidential topics. In this case, it could be beneficial to the company if these conversations where accessible to other employees. But convincing them to use forums, blogs or wikis can be very difficult, as they are outside of their workflow. In its latest version Thoughtfarmer introduced a feature, which publishes content from an email distribution list to the wiki adding details like profile pictures, links to employee profiles. There it will be indexed and the information is accessible even if people leave the company.

All these examples are related to email in one way or another. However, transition strategies go well beyond email. In general, it is important to keep in mind:

Don’t be too radical

For example, working on wikis and blogs potentially exposes people’s work to the entire firm. Most people are uncomfortable with that idea. Furthermore, it can require considerable effort. Instead of implementing wikis and blogs from the start, it might actually be better to look at social bookmarking, social networking or social messaging (microblogging) first. The value/time investment ratio is usually better than for wikis and blogs. Look at social bookmarking: The workflow is not radically different from what people are used to. They can opt out of sharing on a case-by-case basis, learn how valuable tagging can be for themselves. At the same time they understand the value of transparency when searching/browsing colleague’s bookmarks instead of relying on the enterprise search engine.

Let people decide how to interact

Early adopters and enthusiasts will be happy to work directly on the wiki, consume news and updates in their RSS feed reader and read and send messages directly in the microblogging engine. For the rest make sure that they have the possibility to use those new tools with something they are familiar with.

Let people receive content the way they want it

If people find content (sources) interesting they should be able to decide how and when they want to receive content; let it be via email client, RSS reader, feeds on the team space, message on the microblogging engine, or PDF. Stop pushing content down people’s throat using email!

Build on existing workflows

This is nothing new, but I believe people have been rather ignorant to the fact that a lot of existing workflows involve email. Instead of simply implementing some new shiny tools, try to bridge the gap between the old and the new world.

New behaviors will emerge, but it won’t happen over night. That’s why enthusiasts need to acknowledge that most skeptics will continue to follow the path of least resistance and reject tools that are not part of their workflow, are too difficult learn and use or don’t yield an immediate personal benefit. If you ignore that, the success of your Enterprise 2.0 initiative may be in danger and the skeptics may prevail in the end.

Second-wave adopters are coming! Are you prepared? Part II

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

This is the 2nd part of a blog post looking at user adoption.

  1. Overview of barriers to introducing Enterprise 2.0 and user adoption
  2. Scrutinizing barriers to user adoption
  3. Thoughts on how to attract second-wave adopters

In the first post I listed the following barriers to user adoption:

  1. Insufficient training
  2. Culture
  3. Generation Gap
  4. Applications not part of users’ workflow
  5. Time effort > personal value
  6. Complex applications

The first barrier (insufficient training) can be addressed fairly easily. The scope and content of the training program should depend on complexity, context and people’s background.

Barriers two and three (culture and generation gap) are cited very frequently with respect to user adoption. Not to sound harsh, but I think the importance of these two barriers is partially overrated. This is not to say that they do no effect user adoption at all. But looking at cultural issues, people assume that certain behavior can be attributed to a particular culture and by that ignore other explanations.

For example, a very common argument is that people are unwilling to share what they know. Well, they may not be necessarily unwilling to do so, but it does take low priority when people try to meet their goals and deadlines. That was the fallacy of the early KM era, in which employees were asked to step outside their work and ‘contribute’ to a fancy KM tool (aka database). The beauty of social tools is it then, that they allow people to do their work in a more efficient manner, thus, gaining direct personal value and at the same time letting the organization as a whole benefit from it by breaking down silos and enhancing transparency. People need to realize that in most cases, knowledge-sharing is not an activity but in fact a by-product of people’s work. That’s why it is so important to implement these kind of tools into people’s workflow.

On the generation gap, most of the statistics seem to indicate that the older generation is technology averse and few use social tools or services on the Internet. But what about LinkedIn with it’s 39 Million users? What about XING, where 37% of its users are baby boomers? What about Facebook, where the fastest growing demographic is women over 55? And if the younger generations are always on the lookout for the next cool thing, why is the average age of people on Twitter 31? Can we really explain all that just by looking at age, gender or race? I doubt it! Ultimately it comes down to value! People flock to a service from which they get value. What constitutes value, lays in the eye of the beholder. Therefore, it is paramount to understand people, their needs, interactions with others, current tools they are using and so on.

This leaves us with the last three barriers (applications not part of user’s workflow, time effort > personal value, complex applications). To reach second-wave adopters we will need to concentrate on these barriers and come up with strategies to bridge the old and new world.

Whenever there is change about to happen, people effected can roughly be divided into three groups:

  1. People inside your garden
  2. People on the fence
  3. People outside your garden

The number of people can be visualized according to a bell-shaped curve. People on the edges, thus, group one and three, are usually in the minority, whereas group two constitutes the majority.

When considering the introduction of social tools, the groups above can be mapped as follows:

  1. People already using social tools or very eager to do so (the enthusiasts)
  2. People not completely opposing the idea of social tools, but reluctant to some degree to adopt new ways of working for various reasons (the skeptics)
  3. People completely resistant to the introduction and use of social tools, e.g. lawyer that asks his secretary to print out emails or newsletters. (the lost)

Forget about the third group! Getting them into your yard will most probably be impossible and distract you from focusing on the people on the fence. Besides, the group is usually fairly small and may well leave the firm not too long into the future. The enthusiasts are also  usually a small group, but a very important one. They can positively influence at least some of the people on the fence.

As pointed out before, the skeptics are not opposed to social tools per se, but do need to understand how they can benefit most with the smallest effort to change existing practices. And that’s where Enterprise 2.0 projects fall dangerously short. Early adopters and enthusiasts tend to have their heads somewhere in the clouds and forget about the existing work practices of the masses.

I liked Gil Yehuda’s analogy of the E20 and the long neck, which applies to enthusiasts vs. skeptics:

“The problem is that the “body” — the enterprises that are supposed to benefit from Enterprise 2.0 thinking are lagging far behind. [...] the “head” is moving forward, looking at traditional business as the outdated, backward-thinking, unimaginative dolts who just don’t get it.  The messages delivered by the head seems to say everything you are “is dead”.  SOA is dead, IT is dead, data-centers are dead, waterfall is dead, email is dead, etc.  Instead, we live on perpetual betas, agile, clouds, and micro-this or that, social-this or that.”

As much as we dislike it, people live in their inbox and this fact is not going away over night by telling them about the benefits of using social tools! Given the lack of appropriate tools in the past, people have grown accustomed to (ab)use email for everything, e.g. public conversations (e.g. cc’d), collaboration, awareness (e.g. newsletters, updates), connecting with others. It’s effortless to fire an email to a group of people rather than using a separate tool. And yes, for most people it is easier to use email for collaboration rather than a wiki, even though they are aware of the disadvantages.

In the last part of this series we will be looking at ways to attract second-wave adopters of enterprise social tools.

Second-wave adopters are coming! Are you prepared? Part I

[ I originally published this post on the Headshift blog in 2009. ]

I decided to break this blog post down into three parts, as it had become way too long during all those endless nights of writing. The general theme is that in the near future we will see more companies starting Enterprise 2.0 projects to increase productivity, reduce cost, improve client relations. While we have seen some early success stories, companies will need to think hard about ways to attract second-wave adopters.

The post is divided as follows:

  1. Overview of barriers to introducing Enterprise 2.0 and user adoption
  2. Scrutinizing barriers to user adoption
  3. Thoughts on how to attract second-wave adopters

While everyone is talking about social tools and services in the consumer market, things have been comparatively quiet in the enterprise market. Yes, there are very noteworthy case studies out there (Sun, Wachovia, TransUnion, and also some of our clients), but the number of initiatives and scale can’t stand up to the things happening in the consumer market.

The crux of the matter is that different dynamics are at play in the enterprise impeding more often than not the commission of even small-scale social software projects:

  • IT departments
    • There is an obvious disconnect between IT and LOB; rigid, long-term IT strategies; concerns about security and compliance
  • IT investments
    • Millions of dollars have been spent on heavy enterprise systems that promised much but delivered little. Admitting failure is difficult, especially if people that commissioned the systems are still with the company.
  • KM 1.0 stigma
    • The promise that knowledge could be captured and stored was proven wrong but cost businesses millions of dollars. Anything coming along now promising better ‘knowledge-sharing’ raises immediate suspicion.
  • Organizational hierarchy
    • Gatekeepers seeing their position weakened.
  • Corporate culture
    • Fear of losing control.
  • ROI
    • The focus on quantitative ROI, even though investment is relatively low compared to traditional enterprise systems and ROI figures for DMS, CMS, CRM systems were usually based on a coin flip rather than real figures.

 

However, with the current economic climate, change is not optional anymore. Organizations need to address inefficiencies caused by outdated management ideas and inadequate technology to increase productivity, save costs and offer better service to existing and prospect clients. This is one of the reasons why I expect to see more and more social software projects starting over the next months. At that point we will talk more about the HOW and less about WHAT and WHY of social tools. But even if companies start exploring business social tools the question remains: Will people come if you build it? And more importantly, will they stay?

User adoption is especially critical in E20 projects, because the tools become more valuable the more people actually use them. Therefore, user adoption must not be an afterthought but carefully thought of for from the start.

Here are some of the most common barriers to user adoption:

  • Insufficient training
    • Even though the training effort is relatively small compared to heavy and complex enterprise systems, handholding during the rollout is very important.
  • Culture
    • Culture can be subdivided into personal and corporate culture, but both influence each other. People fearing disadvantages from the introduction of new tools will do everything to sabotage or avoid their usage.
  • Generation gap
    • Baby boomers, Gen X and Y and Millennials adopt technology in different ways and interpret the world according to their own values and beliefs.
  • Applications not part of users’ workflow
    • Technology exists to help people to create value and do things more efficiently and effectively. If the technology does not support those processes, users will be reluctant to use it.
  • Time effort > personal value
    • People are pressured by deadlines, objectives and managers. If the tools do not help them to alleviate some of the pressure, they will stick to their current tools and processes ignoring their inefficiencies.
  • Complex applications
    • Uptake will be low if applications require a lot of effort to learn and subsequently to use due to unnecessary complexity and lack of usability.

In the following post we will have a closer look at each barrier.