Improving Employee Engagement is a Social Activity

Connecting with each other, sharing and discussing ideas, is part of the human experience. While we tend to idolize and reward the individual contributor, the reality is that most innovation comes through social collaborations.

We ask people for opinions or feedback. We modify our opinions or strategies based on the work of others. We edit and iterate, we collaborate and correlate. Even the work we do as individuals can be heavily influenced by these social activities, whether online or in-person.

In the years that I have worked within the information management and collaboration space, my personal experience is that people become more engaged the more “social” the organization and systems being used. In other words, there is a direct link between social systems (tools, platforms, systems, cultures) and employee engagement — especially when it comes to knowledge and information management systems.

For many organizations, the link between social and their information systems is unclear. Unfortunately, this lack of clarity is fairly widespread across most organizations using content management and collaboration platforms, such as SharePoint. Business stakeholders need to understand that metadata is foundational to everything you want to accomplish on the platform — and social can be a primary creator of, and management tool for, metadata. Some metadata and taxonomy management can be streamlined and automated, but it will require a lot of up front work. There’s no getting around it. It should be central to your collaboration strategy, and a core aspect of your regular governance discussions.

There are some “universal truths” that should be considered as you begin planning your metadata strategy:

  • Metadata is fundamental to making social, knowledge management, and collaboration (certainly document management) work
  • The business dynamics of how Information Workers capture, consume, and interact with data are changing
  • Social tools are just another layer of the search experience
  • Organizations don’t understand, much less track and measure, user productivity

Three of these four points are clearly visible within SharePoint’s native social capabilities, which largely center around keywords and metadata — and can take advantage of your organization’s taxonomy structure. However, there are still huge gaps.

Some thoughts on how social drives productivity:

  1. Metadata drives search, content and task aggregation, and it enables most of the new features within SharePoint and other collaboration platforms. Think about the most common SharePoint scenario: adding a document to a document library. As you upload a file, you might have the ability to apply relevant keywords from a pre-defined term store. Your taxonomy adds structure to the content. In addition to the required taxonomy fields, you may also apply a few relevant keywords that are not part of the taxonomy, but which you know will provide richer context to the content. Folksonomy, in conjunction with a proactive governance model, refines your taxonomy so that common folksonomy terms eventually find their way into the managed taxonomy, so that others can use those terms more broadly. To make this model work requires some effort from your team — a governance process to regularly review end user keywords, delete irrelevant terms, promote others, and overall optimize your platform for a healthy search experience.
  2. Social utilizes your metadata to enhance conversation, and make your dialog applicable to your work output. As shown in the following image, social interaction further enriches the context and visibility of your content. I my example above, the document owner applied both taxonomy and folksonomy. Social applies additional folksonomy — by sharing the document with others, liking it, rating it, commenting on it.
  3. We don’t always know what content we’re looking for. The limitation of the traditional search model is that we only find that content which fit into our specific search terms. If someone uploads content without applying taxonomy or folksonomy (which, let’s admit it, is the case for the majority of our content) then you rely on your search crawler to search through titles and metadata descriptions. But through our social connections, we may locate new content based on personal and professional relationships, and through tags (an ever-growing folksonomy) applied by people you’ve never met and maybe never will…..because they were able to find that content through their social circles and apply some context of their own.
  4. Productivity improves when people can find their content, and (more importantly) when the processes you ask them to follow — to ensure that metadata is assigned, and that your compliance/security guidelines are being met — also fits into the way they need to work. That’s really the key: design solutions that match the needs and working habits of your people, rather than force people to learn a new way to work. Social tools tend to be a more natural fit for the way that people connect and collaborate.

Measuring end user productivity is a difficult task to master. My best advice is to monitor usage of your platform, and begin to understand the features and tools that people gravitate toward, and those they avoid.

Overall, I cannot stress any more the importance of thoughtfully building out your metadata and a taxonomy strategy. The lack of a strategy can impact these common scenarios outlined above, your ability to leverage the full functionality of your systems, and therefore can impact employee engagement and productivity.