Default Open

Once upon a time, a teenager dared to dream the impossible and created what became one of the most important companies on the planet. This was not wunderkinds like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They were has-beens comparatively speaking.
No, the teenager I speak of was none other than Thomas Oscar, an Australian kid and founder of Stackswell & Co. What was his revolutionary idea and world changing mission? To move units.
Okay, maybe not the most disruptive idea, kind of up there with the product line of Spacely Sprockets. But it was one of the most interesting Facebook groups around, bringing together teenagers to “take the piss out of senseless bureaucracy” of generic office life.
A few weeks ago in Toronto, I spoke with a customer about extending the use of Stack Overflow Enterprise to the rest of the 10,000 strong IT organization. He was he was excited to bring on Stack, expect for one reservation.
He took out his phone to show me the company’s Slack group. A small sampling of some of the content showed two Java framework channels talking about the same thing, multiple condo listing channels, and what appeared to be a cat video channel. It’s the real life Stackswell & Co.
The great thing about workplace collaboration tools is that they can bring the entire company together. The bad thing is that they bring the entire company together. Like the neighborhood coffee shop, you have lots of conversations, but not all of them are worth sharing with the entire organization.

Something of a mantra of mine since joining Stack Overflow is the idea of “default open”. I define it as a cultural trait of companies that seek to operate in a more collaborative and transparent way.
Based on many conversations with companies of all sizes, I have found a few truisms around default open cultures. First is that startups tend to hew more towards openness than large enterprises, particularly regulated industries. Second, greater openness often leads to more innovative ideas, faster time to market, and higher productivity.
So why would big companies not opt to be default open? It’s due to organizational complexity. As a company grows, more products are created, more teams are added, and geographic spread occurs. These teams become locked in a battle for their health and survival over the concerns of the entire organization. Take the friction between centralized Architecture groups and business lines that have competing priorities and success metrics.
Many organizations are trying to tackle this by leveraging technology, but the technology alone does not usher in a change in culture. In the drive to open up the culture and knockdown the silos, companies ran headfirst into the signal to noise conundrum.

While I try to repress memories of my Signals and Systems class in my Electrical Engineering program, I do remember the lesson on signal to noise ratios. The higher the ratio, the better the quality of the signal and vice versa. Too much noise and nothing could be made out of the original content. It would be like having a deep conversation at a rock show.
Signal to noise ratio is a tough to get right in a social collaborative space. You run into two challenges, the first is not everyone understands the rules of the community, and second, no one is empowered to enforce the standards of the community.
We assume that people should know better. This is the unwritten social contract that informs us to refrain from double dipping chips, to not re-gift gifts, and to not talk so close to people. Yet people routinely ignore those common courtesies every day, especially in online forums.
This is exactly the problem we have been solving for the past ten years at Stack Overflow. The difference is that for most of that time, we did that at Internet scale. Now we are doing this in the corporate setting at a smaller scale.
What did we learn about maintaining high quality content in user driven communities? There are four ways to get online communities to function well and encourage high quality contributions:

  • Strategic Onboarding — Determine who you are inviting into the community and invite those that are going to add the most value and best content first. This is the velvet rope approach and how we ensure Stack Overflow Enterprise instances start off with high quality content at the onset of a deployment.
  • Empower Moderators — Individuals in the community need to be designated early on and given training and authority to enforce content standards. We recommend 3 to 5 moderators to start for Stack Overflow Enterprise and always provide a training session on moderation tools and best practices.
  • Community Monitoring — Allow engaged users to be involved in maintaining good content through gamification and privileges. Stack Overflow has a well structured system and tools to enable users to advance in reputation and gain access to more lightweight moderation tasks to help moderators review content.
  • Structured Platform — Not every format works well to maintain high quality content. Messaging apps and discussion forums are too free-form and lead to the coffeeshop issue. A structured Q&A format however where the best content can rise to the top gives enough structure to maintain higher quality contributions.

The problem many companies make is they buy the fancy new tool and leave it to chance to see what happens. That does not work well anywhere and I often hear from IT leaders complaining about multiple failed attempts to build a truly collaborative online community. If you take the four suggestions above however to heart, you will be ahead of the curve and on the path towards a successful and healthy community!
How have such workplace collaboration tools worked for your company? What have you seen as the biggest barrier in establishing an engaged internal community?

Make 5 5 5 5 = 19

Fun little puzzle with lots of interesting & creative responses…

I help senior IT leaders and companies solve the challenges involved in digital transformation and moving towards a developer-centric culture that delivers innovation and customer value. In my day job, you can find me here.